Over grilled octopus, the American opera star gives Martin Dickson a singing masterclass and talks about the loneliness of life on the road
We’re midway through our sheep’s milk ricotta appetiser when Joyce DiDonato, one of the world’s most glamorous opera stars, opens her mouth wide and starts to do something with her tongue that has nothing to do with eating.
She pushes it down hard into the floor of her mouth. At the same time, she places her thumb in a soft cavity under her jaw, where it can sense the tongue muscle’s downward pressure. She invites me to do the same. “Can you feel them meet?” she asks in her soft, Midwestern American accent, eyes widening dramatically.
Heaven knows what other diners at Manhattan’s Boulud Sud make of our curious fingerings and facial contortions. Escapees, perhaps, from a convention of ear, nose and throat surgeons? In reality, DiDonato is giving me a mini-masterclass in poor singing technique – employing the tongue muscle and jaw rather than the lungs – that, she confesses, she used until her mid-twenties.
Her sound, she says, was all forced. “It was quite metallic. It was quite brittle.” She concedes it could travel: “I could make it very”, and here she launches into a loud and hammy nasal whine, “resonant!” She looks around the restaurant and grins mischievously: “I don’t want to get us kicked out!”
Luckily, a perceptive voice coach spotted the problem, told her she was damaging her voice, and worked to connect her properly to her lungs. It took three years, she says, but was life-changing. “Without that, there’s no way I’d be able to do what I’m doing now. I didn’t have the mastery of the instrument.”
Today DiDonato, 44, is one of the most admired mezzo-sopranos of her generation, known for her impeccable technique, purity of tone, emotional expressiveness and seemingly effortless, pyrotechnic coloratura ornamentation. She is also beautiful and a gifted actress – invaluable attributes in an era when opera stars are required to perform in physical as well as vocal character, and when the extreme close-ups of live, high-definition cinema broadcasts capture a singer’s every bead of sweat.
As she enters the restaurant, she cuts quite a figure, her long blonde hair curling round the shoulders of her brown leather Versace trenchcoat. Deep red lipstick accentuates her wide mouth and ready smile. Her first words are characteristically enthusiastic: “This is fun!” She slips off the coat to reveal a black crêpe turtleneck blouse, brown Alexander McQueen trousers and black leather boots.
If divas of her stature have a reputation for being, well, prima donna-ish, DiDonato is known in the industry for being gracious, professional and down to earth, yet with an edge of political outspokenness on subjects dear to her – such as music education and equal rights, particularly gay rights, speaking out against Russian persecution of homosexuals.
She has never cancelled a performance because of illness. After fracturing her leg on an opening night at Covent Garden in 2009, she sang on, using a crutch. She completed the run from a wheelchair, which was wittily incorporated into the staging.
She is also known for her attention to her public, using 21st-century means to keep in touch: she blogs (under the handle Yankeediva), tweets and even used fans to crowd-source the tracks, cover photo and title of ReJoyce!, a recent greatest hits album.
As we study the menu I ask about her description of herself on Twitter as a foodie. “Maybe I shouldn’t call myself that,” she says, self-deprecatingly, explaining that while she loves great food and can follow any recipe, she does not think she is particularly creative in the kitchen.
She has chosen Boulud Sud, a smart Mediterranean-inspired restaurant, partly because of its style (“smaller portions, fresh food”) and partly for its location close to the Metropolitan Opera, where she’s just come from a meeting. The room is airy, the decor mid-century modern. We decide to share an appetiser: the ricotta with a tapenade of green and black olives. To follow, DiDonato goes for another appetiser, octopus, with a side order of roasted wild mushrooms, while I opt for sea bream, and we each decide to have a glass of white Burgundy.
She has a very busy 2014. Carnegie Hall has just announced she will be its “perspectives” singer for the 2014-15 season – an initiative in which an artist creates their own personal concert series and takes part in related educational programmes.
