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.”

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Looking forward to these powerful concerts with Yannick @nezetseguin! Schubert: Winterreise • Dec 08 | @clubmusicaldequebec Dec 11 | @princeton University Dec 15 | @carnegiehall * 📅🖥 *Live on - Dec. 15. • • “The DiDonato/Nézet-Séguin pairing is inspired, one of those special nights where you rarely get to see two musical superstars pull off a work of this magnitude.” • ~ Independent Kansas City

And with the snap of the fingers, this blissful, nourishing tour with the extraordinary @orchestre_metropolitain comes to a conclusion. After touring some of the top halls in North America, what a joy to finish in the home of the @philorch, another base for the boundless energy and gifts of @nezetseguin. It also wraps up 3 astonishing months for me, going from Agrippina in London, across Sputh America and landing in DC for #InWarAndPeace, launching the new recording of #Damnation, visiting the @npr #tinydesk, (look for it in Jan!), and even traveling to ancient Egypt yesterday! Is there a more perfect conclusion to this memorable period than #Mozart? I think not! Photo: @fgoupil #partopartotomorrow #thatclari netthough #fullcircle #lastsangthisariainphillytwentyfouryearsagoatavaforthedeathbyariasingoff #spellcheckTHAT

#StandingOvation to the entire #Akhnaten Family for this beautiful performance today. Utterly unforgettable!!!! #Repost @metopera with @get_repost ・・・ Mezzo-soprano @joycedidonato hosted today’s Live in HD transmission of Philip Glass’s Akhnaten—seen in more than 70 countries worldwide. 🌎 Don’t miss her performance in the upcoming production of Agrippina, live in cinemas on February 29! #MetHD #MetOpera #Opera #Akhnaten #PhilipGlass #LiveinHD #Movies

Live from the Met in one hour! The Met's epic production of Philip Glass' Akhnaten is shown live on screen in cinemas worldwide and I am thrilled to host the broadcast. In bocca al lupo to this stellar cast! I can't wait to see the show and speak to you about this gorgeous work. @metopera #metopera #liveinhd #Movies #PhilipGlass #Akhnaten @philipglassmusic @arcostanzo #MetHD

An overwhelming evening last night @carnegiehall, with my fellow Perspective”s Artist, @nezetseguin, as he brought his first orchestra, @orchestre_metropolitain, to this beautiful hall for the first time. The pure joy and abundant love that poured forth from the legendary stage in the remarkable Bruckner 4 elevated us all. What a gift it is to be a part of his world. 🎉💃🎉 Photo: @fgoupil

It was an overwhelming musical experience to return to Strasbourg and my "Berlioz Family" to bring "La Damnation de Faust" to life! Released today, I can't think of a more perfect way to round out this Berlioz Year. I hope you will listen and be swept away, as we all were by the experience! @philharmonique_de_strasbourg @spikelmyers @nicolascourjal @alexandreduhamelbaritone @warner_classics @warnerclassicsus • 💿 Link in bio to pre-order the album. • • #berlioz #berlioz150 #yearofberlioz #faust #opera #newmusicfriday

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What fabulous news to wake up to, today!!!! So proud to be nominated for this hugely joyful project!!! Way to go, @craigterrypiano, @hotlipsporter, @lautaro_greco, #ChuckIsraels and #JimmyMadison!! Let’s Play On!!! #doesthatsaytwentytwenty #newdecaderealness #grammygrammygrammy @recordingacademy #grammys

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

~ Joyce DiDonato