By Stephen Raskauskas
For centuries, creators of great art have been depicting atrocity and pandemonium alongside tranquility and harmony, boldly showing us both our brutal nature and our elevated humanity.Art unifies, transcends borders, connects the disconnected, eliminates status, soothes turmoil, threatens power and the status quo, and gloriously exalts the spirit. Art is a valiant path to peace. The power to bravely tip the scales towards peace lies firmly within every single one of us. And so I ask you … … In the midst of chaos, how do you find peace?
This month, Joyce DiDonato returns to Carnegie Hall to offer more than just a concert performance of vocal selections. In addition to her Grammy Award–winning mezzo-soprano, she hopes to share a beacon of hope by way of a project that explores harmony—both musically and symbolically—through arias that examine the interwoven worlds of external conflict and serenity, internal war and peace.
“I worry that we all feel inundated by the turmoil and chaos around us, that we are starting to feel hopeless, and that we are merely victims of the current political and social climate,” she says. “My hope with this project is that we can all turn inwards and remind ourselves that we all have a say in how we react, what we contribute, how we confront the chaos in our own lives. I know that for many music lovers, music is often a decisive factor in facilitating a feeling of tranquility. I simply want to refocus the spotlight on that potent power.”
With In War & Peace—also the name of her recently released CD—Ms. DiDonato traverses the power of Baroque music, collaborating with acclaimed period orchestra Il Pomo d’Oro, conducted by Maxim Emelyanychev.
“Originally, we were going to explore unknown Neapolitan composers,” she admits. “But after the Paris attacks, I knew I needed to say something more profound with this project, so I decided on the theme of finding harmony through music.”
Ms. DiDonato shares two groups of arias that explore war and peace. She has drawn from both beloved Baroque operas and rarely heard works by Neapolitan composers Leonoard Leo and Niccolò Jommelli.
“I think it brings a wonderful sense of drama and freshness to accompany some well-known arias with utterly unknown discoveries,” she says. “They will certainly cause intense foot-tapping and, I think, be a very welcome, dramatic surprise to listeners.”
“For outer peace each one of us has to find her or his inner peace. Silence is the beginning and the end of all music and we have to treasure that in this very noisy world of ours.”—Sir András Schiff , Pianist
As concertgoers have come to appreciate, even well-known arias sound new when Ms. DiDonato performs them. She accepts the composer’s invitation to personalize the works with elaborate embellishments. Like singers centuries ago, singers today are expected to add vocal ornaments that are musically and dramatically appropriate. A performer might decorate one phrase with a simple trill or turn, while another phrase might necessitate a more lengthy improvisation.
When considering how to make this music her own, Ms. DiDonato says, “As I’ve always tried to do, I start with the text. What is the character’s subtext, their emotional story, the most pressing dilemma at hand? I aim to pair that with my particular vocal strengths, and hope I can offer something that perhaps has not been heard before.”
One charming instance of Handel creating opportunities for improvisation is in the aria “Augelletti, che cantata” (“Little birds, you who sing”) from Rinaldo. In the opera, the title character is with his love, Almirena, in a beautiful garden with fountains. They are surrounded by birds that the composer represents with a virtuosic solo for sopranino recorder.
“I find peace by moving from my head to my heart.”—Richard, Streetwise Opera Performer for the Homeless in London
Ms. DiDonato says inventing ornaments for this aria was “slightly different because I have the pleasure of playing off of the imagination of the recorder player. We encourage each other to try different embellishments,” and what may appear as a few notes in Handel’s score can transform into an entire flutter of sound.
Making music sound fresh is easy for musicians who have been collaborating for more than a decade. “I know many of the members of Il Pomo d’Oro from the group Il Complesso Barocco, founded by the late Alan Curtis,” Ms. DiDonato continues. “They are a young, enthusiastic, and incredibly proficient group that I have worked with on my Drama Queens tour and numerous other projects. We know each other very well, and together we reach great musical heights.”
But with In War & Peace, she is not just in creative dialogue with the members of Il Pomo d’Oro. She wants to start a conversation with her audience near and far, posing the question, “In the midst of chaos, how you do you find peace?”
“By keeping in the front of my mind words penned by Unitarian Minister Theodore Parker (1810– 1860) and used to great effect by Martin Luther King: ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’” —Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court
Hundreds of people from dozens of countries have responded, from US Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to actress Dame Judi Dench to designer Vivienne Westwood. She has also heard stories from refugees, revolutionaries, war heroes, and writers—people of all ages and walks of life.
“What has brought me great solace through this project,” she says, “is the simplicity of most people’s answers: They involve nature, music, breath, connection—nothing complicated, impossible, or unreachable. Seeing the responses together, you not only see a common humanity, but you realize how accessible it is to any single one of us at any given time.”
“For myself, when I look at the world today, I’m utterly overwhelmed and flirt with hopelessness. But when I read these responses from people across the entire human spectrum, my hope is renewed and the path to a place of calm is clearly illuminated.”
—Stephen Raskauskas has for written for The Wall Street Journal and arts organizations across the country.
Photos by Brooke Shaden, dresses by Vivienne Westwood