The New York Times
by Joel Rozen
Joyce DiDonato, the star mezzo-soprano, admits she was slightly fearful when she first visited the Sing Sing maximum-security prison in 2015. She had agreed to sing there as part of Carnegie Hall’s Musical Connections program, but wasn’t sure how an operatic voice would be received.
She made an impact on at least one listener. On a follow-up trip the next year, Ms. DiDonato encountered Joseph Wilson, an inmate and aspiring composer who had been at the recital. He said he had been overwhelmed by the performance, she recalled in a recent interview at the Metropolitan Opera, where she will sing the title role in the company premiere of “Cendrillon” — Massenet’s frothy, romantic, rarely done Cinderella adaptation — starting on April 12.
Mr. Wilson had been inspired to write an opera, Ms. DiDonato said. With the help of the Carnegie program, he soon completed preliminary work on his first large-scale piece, “Tabula Rasa.” Last October, Ms. DiDonato returned to Sing Sing a third time to join him in presenting some of it in front of 300 inmates.
“It’s about a murderer; he’s asking someone for forgiveness,” she said. Her character denies his request. “It’s extraordinary. In concert, about two-thirds of the way through, his character begs for forgiveness again, and then drops to his knees, but my character keeps saying no. Finally, he collapses over his knees and cradles his head in his hands.”
Eighteen hours later, Ms. DiDonato was at the Met performing in the “Live in HD” cinema broadcast of Bellini’s “Norma.”
“My character, after a flame with a Roman soldier in woods,” she said, “runs to Norma’s hut, drops to her knees and begs her friend for forgiveness. And I did the same gesture I had done for five weeks of rehearsal: I collapsed on my knees and cradled my head — the same physical gesture Joe had done. Now you go on and tell me how opera’s irrelevant to normal people.”
The art form, she added, is “the opposite of elitist.”
There was a time when calling an opera star accessible might have counted as a criticism. Operatic characters — an aloof pantheon of gods, monarchs, priests and countesses — are generally more outsize than approachable; their exponents have traditionally been measured on a scale of perceived regality and remoteness.
But with the art form struggling for audiences, major companies, once content to keep stars shrouded in mystery, now see it as essential to bring people in for a closer look. Facebook and YouTube provide behind-the-scenes glimpses of rehearsals, coachings and costume fittings. You can now tweet at Tosca.
Such a world is tailor-made for Ms. DiDonato, 49, opera’s Miss Congeniality. “The key isn’t changing what we do,” she said. “It’s making sure that we go to where the people are.”
So starting in April 2005, back when the opera world was still new to cyberspace, Ms. DiDonato blogged as Yankeediva about everything connected to her life as a globe-trotting artist. She added an e-newsletter, Opera Rocks, in 2015. She inflects her celebrated takes on Rossini with the dazzled wonder of a musical theater actress and delights in programming populist encores like “Over the Rainbow.” Her plain-spoken advice in master classes — sometimes humorous, sometimes New Age-y — is all over YouTube.
Her can-do spirit is the subject of lore: At one London performance of Rossini’s “Il Barbiere di Siviglia,” in 2009, she fractured her fibula, then soldiered on in a wheelchair. Cinderella, that fabled optimist, is an ideal role for her. Born Joyce Flaherty on the edge of Kansas City to an Irish-American family of seven children, Ms. DiDonato had an unlikely ascent to celebrity, and a rough time finding management after her time in the Houston Grand Opera’s young artist program.
In fact, finding her way to the stage in the first place had been a struggle. Ms. DiDonato said that her final year at Wichita State University, where she studied to be a high school music teacher and graduated in 1992, was riddled with self-doubt.
“I saw the need for committed, devoted teachers,” she said. “But the stage was calling me, and I loved it, and it felt really good. As a good Catholic Midwestern girl, that was bad. If something felt good, it must be bad.”
She approached her father, a longtime classical music lover, for advice: “He said, ‘Joyce, there’s more than one way to teach people, more than one way to connect.’ ”
She embraced the public-facing side of singing. For a while, she recorded her thoughts on Yankeediva several times a month as she recorded the Handel opera “Ariodante,” sang for the celebrated mezzo Marilyn Horne’s 75th birthday gala, combated isolation on the road and mourned the loss of her father. She aimed Opera Rocks, her e-newsletter, at curious high school students who might feel lonely in their interest in high culture.
Opera, she said, is about “bringing truth and beauty and astonishment to people, while reminding everyone who feels ignored or shunned or diminished that, actually, there’s something bigger out there.”
Ms. DiDonato has the earnest zeal of a self-help enthusiast. She said her main teachings these days “rarely come from the opera field” and run to mindfulness lessons from Eckhart Tolle, Byron Katie and Joseph Campbell. Her views are liberal but mild; other than railing in 2011 against cuts to arts programs made by Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, she’s kept mostly quiet about more incendiary political topics.
“I monitor myself carefully,” she said. “I wish to provoke because I’m a citizen. But I never, ever want to impose so much in social media or offstage that the audience feels like it’s seeing ‘Joyce’ onstage. People have paid to see ‘Cendrillon.’ They haven’t paid to see me.”
Except, well, they have. The Met would never have put on this Massenet rarity if not for her, and fans are drawn to her personality, curiosity and dazzling voice as much as to the music she sings. For two decades Ms. DiDonato has taken on a strikingly mixed bag of mezzo repertoire, seesawing between centuries and styles. Her voice, adept at elastic runs and flowery embellishments, is also soulful and sincere. S he can glide up into the soprano stratosphere when she chooses.
Pick any season of her early career for a sense of this unusual versatility: In 2002-3, for example, she darted from “Dead Man Walking,” by the American composer Jake Heggie, to other works including Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro”; Janacek’s “The Cunning Little Vixen”; and Rossini’s “Il Barbiere di Siviglia” and “La Cenerentola,” that composer’s Cinderella opera.
She is perhaps now most widely associated with Baroque and bel canto opera — her skookum approach to the aria “Tanti affetti” from Rossini’s “La Donna del Lago,” with its dizzying runs and leaps up and down the staff, has made her rendition a cult favorite — but she is no less at ease with the gentle lines of the American songbook.
That gift for understated lyricism has made “Cendrillon,” a lesser-known work from 1899 that shows its composer’s knack for comedy, one of Ms. DiDonato’s calling cards over the past decade. She opened the director Laurent Pelly’s brightly colored production at Santa Fe Opera in 2006, and it has traveled with her to London, Barcelona and now the Met, which the company is presenting for the first time in its history with a cast that also includes Alice Coote, Kathleen Kim, Stephanie Blythe and Laurent Naouri, conducted by Bertrand de Billy.
“The beautiful thing about Cinderella is that she’s somebody who believes in goodness,” Ms. DiDonato said. “She stays true to herself in a very quiet way.”
The character’s authenticity was what first attracted her to the role. The show has not changed much for her over the years she has performed it. Yet in preparing for her latest run at the Met, she discovered new power in its unpretentious optimism. During a recent rehearsal, she and Mr. Pelly were startled to find themselves in tears.
“I think what’s happening in the world right now is so dark and heavy,” she said. “When you’re struck with this innocence, this freshness, there’s this nuclear sensation of being hit. I think we’re all drinking it in, unaware of how much we needed it.”