Interview: Joyce DiDonato's New Year celebrations in Baden-Baden

'I'm all about trying to see and find the positive in life.'

27 December 2009

Joyce DiDonato

Acclaimed mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato has just finished a series of performances as Rosina in Rossini's ever-popular Il barbiere di Siviglia in Los Angeles.  It has been quite an amazing year for the charismatic American star, especially in regard to her interpretation of Rosina – one of her 'signature' roles.  The production of Il barbiere in LA was the fifth for DiDonato for the year 2009, and the list of other venues includes several of the most important opera houses in the world.  In addition to a couple of performances in her home state of Kansas (Wichita), DiDonato impersonated the wily Rosina at Covent Garden (famously slipping and breaking her leg), the Metropolitan Opera, and the Vienna State Opera (her house debut).  Looking ahead in her calendar, she has yet another chance to sing her thrilling "Una voce poco fa" at none other than La Scala in 2010.  It is an impressive line-up that shows that DiDonato has indeed reached the very top of her profession.

There couldn't be a more deserving singer.  DiDonato obviously works very hard, and is intensely committed to both the operatic art form and her dedicated public.  She is down-to-earth, gracious, and seemingly in tune with the most important things in life: family, friends, nature, good health, and fun.  All of this is plainly evident from looking at her website and, even more so, at her blog.  Her refreshing candour and no-nonsense approach to her career comes through in her solid, technically accomplished, and effervescent singing.  Currently riding a tidal wave of plaudits for her most recent recording 'Colbran – The Muse', DiDonato will be participating in a gala concert on New Year's Eve in Baden-Baden.  She will be accompanied by conductor Stéphane Denève and the SWR Radio Symphony Orchestra Stuttgart.  Shortly before Christmas, Ms. DiDonato agreed to an interview for in which we discussed the New Year's Eve concert, as well as some of her thoughts about repertoire, Rossini, and her future plans.

To begin, I asked her about the appeal of performing in the New Year's Gala at Baden-Baden:  'The celebratory nature of a New Year's Eve gala is always exciting to me, especially one that is closing out a decade! I have not yet sung in Baden-Baden, nor much in Germany in respect to my presence in other countries, so I'm very much looking forward to celebrating with the audience there, and to introduce myself a bit more to the German public!'

Joyce DiDonatoDiDonato's vocal selections will include arias by Rossini, Mozart, and Handel, and then selections from the 'American Songbook'.   I asked her to elaborate on the factors she takes into consideration when planning recital and concert programs.  'It's a combination of various factors, taking into consideration what is currently in my repertoire, what I think will be fitting for the occasion, and ultimately songs that I love to sing.  In this case, I wanted something that introduced me as an artist (hence the 3 composers that have been so good to me in my career), as well as something festive and celebratory considering the occasion.'

And how did she develop an interest in the 'American Songbook'?  'These are songs I grew up listening to, and singing along with (usually with my hairbrush in my hand, imagining it was a microphone!)  My father had a number of Big Band records, and they were always playing in my household - they are a part of my musical foundation.  Also, it was the musical that brought me to the stage, which led me to the opera.  In high school we performed Carousel and I always dreamed of singing "If I loved you".  At that time I was just in the chorus - no lead roles for me just yet, so it was the story of the 'wanna-be' dreaming of being a star!  "Somewhere over the rainbow" has obvious ties to me, since I'm from Kansas, and the opportunity to sing that for people and tell my story, is quite special.'  Clearly, DiDonato is quite proud of her uniquely American childhood and musical development.  Perhaps Broadway-style musical theater has been in her blood from an early age, but what about Italian opera?

As a singer that has become so well known for her expertise in Rossini's music, I asked how her relationship with his music has evolved over the last several years:  'Well, I've gotten to know "him" through his music more and more, so I think there is a more profound grasp of his vocal writing and the style.  Also, as my technique has become more assured, I feel I can play with the music more and more, which gives me greater freedom as an artist.  This to me is vital: to try and feel FREE as an artist, because then the inhibitions which could stand in the way of your message to the audience fall away, and the emotional impact, then, I think is that much greater.  That is always my goal - to touch the audience and move them.'

Joyce DiDonatoDiDonato's fans world-wide have been touched by her indelible interpretations of the comedic Rosina and Angelina, but with her newest CD, she takes a different direction by exploring the opera seria roles Rossini composed for Isabella Colbran (1785 – 1845).  Recognizing the special quality of her commitment to communicating with the audience, I wondered about her thoughts on the different vocal requirements between Rossini's comedic and serious roles.  'Well, in the actual writing, all of these roles encompass over a two-octave range, with immense vocal requirements in both the top and the bottom of the voice.  The employment of them are a bit different, however, whereas Cenerentola is expressing joy and elation in her two octaves, Armida is threatening to destroy the world!  So the dramatic requirements change quite drastically and ask that the singer take a lot of risk with the voice.  I think my foundation of lining up the voice in as even a way as possible has served me well with this, for now I can afford to add a bit of dramatic weight and intensity without compromising the vocal production.  I will say that it is thrilling to essay these roles of such rich, complex women!'

