Most singers would regard singing the title role in Rossini’s Semiramide as one of the supreme challenges of their lives. The opera is a massive political drama — think House of Cards set in ancient Babylon — and the part of the conflicted queen as demanding, vocally and dramatically, as anything in opera before Verdi and Wagner.
Yet if Joyce DiDonato is nervous about the premiere tomorrow afternoon of the Royal Opera’s new production, she isn’t showing it. Kansas-born and bred, tough as nails, with the tenacity of a bulldog and the voice of a perhaps rather worldly angel, she doesn’t do self-doubt.
“Yes, Semiramide has been a stretch, but it’s one that has been in preparation for 20 years,” says the 48-year-old mezzo. “The opera is an hour longer than most Rossinis, so it’s a marathon sing, but I think I can bring a gravitas to the role now that’s very different from if I had done it ten years ago.”
Although the sound world of Semiramide isn’t so different from Rossini’s popular comedies such as The Barber of Seville, the drama is from another universe. “This is grand tragedy,” DiDonato asserts. “You get to experience the past and the future of opera in this work. It’s often called the last great baroque opera because of its formality, yet you can hear Verdi crashing down the door.”
And the characters? “Everyone in the story is broken to some degree, and Semiramide herself to a big degree,” DiDonato says. “At the start it’s been 15 years since she secretly poisoned her husband, the king, and she hasn’t appeared in public since. The first thing she says is: ‘I’m shaking.’ So it’s clear she’s unhinged from the start.” And with the provocative David Alden directing, can we expect echoes of present-day political turmoils? “People may well find it reflects their opinions about our rudderless world today,” DiDonato replies. “It’s a piece about power gone bad, that’s for sure. You see how the thirst for power crumbles a nation.”
If Semiramide does turn out to be a potent contemporary statement, DiDonato should feel right at home, because she has never been afraid to espouse a political message. Two years ago, for instance, she devised an album-and-tour concept called In War & Peace — a response, she said, to the terrorist attacks in Paris in 2015 and intended “to help us all find peace in our lives in a dynamic way”.
Does she find people questioning whether an opera singer can really have anything useful to say about war, peace, terrorism and social justice? “Well, not to my face!” she replies. “I’m sure such feelings exist. And perhaps that project did start as a naive ‘I’ve got to do something’ feeling after the Paris attacks. Then all of a sudden the world flipped over and there was terrorism everywhere. Now I don’t feel a hint of an apology. Even if In War & Peace strikes people as overly optimistic, I would much rather be putting out a message of peace right now than focusing on the terror.”
Has she always been this idealistic? “I guess it is in my nature,” she replies. “In 1983, when I was 13, I wrote a letter to Ronald Reagan saying something like: ‘Dear Mr President, I’m sure if you could just sit down with Mikhail Gorbachev, you and he could sort out this Cold War thing.’ It was totally naive, but it made sense to me.”
Did Reagan reply? “Oh, I got this letter saying: ‘The president appreciates hearing from young people, blah, blah, blah’ — but you know what? Six years later the Berlin Wall fell. I’m just saying!”
Her latest project is just as bold. As part of a collaboration between Carnegie Hall and Sing Sing, New York State’s notorious maximum-security prison, she has been working with inmates in music workshops and performances. “This is the most significant work I have done in my life,” she says. “In America, especially, there’s a feeling that you should lock up criminals and throw away the key — not least because big companies are making a lot of profit out of those prisons. This project gives prisoners the feeling that they are being heard and being given a certain amount of dignity. Until someone is reminded of their dignity as a human being, I don’t think there’s any chance of rehabilitation.”
The visits don’t just involve DiDonato performing arias. The prisoners are also encouraged to write and perform music. One is even writing an opera, called Tabula Rasa. “Clean slate,” DiDonato translates. “We sang one of his duets together when I was last there. It stopped my heart because in the duet he is a murderer asking for forgivenesss, and I am saying, ‘No, there’s no forgiveness, I want revenge.’
“While we were singing it he did this extraordinary gesture, dropping to his knees and clutching his head. Well, fast-forward 19 hours and I’m on stage at the Met in New York, doing a performance of Bellini’s Norma. I am singing Adalgisa, and in the first big duet I have to drop to my knees and beg Norma for forgiveness. I suddenly realised that the move I had rehearsed and performed for weeks was exactly the same as that prisoner’s. And right there, in a live broadcast, I burst into tears — because in Bellini’s opera I’m forgiven, whereas in the prisoner’s story there is no forgiveness.”
