by Justin Davidson
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With a generous grin and a disarming pixie cut, Joyce DiDonato, one of the opera’s reigning divas, pops out in front of a crowd of nervous eighth graders and starts chipping away at their terror. The kids have gathered in Carnegie Hall’s Resnick Education Wing, where they’re getting some high-level help before they audition for New York’s selective arts-oriented high schools. DiDonato, a mezzo-soprano who was born in Kansas, seems slightly awed. “If you guys are sitting here, you’re miles ahead of where I was at your age,” she says. “It took me a lot longer to get to Carnegie Hall.” Over the next 90 minutes, I witness her coax real music out of four stiff swans. She dispenses homilies and epiphanies at a dizzying clip, and by the end of her session, each girl has grown suppler and sings with a truer, stronger voice. Maybe the effect will vanish on the way out the door, but I feel sure these girls will remember that feeling of effortlessness, of letting the notes waft through the room on a stream of controlled breath and disciplined joy. I do not trust myself to keep my composure.

To say that DiDonato, who is 47, is at the peak of her career is to do her an injustice: She’s at the peak of almost any singer’s career. Within a few years of her 2005 Metropolitan Opera debut, she had evolved into house star, and last season she got swooning reviews (from me, among others) for her performance of Rossini’s La Donna del Lago. She’s a Carnegie Hall regular too, giving recitals, conducting master classes for young professionals, headlining an annual workshop and performance with inmates at (of course) Sing Sing. Her newest recording, In War and Peace, an alternately scorching and consoling collection of 17th- and 18th-century arias, comes out on November 4.

At the moment, though, the rows of blank young faces prompt her to recount the time she desperately wanted a role in the high-school musical, even though she was only a freshman. She spent the summer memorizing and drilling “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly,” from My Fair Lady, as an audition piece. She raided her mother’s closet for a ragged flower girl getup, and had the lyrics down cold. “The first day of high school went pretty well: I didn’t fall down. The second was okay. On the third, I open the door to the audition room, and all the cool juniors and seniors are sitting there, and I go”— her eyes bug and her jaw drops, and she utters a startled squeak: “Oh! I guess I wasn’t supposed to come in costume. I was so embarrassed — I think the only reason they gave me a part in the chorus was because they felt so bad for me.”

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