It’s hard to look at Joyce DiDonato as she sits on the stage of Athens’s Megaron Concert Hall, surrounded by 77 children, and not think of Maria von Trapp. “We’ll sit like this, because I want to sing something just for you,” she says during a rehearsal for that evening’s concert, speaking to the children of the El Sistema Greece Youth Choir in the honeyed voice of a midwestern kindergarten teacher.
The youth choir doesn’t appear until the end of EDEN, DiDonato’s semi-staged, concert program that began its multi-phase tour last year (along with an accompanying album on Erato). At the end of a tireless 90-minute solo performance accompanied by the orchestra Il Pomo d’Oro, DiDonato welcomes the kids onstage for the first of two encores, “Seeds of Hope.” The anthem was written specifically for the project by the middle school choir students of West London’s Bishop Ramsey School. After a program of arias spanning Francesco Cavalli to Rachel Portman, threaded together by themes like climate change, violence, injustice, and isolation, the idea is to end with hope. (Though, as one student who was singing the song with their choir wrote in a YouTube comment earlier this year, “It is nice but dark af.”)
Staged by Marie Lambert-Le Bihan and with lighting design by John Torres, the production is sleek yet well-considered. Because the children are only onstage for the encore, they’re also able to see most of the program before being ushered backstage. They first met DiDonato earlier that day in rehearsal, wearing a frill-sleeved chambray tunic, black leggings, and no makeup. Onstage a few hours later, she’s clad in a silver corseted dress, her white-blonde pixie cut swept into a David Bowie pompadour. As the energy of “Seeds of Hope” dissipates, DiDonato and the children sit down on the stage and she closes the evening with Handel’s tranquil “Ombra mai fù.”
The young singers of El Sistema Greece are just 77 of over 1,600 students who have performed “Seeds of Hope” alongside DiDonato so far, from Brussels (where the tour launched last March) to Santa Barbara, California. This leg of the tour concludes next week at Milan’s Teatro alla Scala. By the time the full project wraps next year, DiDonato will have performed the program at 45 concert venues across five continents, each one capped off by this moment in which she sings to a group of children a 285-year-old song about a tree. As audiences leave, they’re given seeds to take home and plant, each one imprinted with the question: “In this time of upheaval, which seed will you plant today?”
If you’re inclined towards cynicism, you’d be forgiven for thinking all that’s missing from this equation is a lonely goatherd. Opera singers and nonprofit endeavors have a spotty track record. Many (Luciano Pavarotti, Kiri Te Kanawa, and Plácido Domingo) have leveraged their fame and financial success towards giving a leg up to the next generation, which is admirable (especially in an age where the costs of becoming a musician are becoming even more prohibitive to all but the wealthy). Others have formed foundations that initially generate press and goodwill, but quickly lapse into silence (remember Anna Netrebko and Erwin Schrott’s joint venture, Anna and Erwin 4 Kids?) or allegedly become personal ATMs.
There are other musicians who, in today’s parlance, do the work. In 1981, Teresa Stratas took a hiatus from singing to work in Kolkata at Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity; a few years later, she went to Romania to volunteer at an orphanage for HIV-positive children. Beverly Sills, whose two children were each born with congenital disabilities, was chairwoman of the board for March of Dimes from 1991 to 1994. Rolando Villazón, who spent weekends during music school working as a clown at children’s birthday parties, still dons his costume to visit children’s hospitals and refugee communities with Red Noses International. In the era of social media slacktivism, however, it’s easy for many people with outsized influence to earn plaudits for doing the bare minimum, or to put a polished, press-ready sheen on their hashtag-activism. The bar, as they say, is on the ground.
Admittedly, I also viewed EDEN with initial skepticism. The project’s announcement in late 2021 coincided with the release of Renée Fleming’s own climate-change–themed album, “Voice of Nature,” which to me seemed eager to discuss the climate crisis as a trending topic but had little interest in deeply examining how the classical music industry could hold itself to greater account. In this light, the idea of handing out seeds while touring five continents felt similarly out of touch. “It’s hard to imagine what New Yorkers are supposed to do with the seeds of an eastern red cedar tree, given how narrow our window sills are,” wrote Oussama Zahr in his review of one EDEN performance for the New York Times. “But they were slipped into the program books of Joyce DiDonato’s concert at Carnegie Hall anyway.”