In April she will sing the title role in Rossini’s frothy comedy La Cenerentola (Cinderella) at the Met, with the dashing Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Flórez as her Prince Charming. This will be DiDonato’s first time singing it at the Met but, she says, it may also be her last time in the role.
“I’ve sung her in the important theatres in the world and I’ve never had a desire to repeat a role in a house. I’m curious to keep moving forward and challenge myself. And I’m also at that point where I can move into more sophisticated roles that require a little bit richer approach.”
She pauses and gives a self-knowing laugh. “I’m trying to avoid the word ‘mature’. So how can I do that? ‘Sophisticated!’ ” Her diction is as precise and dramatically accented as her delivery of libretto on stage.
She will also be appearing at Covent Garden in July in the title role of Maria Stuarda, Donizetti’s dark tale of rivalry between Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots. She starred in a different production at the Met last year. Is Maria Stuarda one of these more sophisticated roles? “Absolutely! It’s probably the most challenging role I’ve sung to date.”
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Our appetisers arrive but not merely what we have ordered. We sit bemused as the table becomes crammed with bowl after delicious bowl, compliments of the chef, who knows the FT is lunching with Ms DiDonato. She laughs. “I’m worried we are not going to have enough food! Oh my goodness!”
“Oh my goodness!”, I am beginning to realise, is a characteristic DiDonato exclamation, which seems to combine an enthusiasm for life with Midwestern wholesomeness.
Born Joyce Flaherty in Prairie Village, a suburb of Kansas City, she is the sixth of seven children in a musical, Roman Catholic family. (The Italian surname, which seems so right for an opera singer, came from her first husband.) Her architect father led a local church choir and DiDonato was musical from a young age: she would “play and play and play” the piano as an angst-ridden teenager, and performed in high school musicals.
She came to opera fairly late, eventually joining the prestigious young artist programme at the Houston Grand Opera in 1996, which was where her breathing problem surfaced. She is disarmingly open about the legacy: “I think if you asked me what my insecurity is still today, I think, well, I don’t have the best voice out there. I was always very musical. I was always very theatrical … but the actual voice itself wasn’t the thing about me … And I never got a really solid technique early on.”
She has spoken in the past about how difficult it is to be completely in control of a voice. When I ask about this, she makes a comparison with top athletes, who, paradoxically, can underperform by trying to exercise too much control. “You need to be in command of your technique and your body but, at the same time, you have to let it go, so that the breath is free, so that the expression is in the moment – but you can only do that if you have prepared it in the best way.”
And that means practice. She approvingly quotes a study that suggests top performers, whether an athlete or artist, use “deliberate” practice – focusing on achieving a particular goal – say 800 shots through a basketball hoop – rather than training for a set time period. “It’s not magic, you actually just have to put in the work.”
She says she will never forget the night she finally knew her technique was under her control. She was an understudy in a production of Handel’s Alcina starring Renée Fleming and Natalie Dessay. DiDonato was sitting backstage when she thought: “If I had to go on and share the stage with Renée and Natalie and sing, I think I could hold my own …”
Strange though it now seems, she was finding it hard to get a manager until “a British-sounding fellow” rang out of the blue, told her he had just seen her perform in a 1998 competition, and said, “I think you are going to be a huge star, and I want to take you for worldwide management.”
The man was London-based Simon Goldstone, who is still her manager, though her first instinct was to reject him. “I never, ever envisioned myself as an international singer. I thought I’d be lucky to have a regional opera, an American opera, career.”
Goldstone encouraged her to go on a round of European auditions. She was rejected by 12 houses but was offered Rosina, the young female lead in a 2002 Paris Opera production of Rossini’s Barber of Seville. It was the turning point.
Nowadays she has a heavy performance schedule. She spent much of last autumn in European concert halls promoting her album Drama Queens, a collection of baroque arias, which she sings in an extravagant red silk gown designed by Vivienne Westwood.
