Joyce DiDonato: ‘I’m trying to balance activism and joy’

Photograph: Pal Hansen/The Observer

The celebrated American mezzo-soprano on trading her first vocation for ‘the dark side’, the genius of Handel – and channeling House of Cards in her latest, ruthless role

Standing alone under the glass-and-iron canopy of the Royal Opera House’s Paul Hamlyn Hall, the American mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato is in full dramatic flight: winking, grinning, pouting, flirting, twirling, giggling. It’s a lesson for the photo-phobic: always give your all, even to an inanimate camera lens. The Observer’s photographer makes one last request and it doesn’t sound simple: would she lie down on that sofa over there so he can snap her from the gallery above? Furniture is rearranged. They’ve already had an hour. Inwardly I’m an emoji scream. DiDonato is right there, splayed out Hollywood-starlet style, shoes on, off, hand this way, arm flung back, patience personified. When the shoot is over, she says how much she enjoyed it – an unheard-of response from a madly busy international opera star, just out of a long day’s rehearsal.

As we walk through the ROH’s backstage warren to a private room to talk, she’s instantly in offstage mode, conversational, candid, warm, funny, reflecting on the day’s rehearsal. “The mood was black. I’ve got to shake it off,” she shudders, describing not the working atmosphere but aspects of Handel’s Agrippina (1709), in which she sings the title role in a new production for the Royal Opera by Barrie Kosky. This co-production with Bavarian State Opera, Munich, and Dutch National Opera is conducted by Maxim Emelyanychev in his house debut.

DiDonato’s character, the wife of the Roman emperor Claudius, is one of opera’s greatest political operators. Having recorded the work for future release, and sung it at the Barbican and elsewhere, DiDonato is steeped in it. Supreme as an actor as well as a singer, she totally inhabits every role. “Agrippina feels like the most modern drama, helped by the fact of Barrie’s production being timeless. I’ve got plenty of role models in mind – strong, wounded, slightly broken women. Robin Wright in House of Cards. Julia Louis-Dreyfus in Veep. Or, though she wasn’t villainous, Hillary Clinton 20 years ago – the smart, super-intelligent, suffering wife. It’s easy to say Agrippina’s wicked, power-obsessed. But she has no choice, no place in society other than being by the side of her husband. There are definitely times, in the crowd scenes, when I feel like Melania Trump: the cameras are there, darling.”The previous week, on Twitter, DiDonato had described the air in the rehearsal room not as black, but blue. “Ha, yes. That was about swearing at the difficulties of learning the part. It’s the densest, most elaborate, largest Italian text that must exist in opera. Agrippina has so much information to impart, so many things to resolve. And she’s three steps ahead of all the useless men around her. It’s constant information, manipulation, plotting and resolving. The story unfolds like rolling news today. And I keep saying, this is genius. How did Handel know the human psyche so profoundly? He’s the composer who’s taught me most. I’d put Agrippina up there with Richard III.”

Born Joyce Flaherty in Prairie Village, Kansas, in 1969, the sixth of seven children in an Irish-American family, DiDonato was immersed in music from the start. Her father, a local architect, directed the church choir; her mother was the organist. Joyce expected to become a music teacher, and wrestled with her conscience when the pull of a professional singing career proved irresistible. “My childhood was quite strict. My parents were very observant Catholics. It was your duty in life to find your vocation and serve God. I thought mine was to teach. I saw poverty, abuse, need, in schools. How could I square this with the enormous fun, the selfishness, of performing? My dad, who I was really close to, said something so wise: ‘You know, Joyce, there is more than one way to teach…’ That gave me permission to go to the dark side. I still want to feel I’m in service.”

This sense of responsibility, and that instinct to teach, is perhaps why she spends so much time giving masterclasses, online and in person. Keenly alert to issues of social and political justice, DiDonato’s most personal project so far has been In War and Peace: Harmony Through Music, a themed album of baroque arias by Purcell, Monteverdi and others. It was her response to the terrorist attacks in Paris in 2015. “We’ve taken it across the world – Istanbul, Moscow, Beijing just steps away from Tiananmen Square, Abu Dhabi in front of sheikhs and diplomats – all with this identical message of peace.” She will end the tour at the Kennedy Center, Washington DC, in November. “I mean, how radically different is the world from when I launched this in November 2016, six days after Trump was elected? I’m a musician, a performer, but I’m a citizen. I’m in a privileged position. I understand that. I’m trying to find the right balance between being an activist and reminding everyone of the joy of music.”

Read the complete article via The Guardian

12 hours ago

And just like *that* - right into the middle of a technicolor world!! Elated to be in #Bogotá for the first time an… https://t.co/eCbrnRrpl3

12 Oct

Indeed it was....improvising gorgeously on the cornetto! Pure magic! https://t.co/yjUo9ZE9EV

12 Oct

This makes my year!!!! https://t.co/WcMYvSC2me

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And just like *that* - right into the middle of a technicolor world!! Elated to be in #Bogotá for the first time and ready to launch our final tour of #InWarAndPeace throughout South & North America starting at the @teatromayor On Wednesday. Stay tuned...this is going to be deeply special!

“Grazie, London.” Thanks for the wicked, wonderful memories!!! #Agrippina

What an indescribable joy it has been to bring the many faces of #Agrippina to life here at the @royaloperahouse with such an extraordinary cast, crew, and team-at-large for such fantastic audiences! I’ve been well aware from the first day that this was an instance of “as good as it gets”. Luckily, I get to spend a lot of time with this powerhouse this season ... so while it’s “goodbye” for now, I shall return to the quest for the throne shortly! 😎 PS As if we needed reminding: #absolutepowercorruptsabsolutely Photo: Bill Cooper / ROH

So. Many. Thoughts! Like how hard it is to think that we only have 2 shows left in this incredibly special run of #RohAgrippina! How time flies when you’re grasping for all that power! Photo: Bill Cooper / ROH

Wishing each of you a beautiful, restorative Sunday . . . ❤️

I’m elated to bring to you my most treasured vocal tracks. These are the things I turn to when I’m looking for more beauty in my life. Listen to my hand-picked pieces from across the ages that showcase the full expressive power of the human voice on @applemusic. Enjoy!! 🔗 Link in bio.

Having the time of my life at the @royaloperahouse with this timely monster of a role. Still boggles my mind how fortunate I am to take such wild journeys on the stage! Photo: Bill Cooper / ROH

What a gift to sing Handel’s #Agrippina for the @royaloperahouse and you gorgeous #London Public!! I’m already sad to think we only have 4 more performances left! #catchusifyoucan #absolutepowercorruptsabsolutely Thank you, Marcin, for this lovely souvenir of the curtain call 😎

After the intensive and wonderful journey to get #Agrippina up on her feet, full of her manipulative and cruel machinations, what a joy to return to #nature in all Her restorative, healing, “real world” glory. Aaaaahhhhhhh......

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There will always be more freedom to acquire and more truth to uncover.

~ Joyce DiDonato