The Mercury News

Mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato is one of the most gifted  singers of our time. A bel canto specialist, she’s given brilliant opera and recital performances throughout the Bay Area, with a special emphasis on the music of Donizetti and Rossini. This month, though, she returns to Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall with a Cal Performances program titled “Songplay.” A lighthearted celebration of Italian arias, American songs and jazz standards, it’s something of an adventure for this always captivating artist. I reached DiDonato by email midway through her tour of Asia. Here are her replies, edited for space.

Q: Can you discuss the inspiration for this program and how it developed?

A: This is a program that emerges strictly from the joy of singing and the celebration of great songs. My pianist and  arranger, Craig Terry, had the idea to play with some of the Italian art songs that every beginning singer aims to tackle. The moment he showed me his idea for “Caro Mio Ben” – something between classic and jazz – I was sold. It dawned on me in that moment how we’ve been singing the same song for more than 400 years – almost always about love: the desire for love, the pain of love, the joy of love. It’s the eternal quest.

Q:  The program spans Italian Baroque arias to songs from the Great American songbook. What are some of the highlights?

A:  Well, I’m biased, but I think they’re all highlights! My hope is that each song feels fresh. In choosing the pieces, I allowed myself to sing songs I’ve always dreamed of singing – “Solitude” and “Amarilli” – but other songs emerged as real surprises to me, like “Masquerade” and “Lean Away.” In the opera world, we don’t often think in terms of the sheer power of a great song, but this project really reminds me of that. Three minutes of the perfect melody can be some of the most potent moments we are allowed in this life.

Q:  There’s also some jazz on the program. What are some of your first memories of jazz, and what role has it played in your development as an artist?

A:  Sunday night cocktail hour, as I was growing up – that’s the moment my Dad would put his Glenn Miller LP’s on, and he would make an Old-Fashioned cocktail for himself and my mom. It was the happiest moment of the week. Of course, I would then use the vacuum cleaner as a mic stand and wail away to “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree” until all my siblings begged me to shut up. So perhaps this album has really been decades in the making.

Q:  The program features an ensemble of piano, bass, drums, trumpet and bandoneon. What’s it like working with this small ensemble?

A:  It was an extraordinary experience. We have the best of all musical worlds with this combination, but it involved finding our own musical language to bridge all the genres. For example, inserting the brilliant Charlie Porter with his trumpet into the tango of “Quella Fiamma” next to the astonishing bandoneon of Lautaro Greco breaks all the rules, but it somehow feels as if it was always meant to be performed this way. The process of allowing ourselves to get outside of our normal “day job boxes” was liberating in so many ways.

Q:  Describe one of the featured songs on the program and why you selected it.

A:  For one of the jazzier numbers, we wanted to do “Lullaby of Birdland,” as it somehow approaches the patter songs of Rossini or Cimarosa. It’s light and bubbly, just like a great Rossini finale. But we also take the overdone “Nel cor più non mi sento” – which is often played as a very pouty song – and we subtly give it a different kind of depth. What I can say is that at the end of each piece as we recorded it, we all felt it’s the way it had always been sung!

Q:  Your previous Bay Area appearance was with the “In War and Peace” program – a moving experience, and wonderful in the way it blurred boundaries between recital, concert and theatrical performance. Does “Songplay” take a similar approach?

A:  It doesn’t – although I suppose it does blur genres. This is a light-hearted celebration of the song, and so we want people to sit back, relax and leave the concert hall with their favorite tune stuck in their head.