Just as “The Sound of Music” is as much a movie about the rise of National Socialism in Austria as it is about (as star Christopher Plummer put it) “getting hit on the head with a valentine,” EDEN is a project that is as intent on understanding the nature of our upheaved times as it is on delivering moments that feel like a Handelian “Hilltop” ad. It’s the culmination of more than 20 years of work DiDonato has done to align her desire to connect with others through art with a desire to connect with others through activism. Convinced she would become a choral teacher in a midwestern school system, she had completed her year of student teaching when her side hobby of performing in opera began to seem like a viable career option. Faced with the guilt of abandoning the classroom, DiDonato recalls her father telling her that there was “more than one way to reach people.”
Her father’s advice became more palpable in 2002, after she sang Sister Helen Prejean in Jake Heggie’s “Dead Man Walking” at New York City Opera and got to know the real-life Helen Prejean, whose book serves as the opera’s source. “You don’t encounter her or that piece and leave the same person,” DiDonato says. She soon became involved with Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, NY, about an hour north of Manhattan, giving concerts and working with inmates through songwriting workshops—a vital creative outlet. In Milan, she’ll lead a similar workshop at the Beccaria Juvenile Detention Center, and several inmates from Beccaria will attend the concert at La Scala.
Introducing the El Sistema Greece chorus members to the audience at the Athens Megaron, DiDonato remarked that “some have traveled a long way to get here tonight”: The ESG chorus comprises local Athenian children as well as the children temporarily residing in Schisto refugee camp, situated in the remote outskirts of the city. It’s a euphemism that seems to slyly acknowledge the other euphemisms that have made their way into Greece’s deteriorating sentiment towards asylum-seekers in recent years (run by the government, refugee camps are now referred to as “controlled access centers”).
The atmosphere was particularly charged in late May when DiDonato arrived in the country: A contentious election held the week before ended in a stalemate, with a second snap election scheduled for later this month. In April, the European Court of Human Rights condemned the living conditions of refugees on many of the Greek Islands. On May 19, the New York Times obtained a video that showed members of the Greek Coast Guard abandoning would-be asylum seekers (many of them children) in the middle of the sea—something the government had previously denied doing. Even without saying the words “refugee,” “migrant,” or “asylum-seeker,” DiDonato’s comment was pointed, potent, and potentially a push to some of the audience members.
“I think there’s a lot of power in putting on a legitimate, high-level concert, but challenging the audience to take home something more from it,” DiDonato tells me the day after her Athens concert. “It’s all there in the music; I just don’t think it’s a moment to go, Oh, isn’t ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’ lovely? It’s like, yeah, but, what do you do with it when you go home?”
DiDonato has worked with ESG since its inception in 2016 (one of the cofounders, Anis Barnat, was a former employee at DiDonato’s management firm, Askonas Holt), donating her time for workshops and concerts while on vacation. “She always comes under the radar,” Barnat says in a follow-up call after DiDonato’s concert. Her first time there, at the now-shuttered Skaramagas camp, she gave a concert for several thousand refugees alongside a Syrian pop singer. After both sets, the evening became an impromptu concert of folk songs, the kind that often come together organically at Arab family gatherings. Someone has a guitar, someone leads the dabke, and an addictive sense of kinship hangs in the air. That part of the concert, Barnat says, was the best for how unexpected and vital it was. “It was something that had to happen at this moment, it was not possible to have something else at this moment.”
“Our mission has been to work with children who don’t usually get these opportunities,” says Sophie Dand, another former Askonas employee who worked with DiDonato to develop EDEN’s Engagement program. She also coordinates the children’s choir for each city on the tour. At times, ad-hoc choruses are assembled specifically for this one performance. Except it’s not just the performance: Developed by the International Teaching Artist Collaborative, the EDEN Engagement curriculum can include as many as six workshops focusing on specific environmental issues—urban gardens, trees, and food systems—and, in cities with more workshops, local issues that lead to climate action. (The EDEN curriculum, as well as the song “Seeds of Hope,” are available for free for educators and students around the world to use and perform.) Some of the choruses assembled especially for EDEN have also continued to perform in the program’s wake.