This summer she was involved in another social project: an El Sistema scheme in Athens involving Greek and refugee children. “There were kids who had never heard western music before coming up and saying, ‘What do you call that thing you’ve just sung?’ with eyes as big as saucers. I would say, ‘Opera!’ And they would shout, ‘Cool!’
“A by-product of doing projects like that is that I can confront people who say opera isn’t relevant — how I hate that word! — and say, ‘You have no idea what you are talking about. It’s the most fundamental and relevant of art forms, but maybe we just aren’t doing it right in opera houses — not being as fully engaged as we should be.’ ”
In fact, DiDonato’s experiences in Sing Sing relate directly to one opera she is performing. It’s Jake Heggie’s acclaimed adaptation of Sister Helen Prejean’s book Dead Man Walking, which chronicles the growing friendship between a nun (Prejean) and an inmate on death row. Having played the role of the nun twice on stage, DiDonato will sing in the opera’s British premiere — a concert staging at the Barbican in February.
“People think it’s an opera about the death penalty,” DiDonato says. “It’s not. It’s really about social justice and who is deserving of forgiveness in this world. I’ve become friends with Sister Helen, and I admire her enormously. She’s 84 now, but she’s on Twitter and uses it to troll the governors of these various states that are about to execute a mentally retarded man.
“When you literally walk in her shoes, and sing the words that she spoke to men moments before they were put to death, something changes deep inside you. It’s not accidental that this collaboration with Sing Sing happened after I had performed Dead Man Walkingfor the first time. When the prison project was offered to me I thought, ‘There’s no way I cannot do this.’ ”
DiDonato may now be rated among the top ten opera singers in the world, but she took her time coming into the profession, initially training as a teacher. “Well, it’s very generous of you to say I ‘took my time’,” she laughs. “It wasn’t exactly my choice not to have a big break until I was nearly 30.”
Nevertheless, that long, slow coming-of-age as a professional singer proved to be a blessing in disguise, didn’t it? “Oh, not even in disguise. It was the best thing that could have happened. It forced me to dig deep within myself, to constantly ask myself if I really wanted to make it as a singer. That was my driving force, not opera-house contracts or recording offers. It meant that by the time I arrived on the stage I really felt like I owned what I was. I had worked through my technical difficulties. I knew I was ready. I had a confidence I wouldn’t have had at 26.”
Lessons there for young singers? “I’m blown away by how advanced today’s young singers are with their vocal mechanism, but they are often going so fast that there’s no integration of text, vocal colour and expressive devices,” DiDonato says. “They can ‘phoney it’ in a pretty spectacular way, and sometimes that’s the priority, rather than true expression. Certainly that’s what we have in the States. In Europe it’s different. This is a big generalisation, but what I see over here is a deeper level of expression without the technical facility. So you often think, “That young singer is thrilling right now, but the voice will be ruined in two years because it’s not based on a firm technique.”
The artistry is one thing, but what about all the non-musical things that today’s young opera singers need to do? “Well, absolutely,” DiDonato says. “The challenge is to grow your technique and artistry while still becoming adept at social media and learning how to present and sell yourself. Nowadays you don’t just find a great agent and sit back for five years while the world gives you chance after chance. The people that used to nurture talent over time — managers, opera-house intendants, the heads of record companies — are rarer and rarer to find.
“So singers themselves have to be the driving force behind their own careers. They have to be creative and innovative. Formulating programmes on their own, setting up recital series, building an audience by doing opera in lofts in New York or pubs in London. That kind of innovation isn’t just necessary for singers, it’s good for the business too. It brings in new audiences.”
And at the same time, I suppose, young singers also have to be wary of the Harvey Weinsteins lurking in the opera world? “Yes,” she replies. “I have had some uncomfortable encounters — very few, I’m happy to say, but I think that makes me the exception rather than the rule. And in my case not so much sexual harassment as a really anti-female attitude from some very unhappy stage directors in particular and a couple of conductors.”
I imagine that DiDonato dealt with them fairly firmly. “Oh, I stand up for myself,” she replies. “I don’t give away my power easily. In fact, I think the Weinstein scandal is one of the best things that could have happened, because people who behave abhorrently in the arts world now know it’s not OK. What I cannot stomach, though, is the fact that an actor who has played a president on TV is held to a higher moral standard than an actual president of a country.”
As Semiramide shows, though, rulers have always behaved abhorrently.