Though numerous distinguished mezzo-sopranos have embarked on Schubert’s bleak Winter Journey since Brigitte Fassbaender and the late Christa Ludwig made their landmark recordings of the cycle (then almost exclusively the province of male voices) in the 1980s, Joyce DiDonato’s new account with Yannick Nézet-Séguin breaks new ground of its own in approaching the work from the perspective of the woman whom the narrator leaves behind.

It was a huge pleasure to speak with Joyce last week about how she and Nézet-Séguin went about bringing this elusive character out of the shadows and into the spotlight, the parallels between her story and that of one of DiDonato’s most beloved operatic heroines, and why she thinks Winterreise can speak to us particularly strongly in the wake of a year that’s brought more than its fair share of despondency and isolation to many people…

How did you go about fleshing out a back-story for this woman about whom we know so little – has she become the ‘rich bride’ which the narrator so bitterly describes?

This poor girl – she’s been neglected for so long! It was serendipitous that at the same time as starting to dive into Winterreise I was also working on Werther: he’s the title-character, sure, but when the curtain comes down, what happens to Charlotte? Of course you could ask the same question about Alfredo in Traviata or Rodolfo in La bohème, or indeed any of the other lovers who are left behind, but I feel a very personal connection with Charlotte and I can’t stop wondering what she does next. Does she take the gun and follow suit? Does she run home to Albert and the kids as though nothing’s happened like in Bridges of Madison County? How does she stuff everything that has exploded out of her back inside? And I found myself asking the same questions about the woman in Winterreise.

The narrator himself is very mysterious: we know a lot about his internal journey after he leaves her, but we have to make suppositions about what he was actually like and what he did before setting out on that journey. In turn we don’t really know anything about her, beyond the fact that her mother spoke of marriage and she spoke of love. And I think we have to take her at her word there, because for a girl at that time to actually articulate and share that sentiment was quite something – it wasn’t the twenty-first-century vernacular of ‘OMG, I love this pizza!’. It must’ve been sincere, and that prompts me to wonder what she thought when she woke up and he was gone without word…Did she post letters which never reached him? How did she move on with her life?

In this scenario that I made up out of thin air he sends her his journal in the post, as when Werther writes to Charlotte. And that scenario can work with as much mystery and ambiguity as Winterreise itself: although I’ve worked on it extensively I’ve only sung five performances, and it was so different each time. It could be the first time she’s read it, so everything is a discovery. It could be that she reads it once a year on the anniversary of when they met. It could be that it’s become an obsession with her and she tries to resist re-reading the entries but they pull her back in, just as Werther’s letters do with Charlotte. Or she could be a sixty-year-old lady contemplating death on her own, and she’s drawn back to this story with a little bit more distance.

How did you convey all of this in the staging?

It was very simple: just a case of setting the stage so people knew the environment. I did it with surtitles, so we started with a surtitle saying ‘He sent me his journals in the post…’. I had a small table with a journal on it, and we brought the theatre all to black; a spotlight comes up on the journal and as the music begins I take it and open it, then use it as a prop throughout. And that’s it!

How reliable a narrator is the protagonist of Winterreise for you? Are there moments where his account jars with the woman’s own experience?

This is one of the great mysteries of the cycle, but because I look at it as a journal here I think it’s simply a matter of taking it at face value: obviously my scenario hinges on the idea that he was writing with her in mind as his intended reader, but even if it was written with manipulation involved I do think he really wants her to see his soul as it is. And I don’t think it’s too dramatic to view it almost as a suicide-note: I think he had a good idea of where his journey would take him, and that’s the very reason why he fled. I could be completely wrong – my interpretation changes from time to time – but that’s a general sensation that I have. If someone’s writing in the knowledge that it’s very likely that the end of their life is on the horizon, their writing is going to be at its most raw and unfiltered.

And as the cycle progresses it becomes increasingly detached and free-flowing. I think what’s captivating for her is that in the beginning the journal’s pointed towards her, but as he goes further away she’s mentioned less and less, so she starts wondering ‘Did he forget me?’. The further away he goes the more she wants to chase after him and help, so by the time you get to Das Wirthaus she’s shattered and heartbroken that he has no place to rest: I imagine her saying ‘Just come home! If I’d known I would have come to you and brought you home!’.

There’s something uniquely powerful about reading somebody’s words aloud when they’re gone – if a letter is read out at a funeral, for example, somehow that person’s presence is more intense and concrete, because all you have are the words and so they take on even more meaning than if somebody is speaking in dialogue. And in this case he becomes so present in the performance, even though he’s not saying the words directly. His journey remains unpolluted here because of course we haven’t altered the words or music, but the difference is that you have her parallel journey and reactions alongside it.

