Joyce DiDonato could offer her audiences a traditional recital program if she wanted to, and they would eat it up. The spectacularly gifted American mezzo-soprano has been a fixture of the musical world since first making her name in the late 1990s, applying her artistry to a wide span of repertoire ranging from Baroque to contemporary music.
It’s just that the status quo doesn’t really suit her.
DiDonato’s career has been a steady quest to find ways of rejuvenating and reinventing concert culture. The most recent example is “Eden,” a theatrical recital program pegged to the recording of the same name she released last year, which she brings to the Bay Area on Jan. 20-21.
Created in partnership with conductor Maxim Emelyanychev and the Baroque chamber orchestra Il Pomo d’Oro, “Eden” is a meditation on climate change, as well as a call to arms. Stylistically, it ranges widely to include music by Handel, Gluck, Mahler, Copland, Ives and more.
DiDonato spoke with The Chronicle late last year over Zoom from New York, where she was about to begin a triumphant run as Virginia Woolf in the Metropolitan Opera’s world premiere production of “The Hours,” by composer Kevin Puts and librettist Greg Pierce.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: I’ve listened to “Eden” with great delight, and I’ve read descriptions of the recital from other cities. What I’m hoping for from you is an elevator pitch for the project. Can you say what the underlying idea is?
A: You know, I don’t have an elevator pitch, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a fault. It’s a huge musical undertaking, which is emblematic of how I’ve tried to build my career across centuries of music. It’s a theatrical narrative that I’ve tried to bring a story to.
But really I wanted to put the audience into a meditative state so that they can feel a connection to all these composers who have been inspired by nature. Maybe the best elevator pitch is the fact that the entire night leads to Mahler’s “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” (“I am lost to the world”) — the idea that we have to recognize that we belong to something bigger than this material world.
Q: How did you settle on these particular pieces to create the program?
A: We decided from the outset not to be confined to the Baroque world, and I was so proud of the orchestra, being able to go outside of their box stylistically.
But the important fact is that the music is not in a consecutive chronology. The idea was to give a sense of timelessness, beginning with Ives’ “The Unanswered Question” and then letting one piece lead to another.
Because this is the same story that we’ve been looking at after all these centuries. It’s the same adventure that the poets and the performers and the composers have been looking for: “Where do I fit into this world? How do I make sense of my life?” And it’s a theme that continues to inspire composers and writers and artists today.
Q: From your description, this sounds reminiscent of “In War and Peace,” the themed recital you created in 2016, which focused on songs about love and war. Is it something in a similar vein?
A: It is similar, in that when we did “In War and Peace” we could feel that the audience was coming along with us. They were game. And we thought, this is the kind of project we want to do, to get people really thinking about their lives when they go home.
Some people do that, but a lot of people don’t make that connection from the classical music world to how they wake up and go to the office the next morning, or how they’re interacting with their families or the world around them. So it’s not a sequel necessarily, but we did think about taking the formula and seeing what else could be said with it.
Q: How would you sum up that formula?
A: Taking something that people have been talking about through centuries of music and trying to contextualize it for the 21st century. And also to present it in a way that breaks down the formality of a traditional classical concert — brings some theater to it, brings a narrative to it, and invites the audience to enter in a way that the experience stays with them when they go home.
I’m not saying a Beethoven symphony can’t do that. But the majority of today’s audience doesn’t have a classical music education. The context an audience member brings in — which is just as valid, because they bought a ticket — is a cinematic one. It’s screen-oriented, it’s fast-paced.
I want to meet the audience where they are. It’s not dumbing down; it’s recognizing the cultural context that the majority of audience members bring into a theater with them today.
Q: In the materials for “Eden” you describe yourself as a “belligerent optimist.” It’s a wonderful phrase; what does it mean?
A: A lot of my life I lived sort of in the clouds, thinking, “Oh, everything’s great,” and ignoring a lot of the body of the iceberg that is being alive today. I can’t do that anymore.
You can’t be awake after what we’ve lived through in the past 10 years and not see the challenges of the world, and I have a bit of stubbornness and belligerence about me. But I still believe there’s more goodness than not in the world. I still believe that ultimately at the end, people will try to do the right thing.