Probing a bit further, I asked DiDonato to describe the insights she has gained into the life and/or vocal technique of Isabella Colbran.  'I think she must have been a fierce artist with incredibly strong ideas and who knew how to command the stage.  She must also have been a bit fearless, for there is NO WHERE to hide in this music.  They speak of her rapid vocal decline, and that is the element I still don't quite comprehend, because even in 'decline', to sing "Bel Raggio…" with any degree of success requires tremendous virtuosic elements.  I marvel at the scope of roles she premiered and brought to life, and believe that she really served as Rossini's Muse - where would bel canto be without their joint contribution?'

Joyce DiDonatoIndeed, the Colbran-Rossini collaboration produced ten fascinating operas that are still too seldom produced on the world stages.  One of the primary challenges to mounting these great works is surely the tremendous vocal difficulty – not only in the music written for Colbran, but in the other parts as well.  During composition of the 'Colbran operas', Rossini also had close working relationships with the famous tenors Andrea Nozzari (1775 – 1832) and Giovanni David (1790 – 1864).  All of these singers were highly accomplished virtuosi, and DiDonato distinguishes herself as one of the few modern-day singers with the technique to do full justice to the musical legacy Rossini was inspired to create.  I asked her about the unique vocal challenges she has faced in Colbran's music that have helped her to grow as an artist:  'Every phrase has made me a better singer, whether it's the 2-octave leaps in Armida, the rapid-fire coloratura of "Tanti affetti…", the weeping legato of Desdemona, or the regal prowess of Elisabetta.  I had to push myself not only vocally, but also dramatically to find a reason for every vocal flourish ("thank you" to Handel for teaching me that!), and to find a way to distinguish the characters, even if they were singing similar decorations.  It's the kind of a challenge I love as an artist, because it forces you to dig down and find substance and meaning - it has never just been about singing the notes for me!'

Joyce DiDonatoLuckily for Rossini-lovers, DiDonato is not only exploring Colbran's music on disc.  She will be debuting the role of Elena in La donna del lago next spring, first in Geneva and later, in Paris.  I wondered if she could elaborate on other exciting future plans both on stage and on recordings.  'Well, I don't know how much I can divulge, but there will be more bel canto "big girl" roles (and boys, for that matter!), an exciting Handel recording of Ariodante which is an opportunity I'm ecstatic about, and my next solo disc will be a wonderful mixture of things that highlight the joys of being a mezzo soprano!  New roles, visiting old roles that I've only sung once or twice, and hopefully a few surprises along the way! I wish I had more time to do all that I wanted to do!!!'  Indeed, the news that she will continue exploring music from the bel canto period is very welcome.  The revival of the intricate and difficult music from the early-to-mid nineteenth century has always relied upon vocal technicians of the highest calibre, and DiDonato certainly fulfills this requirement.  It will be great fun to see what she explores in coming years.

Turning the conversation back to her personal approach to the career of singing, I mentioned that DiDonato is almost unique among opera singers in the way she continually communicates through her blog (and a regularly updated web site).  This level of rapport with her fans must certainly require time, patience, and more creative effort than most singers seem interested in contributing.  I asked about the pros and cons of the process of maintaining her blog, and what lessons she has learned from it:  'It harkens back to my desire early on to be a teacher and to communicate.  I have personally learned so much from the theater and the stage and music that I think it's a bit selfish to keep all of that to myself!  I am more than happy to share it, and I've always said that if it ever gets to be too much, or I lose the desire to do it, I will stop with no regrets.  Blogging is not my profession - singing is, but it has become a wonderful part of what I do, so I actually don't see any cons to it. Sometimes I can tell that the readers get a bit eager if I haven't written for two weeks or so, but for the most part, they are very understanding!  I'm all about trying to see and find the positive in life, and if I can help share that with the odd person who stumbles onto my blog, well, then I'm very happy!'

This happiness is evident in each role DiDonato brings to the stage, and goes a long way toward explaining her personal charisma and the dedication she engenders in her fans.  Have a look at her blog, and her refreshingly unaffected, candid personality will speak for itself.  If you can, head to Baden-Baden for the exciting New Year's Eve gala.  Thereafter, you can catch her on stage in recital during January (Madrid, Barcelona, Canary Islands, London, Brussels), in Chicago's Le nozze di Figaro (March), as Elena (Geneva in May, Paris in June) and as Rosina (Milan in July).  Surely we've seen only the beginning of a career that will be enormously enjoyable to follow as it continues to bloom in the coming years.

By David Laviska

Catch up with Joyce DiDonato at her special online blog:

Photo credits: Sheila Rock/Virgin Classics


Joyce DiDonatoRelated articles:

Review Rosenkavalier from Baden-Baden
Interview Joyce DiDonato on Donna Elvira at Covent Garden
CD Review Joyce DiDonato's Furore - Handel Arias (Virgin Classics)
CD Review Colbran, The Muse - DiDonato sings Rossini (Virgin Classics)


Join the debate: if you have any comments on this or any of our articles, visit our forum