The only thing that Yannick and I did adjust slightly is that there’s a number of times where the text repeats, and I always felt that that was her trying to make sense of what he writes – internalising it for herself, perhaps, or rejecting it or being confused by it. Take those cries of ‘Mein Herz, mein Herz!’, for instance, in ‘Die Post’: she starts to take it on and walk that journey alongside him in a very deep way.

Could you see yourself giving other song-cycles similar treatment?

I don’t know that this approach would work with other cycles – I would have to find my way organically. I think the reason this speaks so strongly to me and ignites a lot of interest from other people is because it comes out of a genuine question that holds up throughout the whole piece. When I started exploring Winterreise I couldn’t find my way into the narrator’s psyche, and the only way you can approach lieder like this is to get to its beating heart. I couldn’t arrive there as him, but the moment I thought about her I was in it 100%.

It was Yannick’s suggestion that we perform Winterreise together and I thought he was crazy, because I didn’t have a long association with lieder in the way that I do with chansons and canzone. When I went to him with this idea I don’t know if he was convinced but to his credit he was certainly open to it! I suggested we went through song-by-song, and if ever we hit a wall where we had to manipulate or fabricate something to make the concept work then we shouldn’t do it. But as we worked through the cycle very methodically, the opposite happened – it actually continued to open up, and new layers and possibilities kept arriving.

Interestingly, we hit the roadblock with Der Leiermann. Because it was so close to the finishing-line, I wanted to stick with it and see what came up – and when the answer came to me it made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. People have argued that Der Leiermann is such a unique piece that the cycle could almost end with Die Nebensonnen (No. 23), and it hit me that Die Nebensonnen is the last entry in his journal and Der Leiermann is hers. In performance I close the journal and we take a long pause after Die Nebensonnen, and just as I’m putting it back on the table she sees (or imagines she sees) something at the back of the hall… So when she says ‘Old man, will you sing my songs?’ she’s really asking ‘Who will sing my songs and tell my story?’. It’s very mysterious and confused – she’s half in this world and half out of it.

Do you know Ian Bostridge’s book Schubert’s Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession?

That book is a gift for sure! A good friend gave it to me as I was starting work on the cycle, and what I appreciated about it so much is that it just brings that world into 3D – there’s so much personal detail and historical context that everything springs to life. The title is perfect, because it was such a profound journey for Ian as well, and he’s done a masterful thing in inviting us to walk it in three dimensions.

How much have the restrictions of the past year made you recalibrate your relationship with music-making (and with this cycle in particular)?

My stomach does a bit of a flip with that question, as it did thirteen months ago… My approach at the start – which has generally held up – was I felt like we were being given a directive from Mother Nature to say ‘STOP. SHUT UP. Just be quiet for a while. Everybody get off the hamster-wheel, slow down and catch your breath’. The pandemic has hit everyone differently, but so many people have said ‘I don’t think that I want to go back to the pace that I was carrying before’. On one level It’s been the sabbatical I think I needed, but never probably would have given myself. For the first time since I left home at eighteen I’ve been in one place for a year: I’ve watched the four seasons come and go, I’ve witnessed twelve full moons passing over my house, and it’s been really profound to have that chance to get back to the ‘real world’.

But that’s been jammed up next to whiplash of real grief and anxiety, and uncertainty of where we go from here. What will our industry look like? How do I help? As my partner would probably happily tell you, it’s hard for somebody who’s used to having such an extreme outlet for their emotions, and for exploration and contemplation – putting that energy out to thousands of people a couple times a week is being in the real marrow of life, and it’s a huge energetic shift to have that taken away. Part of me has loved having a break from it all, and part of me really misses it, so I remain in a state of some confusion about how I want to move forward on the other side of all this…

I’ve really limited the amount of online things that I do, because I do find that painful. Fairly early on in the lockdown I had the incredible gift – or should I say ‘Gifts’! – to collaborate with Yo-Yo Ma in Copland’s Simple Gifts, for the Financial Times. Part of me was on Cloud Nine, but afterwards I was in tears because I thought ‘This isn’t making music, this is assembling music’ – it’s not the same as breathing the same air, phrasing side-by-side, and feeling that energy between you.

I do have mixed feelings about the timing of this release. Is this the right moment for Winterreise? Who wants to live in that world of pain and isolation right now? But perhaps that’s the point, because even though it’s so heavy and bleak there’s comfort in knowing that other people have felt these emotions before.