DiDonato executes florid bel-canto figures so precisely that they take on emotional weight, becoming structure rather than décor.
Monday night is karaoke night at the Applebee’s on North Rock Road in Wichita. One evening in April, patrons lined up at a microphone to deliver such songs as “Desperado,” “Sweet Home Alabama,” and “You Raise Me Up.” After someone bleated a selection from “Little Shop of Horrors”—“I am your dentist / And I get off on the pain I inflict”—the m.c. charitably said, “We’ve got a lot of talent in the house tonight.”
They had more talent than they realized. Sitting at a table in the back was the mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, one of the world’s most celebrated opera singers. She had recently performed in Donizetti’s “Maria Stuarda,” at the Metropolitan Opera, and was about to fly to London for Rossini’s “La Donna del Lago,” at the Royal Opera House. She had also toured Europe with a program of Baroque arias, called “Drama Queens,” appearing each night in a voluminous scarlet silk gown designed for her by Vivienne Westwood. At Applebee’s, DiDonato was dressed in jeans and a white top, her medium-length blond hair tucked under a gray trilby. A forty-four-year-old native of Kansas, she graduated from Wichita State University in 1992, and had returned to make appearances on campus and to see old friends. Although she travels for most of the year and has an apartment near Carnegie Hall, she also owns a condo in Kansas City; there, the previous night, she had sat by her west-facing windows, playing Mozart sonatas on her grandparents’ old piano while a thunderstorm rolled in from the plains.