Joyce DiDonato’s extraordinary voice — she is a mezzo-soprano with a big, expressive sound and a sufficiently broad range to be utterly self-assured on the highest coloratura trills — has been her fortune. She is one of the top singers of bel canto, and is known for her compelling swagger in opera’s trouser roles.
She is due to give two concerts at Carnegie Hall, one from Handel’s opera “Alcina” on Sunday and one of “A Journey Through Venice” from the baroque period to the 20th century, on Nov. 4. It will be Webcast free on medici.tv and available for 90 days online. DiDonato brought Gaetano Donizetti’s opera “Maria Stuarda” to the Met, appearing in the first production there in its title role in 2013, and, in another Met premiere, she will play the title role in the first production of Rossini’s “La Donna del Lago” in February. She sings opera all over the world, from San Francisco to London. Her critical notices read like mash notes, paeans to her beauty and voice.
But it hasn’t always been thus. Her first roles were tiny, and while she got to sing at La Scala early in her career, as she notes, it was in the second cast. She didn’t make her Metropolitan Opera debut until she was 35, and it was in a small part. “All of the big moments I have had, have had a little parenthesis around them,” says the singer, now 45.
She talks about this in a moving commencement address at Juilliard in May in which she recounts her early years of struggle, which also included not securing management until she was 29, and she mentioned an “evaluation sheet for the Houston Opera Studio which simply declared me to possess ‘not much talent.’” Then she said to her audience, “The work will never end…what I have found is that when things become overwhelming — which they will, repeatedly — whether it’s via unexpected, rapid success or as heart-wrenching, devastating failure — the way back to your center is simply to RETURN TO THE WORK. …Be patient, but know that it will always be there for you — even if in some moments, you lack the will to be there for it.”
“This business is full of a lot of, ‘Oh, you’re great!’” she says now. “It’s lovely to hear for about 30 seconds. When you’re looking to get started, if you’re a third of the way or half way, it can be a devastatingly cruel business. There’s very little separation between the voice and the self, and the more honest I can be about the pitfalls and struggles — the smart ones will take that to heart.”
“I do think there’s a place for a diva to be mysterious and above the fray, but that’s not me,” she adds. “My desire has never been to be in the spotlight. I thought I would have been a teacher, and to open up with real frankness [as she did at Juilliard], that scratches the teacher in me.”
DiDonato, who is originally from Kansas City, was charmed by an online campaign to have her sing the National Anthem at a Kansas City Royals game. A group of students sang the National Anthem for her in four-part harmony, saying that she was their favorite singer. “Kids deserve a chance to express themselves,” she says, speaking about the way arts education is in eclipse in the U.S. “How many studies do there have to be to show that music helps math skills and science skills? It also gives them an avenue for release.”
When she herself performs at Carnegie Hall, she says, “I can’t think of anything other than that it’s Carnegie Hall, and you’d better be at your best. You walk in immediately and feel the legacy and the historical import of it, have a sense of wonder and go, ‘Oh, my God!’ It’s huge, with the most extraordinary acoustics. It invites you to give everything that you have, to take a risk, extend phrases more than you can. It’s an artistically satisfying building that itself helps you perform.”
To keep her voice in shape, she says, “Rest is the number-one key. My instrument isn’t just my voice, it’s my whole body. I’m not a smoker; I don’t take drugs. I might have a glass of Champagne after a performance, but I don’t drink the night before. I try to eat well, and try to stay happy. That for me is the biggest weapon.”
Photography is one of her hobbies. “I love it. It’s an outlet for me that doesn’t depend on anything vocal.” She doesn’t have a pet because she travels so much: “I’m a big dog lover who’s a lover of big dogs.”
On the subject of where opera is as an art today, she says, “We’re sort of in an adolescent phase. I mean, I think it’s bigger than opera. We’re a part of a fine culture in our society that is being redefined. I feel like we’re all adolescents, and we’re all supposed to ‘get it.’ People keep saying that opera is dead, but that’s not true. I’ve worked very hard to reach out to young people. If opera doesn’t speak to young people personally, why are tons of them at concerts, at the stage door, and my concerts selling really well?
“There was a wonderful blog in the Huffington Post that said that, since the year 2000, 240 organizations have sprung up that present opera in all different capacities. One might be a cabaret. Through streaming, more people are hearing opera than at any time in history. It’s an art that’s been dying for 400 years.
“I’d rather the industry promote what we are and what we have. We represent the best of the best,” she continued, comparing top singers’ work to Usain Bolt’s performances at the Olympics. As for converting people to opera, “Nine times out of 10, if we present it to them at the highest level, they’re usually astounded. The voice has a direct connection to the human heart, and it conveys all emotion. It’s an extraordinary thing that almost everybody has who wasn’t born mute.”