Joyce DiDonato interview

Having known the American mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato since the beginning of her international career, I’m still somewhat surprised by her superstardom — not least because she is fundamentally unchanged, still very much the down-to-earth, openhearted, intelligent, and resiliently good-humored woman she always was. Perhaps the only real change is that now everybody else knows this about her, too: especially through social media and her website (, she regularly shares the challenges and the joys of the adventure on which she’s embarked.
She takes nothing for granted, not her success and most certainly not her work. Her intellectual curiosity has led her into all kinds of repertoire, including a great deal of contemporary music, notably including that by the American composer Jake Heggie. But for this listener, her greatest success has been in Baroque and bel canto works. Not content to exploit the music as a showcase for her considerable technical gifts, she digs deeply into her interpretations, discovering dramatic and psychological nuances that few if any other artists have ever matched and that, as I say, the composers themselves may not have suspected.
Having enjoyed a triumph this winter in the title role in the Metropolitan Opera premiere of Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda, Joyce is one of the busiest and most sought-after singers in opera today. When we caught up by telephone, she was appearing in John Fulljames’ new production of Rossini’s La Donna del Lago with the Royal Opera at Covent Garden, London — while also preparing (with the help of her fans) a commemorative CD marking her ten years with Virgin/EMI; singing a recital in Zurich; interviewing Dame Janet Baker; and advising younger singers in a series of video blogs for her website. This summer, she returns to La Scala for a recital with David Zobel (9 June) and to Santa Fe Opera, in yet another new production of La Donna del Lago, directed by Paul Curran (13, 17, 26 July; 1, 6, 14 August).
What’s on the program for your solo recital at La Scala on 9 June?
It’s my Venice program, so I hope there are no terrible city rivalries that I’m unaware of between Milan and Venice! There is a line that I sing that “Venice is the most beautiful city in the world,” so I hope the Milanese don’t take offense. Venice has really inspired so many artists, composers and writers, painters and photographers. I’ve been able to select a program that ticks all of my boxes as a singer, from Baroque to Rossini to twentieth-century music. Coloratura music as well as the more lush, arching — as well as a bit of humor. In the Hahn pieces there’s a lot of humor. We start with Vivaldi, a couple of airs from Ercole, and Fauré Chansons de Venise. Then there’s the Regata Veneziana.  I come back with a sneaky aria that’s really a song within an opera, from Rossini’s Otello. I’m sneaking in an opera aria, but she’s really singing the song of the willow. I do three songs by Michael Head that are amazing, in English, written for Janet Baker. They’re very evocative and I love them. They’re about the undercurrent of Venice that is not the tourist’s Venice. And then we end with Reynaldo Hahn, the Venezia.
In a way, this feels to me like another rite of passage. Are there many more peaks to scale that are quite this important to your career?
Oh, my gosh. That’s a good question. It will actually be my second recital. I did the first one, I’m not going to remember the year, but a solid four or five years ago. But I think this one will have a different weight, because I have been able to show different sides of myself to that audience. Before they only knew me as Cenerentola and now they know me as Octavian and some serious Rossini. So I’m really excited to come back now that they know more sides to me.  I keep thinking that, “Wow, I’ve reached something exciting here,” and then it turns out there’s something else just beyond the horizon. I want to say, “Wait wait wait, how is this possible?” Once you’ve sung at La Scala, there’s still a new role to sing. If I were to go and sing Bellini there, that would be a very different rite of passage in that theater. I think I’m never done with the growth. Some mountains will be 14,000 feet rather than 12,000 feet. But I don’t know I’m sort of savoring it all.
I think one reason that audiences find it so easy to enjoy your experiences is that you enjoy them so much. You’re never blasé.
Never! [Laughs] How can you be? I just can’t be. Maybe there will come a day when I am, and then it will probably be time for me to say goodbye. But it’s like I’m in a living museum with great masterpieces around me. And how can you possibly be blasé about that? I’m loving it and having an amazing time.
Tell us about your accompanist, David Zobel. You’ve worked closely with him for quite a long time.
We first met in 1997, and we were in the Merola Program [for young artists, at San Francisco Opera]. This is a good story, because I was scheduled to sing my first Angelina at that time, Cinderella in English. I was kind of nervous. The first day we had a sing-through, and this cute little French guy came up to me. He was playing the piano, and he came up and said, [using a French accent] “Excuse me you do not know me, I am David Zobel.” He was studying at Juilliard at the time. He was a huge Rossini fan. He said, “I came here thinking how are they going to find a young artist who can sing this music, and I am here to tell you they have found her. You are amazing.” That was the first musical read-through, and we have been friends ever since. Go figure.  We kept in touch for a few years and then he went back to Paris. In 2002 I had the chance to record my first album in France, The Deepest Desire, and he was the only pianist I knew in Paris. I called and asked him would you like to do this, and he practically cried, “I’d love to.” We’ve been together ever since, and it’s a wonderful partnership.
