If the first was any indication, Joyce DiDonato’s second Perspectives series will undoubtedly take audiences on an unparalleled musical journey. Five years after her first foray into the curatorial role at Carnegie Hall, her second Perspectives begins this month in a performance alongside Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. With her trademark candor and genuine humility, the multi–Grammy Award winner recently discussed her plans for the season, from her “greatest hits” to venturing into new artistic territory.
Your first Perspectives series was in 2014–2015. What did you take away from that experience?
I had performed at Carnegie Hall a few times in memorable concerts, but there really is something about being involved in an entirety of a season and having the chance to create kind of an artistic agenda—an artistic portfolio—over the course of a season. I didn’t expect a second invitation because I think those things are quite rare, but the chance to come and have a sequel and follow-up has been something that is truly extraordinary for me.
Is there something specific you want to accomplish in this second round?
You would imagine I’d be less daunted than the first time, but that’s simply not true! I would like to strike a balance between things that have brought me to this point—what the audience expects to hear from me—while also offering things that might surprise, demonstrating how I have expanded as an artist. I think this Perspectives series is a real arrival point for me artistically and vocally because what I’m bringing requires all the 20-plus years of my career. I’d like the audience to connect my artistic growth to my involvement as a citizen of the world.
One of the many notable events in your series is a recital with Yannick Nézet-Séguin on piano—only a few weeks after he conducts the Orchestre Métropolitain de Montréal with you as soloist.
The profound partnership that Yannick and I have formed over the years makes up a particularly special element of my Perspectives series. Not only do I get to join him with his first of three orchestras at Carnegie Hall this season, but we dare to encounter the ultimate collaborative project of Schubert’s Winterreise. This, perhaps more than any other concert, demands an intimacy and delicacy that can only come with a trusted partner, and I know it will be a most memorable journey—not only for us, but most especially, I hope, for the audience.
French repertoire is another big part of your series, starting with Berlioz.
Lucky me! Berlioz’s works have been a constant in my repertoire over the last 20 years, but I’ve added the bigger roles, such as Didon, very judiciously along the way. What a joy it was for me to return to the very first Berlioz I ever performed, Les nuits d’été, with Carnegie Hall’s National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America (NYO-USA) as we toured across Europe last summer. I was immensely proud to stand as ambassador alongside these incredibly talented musicians and show the very best our country has to offer.
Your series begins this month with the composer’s La mort de Cléopâtre. Recently, you’ve performed this with artists on very different parts of the musical spectrum.
I premiered La mort de Cléopâtre in my hometown of Kansas City with Michael Stern, who is fantastic in the French repertoire. It’s a complicated piece, and it’s not particularly one that sings itself. It feels a bit erratic, wild, and young. But for me, that’s its strength. If you go straight into its core, it’s something utterly compelling. After the Kansas City Symphony, I performed it in Berlin with the Berliner Philharmoniker, and it was a piece the musicians didn't particularly know. After the first rehearsal, they started to really get into it. It was thrilling to hear this modern orchestra come and play it with all their might. Then the third time I performed it was with Sir John Eliot Gardiner and his Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique on period instruments from the 19th century, which gave it a different tuning, a different timbre.
And to know I’ll next be performing this with Riccardo Muti … There is no question he is one of the great musicians on the planet. You stand in front of him and in front of his Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and even before opening my mouth, I am a better artist by just being in that environment and knowing that I have to arrive with everything that I am intellectually, spiritually, vocally, artistically—all of it. There’s no place for anything other than the best. And I thrive on that kind of challenge. When I look at my collaborators this year, it’s full of not only friends, but people who just by their presence make me better. And when you think about who to invite to be part of your Perspectives series, you want those people who make you better, who challenge you as an artist, but with whom you also feel at home.
A French Soirée—one of your programs this spring—is all about creating a musical evening with several friends.
I see it being an evening without any barriers, without any protocol, without any sense of formality. I want it to really feel like we’ve opened up our living room door and come together to create amazing music. From the Brentano String Quartet to artists I’ve worked with at the Metropolitan Opera and Lincoln Center, we have extraordinary musicians from different worlds who don’t often get to musically collaborate. I can’t wait to see the chemistry and inspiration that comes from creating great chamber music together.
One group with which you perform frequently is Il Pomo d’Oro.
They feel like family, a musical family for sure. Maxim Emelyanychev—the ensemble’s chief conductor—has this extraordinary genius-level musicianship that is both daunting and incredible. He can play anything, but it’s all through a lens with childlike curiosity and playfulness. Each time we perform together, it feels new and fresh because he’s so completely present in the moment. He’s reading the room of the audience. He’s reading me and what kind of mood I’m in that night—where my strengths are going to be and where I might need a little extra help. And he’s three steps ahead of all of us, which is a sign of a great maestro. He knows where it’s going before we do, and he leads us.
Maxim is one of the most exciting music-makers and partners I know, which is why it makes sense to wrap up my Perspectives season in May with him and Il Pomo d’Oro. It felt really natural to come with kind of a greatest hits idea—still wanting to do new things, but also giving the audience some of what they know me for. I plan to revisit some of the pieces I’ve always loved, sing a few I’ve never sung but have always wanted to perform, and create a musical evening of some of my favorite things.
One of the highlights of your annual visits to Carnegie Hall is your continued work with the music education and social impact programs of the Weill Music Institute (WMI).
The relationship that I have with WMI has become familial. It’s really paramount and central to my entire season—not just the Perspectives season, but part of my planning for every year going forward. First of all, I think WMI is doing extraordinary work. You know the old adage about how you get to Carnegie Hall ... But I find the question being posed by WMI is how can we bring Carnegie Hall to everybody, in particular those populations that don’t have easy access to classical music and to finding a voice for their expressive souls.
It is work that I think is quite vocational in a fundamental way, which really appeals to me. I’ve never sought the spotlight in terms of wanting to be a star or to climb to the top of a professional mountain. It has really been one of service and knowing in my own life how powerful music is and how instrumental it is as spiritual nourishment. I have the luxury of sharing that with people who come to the Met, who come to Carnegie Hall, and people who can afford tickets or have subscriptions to medici.tv. And I would never denigrate that or discount the importance of that, but there is something in my center being that knows it also has to go out to populations that can’t afford those tickets and that haven’t received training along the way.
Are there any specific events or memories that stick out in your mind?
One of the things that sticks in my mind the strongest is after my first visit to Sing Sing, the maximum-security facility where WMI goes in and teaches men composition, and helps them to perform these compositions and give concerts within the facility. I went there and met some of these men, and I sang music they had composed for me. And I performed opera. When I came back a second time about 10 months later, one of the men came up to me, and he seemed transformed—he seemed like a different man. And he said to me, “You’ve changed my life because I didn’t know opera existed before. Now I know I have to write one.”
That statement—“I didn’t know opera existed”—simultaneously broke my heart and lifted me up because now he does know. I love singing for audiences that love opera, that know it, and that devour it. But I also love seeing people’s faces experience it for the first time. And when that happens and they have a visceral reaction to this creation that is happening before them, it totally removes any doubt that opera is not relevant, is meaningless, or is outdated. In that moment, I see how it hits people in a profound, deep way that most things in the 21st century aren’t able to accomplish. And that is how I see WMI: bringing that level of art and music into every person’s life. That’s a world I want to be a part of.