Joyce DiDonato has never been one to ignore an issue. In the past, the Kansas-born mezzo has campaigned against homophobic bullying in schools, played the Stonewall Inn to honour hate-crime victims, and last month she sang for young offenders at Chicago Correctional Facility. Until now, she’s tended to divide her social crusading from her recording career, though a glance at rarities on recent albums shows she never plays exactly safe. That was before the Paris attacks.
Back in November 2015, DiDonato was at home painstakingly sifting through obscure baroque arias by the likes of Niccolò Jomelli and Leonardo Leo. Her new project should have complemented her acclaimed Stella di Napoli, an album reclaiming forgotten repertoire from the Neapolitan bel canto. Then, on November 13, a series of bomb blasts rocked the French capital and brought the ill wind of international terrorism whistling into her Kansas City music room.
“I think when you’re reading Twitter and Facebook and you see people you know in panic, or when they’re writing ‘I’m safe in Paris’, then that strikes very close to home,” she explains, her voice sounding affected even now as we chat over Skype. “Each time something happens you think ‘I can’t take anymore’ or ‘when is it going to end?’, and then another one comes.”
From that point on, the task of wading through a stack of unknown arias felt hollow. “And then, from the pile of my own music, Dido majestically appeared. And then Sesto, in his war-torn desperation; and then the prisoner Almirena’s haunting Lascia ch’io pianga emerged, almost begging to be heard,” DiDonato writes on her website. “Don’t shout at me,” she said to her record label, “but I need to change the project.” And so In War and Peace was born, an album in two halves – the first focusing on conflict and trauma, the second on healing and harmony – that aims to answer the question: How in the midst of chaos do you find peace?
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