You’ve now sung Elena in La Donna del Lago in several cities and several productions. It used to be a rarity, and now it’s practically a staple of your rep. What about this role appeals to you?
In a musical aspect, it feels as if Rossini and I were meeting daily and he was just penning this for my voice. [Laughs] I don’t mean to sound immodest with that, but it’s truly — and Rosina and Cenerentola — these are roles that fit me incredibly well. Elena is a slightly more grownup role, so she’s like the perfect successor to the girls of Rosina and Angelina So vocally it’s a tremendous fit for me, so it’s tremendously gratifying for me to sing.  But there’s also this tremendous element — I know it’s a wacky, convoluted opera at times, but the thing I love is that from the beginning she’s constantly talking about peace. At the end, she talks about “la bella pace,” which is why she can have her “felicità,” in the fireworks at the end, but only when she has found peace. That’s a message that I like.
And it’s another Colbran role.
I recently heard the new music-theater piece Far from Heaven, and was impressed by how well the composer, Scott Frankel, had tailored the score to showcase the leading actress, Kelli O’Hara. I get the same feeling when I’m listening to you sing Rossini.
We also get a little bit of leeway so that we can ornament so we can customize a little bit. I know Juan Diego Florez feels the same way. When you find that kind of marriage between composer and singer, it’s something really special, because your voice is given the chance to shine at its brightest.
You also find a psychological depth and dramatic resonance in his music that I’m not sure he would have realized was possible. It’s as if you’re his response to Wagner’s criticism of him.
I was talking about that with Juan Diego actually, we were saying about how in this staging we’ve been able to find a lot more depth and a lot more layers to this. Juan Diego and I were like, “It’s actually there.” It is there. Maybe it wasn’t intentional, maybe it just flowed through Rossini. That’s what ‘s interesting, we’re not imposing anything on it, we are perhaps shining a spotlight on it and looking at it in a different way. But we’re in a psychologically different generation, we’ve had the benefit of psychoanalysis and advances in the study of the mind, and we have a different way of looking at things. I think it’s a real testament to this brilliant composer that all these years later we can still find this kind of depth. I think that’s really exciting.
What are the challenges of the role? How has your interpretation changed?
Well I didn’t have a chance for a lot of psychological growth in the Paris/Milan production. It’s universally known that those were pretty terrible. But working with Christoph Loy really taught me a lot. Have you seen the movie Breaking the Waves? Directed by Lars von Trier, with Emily Watson. It’s shattering, but ultimately uplifting at the end. He based Elena on this character played by Emily Watson, so it was a hugely psychological journey. A lot of that work with Christoph came from that movie, and now I have the chance to put that back in[to this production].  It’s a terrifying score, incredibly difficult. But the more you navigate thorough it the more confidence you have. I’ve been able to keep adding layers and confidence. I enjoyed it from the beginning, but it’s grown.
Many of our readers have never been to Santa Fe. Why is performing there so especially meaningful to American singers?
[Trills] In particular it’s very meaningful to me because I did my first really important apprenticeship in 1995. That was a real breakout, and it was the first time I was actually participating in a professional opera company, so my world was just exploding for me. I had been at A.V.A. [the American Vocal Academy, in Philadelphia], but never sung professionally. I’ve been going back, I don’t know how many years, but it feels like my summer home.  There’s something very magical about the atmosphere in Santa Fe. Everybody is relaxed and in a good mood. The pace is relaxed, so we can go to the pool and enjoy ourselves when we’re not working. The theater is special, because it’s open air and the rapidly changing weather and environment becomes a character in the opera. I remember seeing Idomeneo and before his entrance for “Fuor del mar,” there was an enormous thunderstorm that came up behind him and started roaring. It’s the most romantic place to do opera that I know of.
Many people say that there’s a spirituality to the town. I’m not quite sure that I’ve seen it, but I see that other people do see it.
I know people that have also said, “I don’t get it,” but for me it is spiritual. I think it’s especially if you go a little bit outside of the city, into the mountains. There’s this Native American cult that speaks strongly to a lot of people. You really feel a different sense of history in that place than you do in New York or Philadelphia. It’s a history that goes way before the Revolution. That for me is powerful.
You’re extraordinarily open and available to younger singers and to your fans — which can add to your already busy schedule, because they have a lot they want to say to you and hear from you. How do you take a break from that?
I just close the door and say, “This is my own time now and I’ll be back in a little while.” At the beginning I thought I had to keep up, and “Oh, I have so much to do, I have to do this and do that, I have to write a blog.” But every now and then I gently remind them that it’s an extracurricular thing, and I leave off for a bit. And then I’ll come back and go on a little bit of a tear. I’m on a little bit of a tear right now!  It’s something I love, and I’ll make sure that I continue to say no and turn it off when I need to, because I want to come back to it. I don’t want it to become a chore. I enjoy it and I want to keep on enjoying it. So I guard that pretty carefully.