In Budapest, DiDonato recalls, a young boy named József agreed to sing a solo in “Seeds of Hope,” a coda to the entire song: “Hear our voice, the message we bring, and listen to the song we sing.” The audience burst into applause, József burst into tears and cried through all of “Ombra mai fù.” After the concert, DiDonato learned that József didn’t have any family in the audience that night—his mother had to stay home and his father lived abroad.
A few months later, the same choir joined DiDonato for a performance in neighboring Austria. When she saw József again, “it was like he’d grown three meters.” He had turned into a leader within the group. He still cried when he reprised his solo—but not as much. DiDonato didn’t have the chance to ask what had made him cry again, but after some reflection she offers a hypothesis: “I think it was that he felt the power of his voice being heard. He opened up his voice, and people listened. And then they applauded. Feeling the power of something you have to say being heard is a really powerful thing for these kids.” Later, Dand makes a similar point—even the oldest members of the global EDEN choir are still teenagers. Many of them weren’t alive a decade ago, and they’ve come of age in extreme circumstances. “They’re bombarded at school with the climate crisis, and they’ve all had COVID to deal with. There’s a need for something they can tangibly do.”
The day after DiDonato’s Athens concert, I board a charter bus with members of the EDEN team and seven musicians from Il Pomo d’Oro to Schisto’s “controlled access center.” A few years earlier, it had been one of the more underserviced camps adjacent to Athens. Down the road was Skaramagas, one of the largest refugee camps in Greece, and Schisto became the “spillover” destination for its neighbor (as well as nearby camps like Eleonas), but was never considered a long-term accommodation. In April 2021, however, the land occupied by Skaramagas—valuable for its port access—was sold to a Chinese developer. The camp was closed and Schisto became the de facto center for asylum seekers waiting on their paperwork to be processed.
That day, the plan is for DiDonato and the Pomo d’Oro musicians to sit in on a violin class for older children and a “music initiation” session, a class for toddlers that functions less as musical training and more as a psychosocial support program delivered through music. (The teachers with ESG are not psychologists, but the curriculum is designed with the needs of refugee and migrant communities in mind, and reminds me a lot of similar programs I saw for internally-displaced kids in eastern Ukraine earlier this year.) As we drove out to Schisto, however, the question of whether or not DiDonato would actually join was in the air: Earlier that morning, she tripped and, in breaking her fall, may have broken her wrist. Barnat is unphased. “It’s the cherry on top of the cake,” Barnat says of the visit, “but the rest of the cake is still there.”
While they wait to be processed (an average of two to three months, according to Barnat), the residents of Schisto are visited weekly by Barnat’s colleagues for free music lessons. “Our ambition isn’t to create professional musicians, but rather social inclusion through music,” he tells me on the ride to Schisto. If their students want to pursue music at that level, they can help with that, as they did with one young man who, after passing through Greece, was resettled in Germany with his family: DiDonato bought him a violin.
As it turns out, DiDonato is able to trail us by just about half an hour from the emergency room, one arm wrapped in a sling. She misses the toddler’s lesson, but arrives halfway through the violin and rhythm workshop, with some of the singers from the chorus eking out “Hey Jude” on the instruments, interspersed by the Il Pomo d’Oro musicians breaking out into a refrain of the Greek folk song that was repeated through the music initiation class at random intervals. Without missing a beat, DiDonato dives in—immediately drawn to a wide-eyed and even wider-cheeked baby.
The room, which serves as a de facto classroom, auditorium, and community center, fills up with camp residents for the main event, a performance of “Seeds of Hope” plus a few arias from EDEN (parents of the children performing from Schisto were unable to attend the Megaron concert). At the end of the performance, DiDonato and the kids decide to do another round of “Seeds of Hope”; its energy from the first round still hasn’t abated. Mothers, fathers, and aunties train their mobile phones on specific children; the bright-eyed baby’s two brothers share the solo. One by one, the kids from last night’s concert stand up, some moving in from the back of the room, to join in. Other onlookers talk among themselves as children, who aren’t singing, dance in their seats. The whole thing is loud and chaotic and raw. It’s also the most moving and real of the performances I’ve seen of the song over the last 24 hours.