In the Mind of a Diva
She is a self-proclaimed storyteller—not only on opera stages in her trademark bel canto roles, but in candid conversation as well. Joyce DiDonato speaks from the heart, recounting her youth in Kansas and the role her upbringing has played in the evolution of her acclaimed career. Now as a 2014–2015 Carnegie Hall Perspectives artist, the Yankee Diva (as she is known to her legions of fans around the world) has provided further glimpses into her musical journey through her performance in the title role of Alcina with The English Concert and a solo recital with pianist David Zobel last fall. But her series is far from over, with upcoming performances alongside the Brentano String Quartet next month and The Philadelphia Orchestra in March, as well as a handful of master classes. In a recent interview with Jeremy Geffen, Carnegie Hall’s director of artistic planning, Ms. DiDonato explains her approach to curating her series and why the classroom was her first musical refuge.
You’ve performed at Carnegie Hall many times. What are your first memories of it?
I can’t remember the first time I heard about Carnegie Hall. It feels like it’s always been part of the fabric of my world. If you like music at all, Carnegie Hall is one of the first venues—one of the first temples of music and the arts—that you’re aware of. You’d see concerts on PBS growing up; you’d hear stories about people dreaming about getting to Carnegie Hall. The first time I saw it was my first trip to New York City. I would’ve been maybe a junior or senior in college. I took in Aida at the Met and The Phantom of the Opera (of course) on Broadway, and I walked by Carnegie Hall and had my picture taken in front of it. Then fast forward a few years and I actually walked into Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage for the first time, and I thought, “This is magic.” You feel like you’ve opened up a portal to something truly magical.
And now you’re here for an entire season.
Being asked to be a Perspectives artist at Carnegie Hall is really overwhelming. When you think about just getting to Carnegie Hall and wanting to have the chance to sing on that stage, it’s the dream of so many musicians. Then you think, “You mean, I get to actually plan out a season of things that either represent me or that I like or that I’d like to bring to this public?” If you had asked me in 1999 when I made my debut here, in a billion years I would never have thought that this invitation would be extended to me. It’s not that I was unambitious or that I had no faith in myself; that’s just something that happened to other people. That’s a Yo-Yo Ma or Renée Fleming thing to have the chance to participate in a series that is so important at Carnegie Hall. To be one little thread that is going through the season is quite extraordinary.
“To be one little thread that is going through the season is quite extraordinary.”
How did you go about planning your series?
I went through a lot of different ideas and possibilities. But at the end of the day, if it’s a Perspectives series, I want to offer a sense of my perspective as a musician and as an artist and as a woman. What are the things that interest me? What are the things, if I’m given a ticket to speak about something (even if I’m singing), that I want to put out there? I thought it was also important to show a representation of my life as an artist, the things that I’ve sort of specialized in and the things that I’ve spent a little bit of time exploring as a singer.
As an opera star, how do you approach a recital or concert performance differently?
I have been really fortunate through my career because I have always tried to prioritize the recital. It’s not only an extraordinary thing to share with an audience, but also the artistic growth that it demands from you as a performer is huge. I have to grow more through a recital program than an opera—there’s usually twice as much actual music. If you’re singing a three-hour opera, you’re sharing the stage with four other singers, but a two-hour recital is just you. It’s that chance to go deep into the world of poetry. It’s that chance to really go into your soul as a performer because you’re flying without a net. You have no sets, you have no special lighting, you have no colleagues to play off of (other than a wonderful pianist). But it’s really just you telling the story; it’s you and the words and the color of your voice. I’ve found that I’ve grown immensely when I’ve had to really dig into a recital program. I’m not super fabulous with formality—I know there’s a time for it and a place, and I’m happy to oblige. But for me, the song recital was born in a living room. It was friends going around and sharing music, and then it was inviting other friends and saying, “Listen to this.” It’s meant to be shared; it’s meant to be enjoyed. I respect the platform of what the song recital is, but at the same time I want people to sit back and enjoy and be transformed and transfixed and transported. Sometimes I’ll talk to the audience. Sometimes I like to explain why I chose these songs, why they’re important to me, what I love about them. But for me, it really should be a gathering of friends and lovers of music.
More recently, you have championed lesser-known works, both in performance and on recording.
If I bring out a piece that I can’t find an existing recording for, that nobody’s heard of, it feels like it’s a world premiere again. I know it has maybe been around for 200 years, but I have to go at it as if it has just been written today. What’s extraordinary is to unearth something that’s been dormant for several hundred years. In those performances, I look out at the audience and I see them crying, and I think, “My gosh! The human condition is still the same, and we’re still searching for those same answers, and we’re still searching for that same outlet for our emotions that we don’t know how to give voice to.” That’s what music does for us.
You also give voice—literally—to contemporary composers, such as Jake Heggie.
One of my great passions is actually new work and new music and encouraging composers and giving them opportunities not only to premiere works, but to premiere their second and third and fourth and fifth commissions so that they have the chance to grow in their craft. The thing that I appreciate so much about Jake is that he’s a storyteller. At the end of the day, more than a singer, I’m also a storyteller. It’s that hunger to communicate and to have an interaction with people that really drives me, and Jake has that same passion.
Broadly speaking, what first sparked your musical interests?
When I was in high school, I got into the freshman choir. It was the first year that the new choral teacherwas starting at Bishop Miege High School in Kansas City. His name was Mr. Karl Wolf, and he had James Levine hair and a big untamed mustache. That freshman choir was fabulous. I went into college really to become Mr. Wolf—to be the high school music teacher—because the experience had such a profound impact on my life. I still think about it. I can’t be the musician I am today without all of those formative experiences. Every single one of them helped build who I am as a person and as an artist. I wanted to give that opportunity to others through teaching. I actually went through a real period of crisis where I was starting to go into opera in college and was really being pulled in that direction; it lit my fire in a pretty profound way. But it was my father who said, “Joyce, there’s more than one way to teach people, and there’s more than one way to communicate and touch them.” That, to this day, is some of the best wisdom I’ve ever heard because it gave me license to follow what is really my passion and my dream.
“It’s that hunger to communicate and to have an interaction with people that really drives me.”
There is also an education component of your Perspectives series, including three master classes, as well as community engagement activities. How does all of that factor in to your career?
Part of my perspective definitely comes from the idea of wanting to be an educator and a teacher. Already here at Carnegie Hall you have the Weill Music Institute (WMI). I couldn’t come here and not have education be an important part of my perspective and my season. WMI does so many things in terms of reaching out to young musicians. Then there’s this whole segment of society that would never dream that they would merit an experience with Carnegie Hall. Why? Because they’ve fallen through the cracks, they’re on the fringe. They’re a teenage mother. They’re on probation. If music isn’t for them, who is it for? I like the idea of shining a spotlight on what WMI is doing by reaching out to everyone. Carnegie Hall is the holy grail for musicians, but it can also mean something for everybody.
Maybe it means graduating from college to a kid who’s 17 and who has been on probation for six months. His Carnegie Hall is maybe getting a music scholarship because of an experience he had in a detention center with WMI. Everybody has their thing that they need to aspire to. Carnegie Hall represents the best of humanity, and that needs to be available to everyone.