She had originally thought of becoming a music teacher and there is still a strong streak of educator in her, reflected in the time she devotes to her fans while touring. “There’s a marketing element to it, of course,” she acknowledges, before I get a chance to note that the tweeting and blogging must help the DiDonato brand. But she also wants to “help bring everything that opera brings – beauty, truth, discovery, adventures, passion – into people’s lives in a bigger way.”
How does she keep healthy on the road, and avoid the minor ailments that can kill a voice? “I think fried food goes a long way,” she says deadpan, and then giggles. Good food, sleep, and “a really good multivitamin” are all important, as are exercise routines – varying from yoga to weight-training. “I think it makes me a better physical performer on stage.”
She says it is also important to have around her a strong network of people who know her for herself, not as an opera singer. Kansas City is still home base, where she goes to chill. “It does get lonely. You have a triumphant night on stage and you go back to the hotel room and you’re all by yourself. It’s a cliché but it’s a cliché for a reason. I think I weather the storm decently because I’ve always given myself permission to walk away if it ever just feels like too much.”
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She has two failed marriages behind her. Were the pressures of the road a factor? “In my cases, no, I don’t think it was … I’ve really had two relationships in my life. I just happened to marry both of them. No regrets. I don’t regret it at all. But more than life on the road … ” She pauses. “It’s quite personal – but more than being on the road, I think what has affected me more is that the opportunity for growth is so huge in what we do, and you have to be so self-reliant. When you are on that stage, nobody’s holding your hand.
“I have the personality where I keep moving forward. I keep growing … I think that can be a challenge. You’ve got somebody who is maybe more sedentary, and the other person is rolling along.”
We move to less delicate ground – her approach to singing. She has a reputation for being profoundly focused on the text of any work. Why is text so important?
“I think it’s where everything is born, in the sense that for the most part, composers start with the text.” She gives the example of the contemporary American composer Jake Heggie. In 2002, DiDonato sung in his first opera Dead Man Walking, with a libretto by Terrence McNally, and will star in his new opera, Great Scott, in Dallas next year.
“We talk a lot about the process and how things work, and he’s got to know who these characters are before he can find the musical language for them. I’m assuming the great masters worked in a similar way.
“It’s ultimately why we are singing. We’re up there telling a story. We’re up there conveying emotion. So, for me, text is king.”
Coloratura ornamentation, she adds, “should never just be flowery and decoration”. Janet Baker, the great but now retired British mezzo, told her in an interview (“probably the greatest hour of my life”) that she had viewed herself as a plate of glass through which music and emotion transferred. Baker’s job was to keep the glass spotless.
“That’s technique, that’s diction, that’s health – all those things,” says DiDonato, “and I’ve never heard it described better, because your goal should be invisibility to where text comes through music.”
We pass on dessert – “I’m stuffed beyond belief! ” she says – but complimentary rose, pistachio and chocolate sorbets come anyway. We guiltily pick up our spoons. “I have to try the rose. Oh wow!”
DiDonato sees herself becoming a strong ambassador for the arts and music education when her singing career eventually fades, and she wants to lay the groundwork by starting to speak out now.
She says it is criminal how music education is disappearing in the US. “It’s the first thing on the butcher block and it’s the last thing that should go, because it’s the glue that holds everything together. By eradicating the arts, children are not being given the chance to learn how to think. Everything is by rote.” Yet “what the world faces today is only going to be solved by people who think outside the box”.
As for the broader impact of music, she refers to a letter she received “from a girl saying she had a bottle of sleeping pills in her hand and she was ready to kill herself. Then ‘Ombra Mai Fu’ [the exquisite aria from Handel’s Serse], came on and she stopped. Literally saved a life! Not metaphorically, literally!”
The story has a dramatic, operatic quality to it, and she tells it with almost as much passion as she employs on stage. “I see the power of music in people’s lives and I’m the biggest cheerleader for it.”