Joyce DiDonato’s extraordinary voice — she is a mezzo-soprano with a big, expressive sound and a sufficiently broad range to be utterly self-assured on the highest coloratura trills — has been her fortune. She is one of the top singers of bel canto, and is known for her compelling swagger in opera’s trouser roles.
And she’s also a big Kansas City Royals fan. DiDonato, who is originally from Kansas City, was charmed by an online campaign to have her sing the National Anthem at one of the team’s games, which she won. The Royals went to game seven against the San Francisco Giants in the World Series, and so DiDonato sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” before that game on Oct. 29 which, unfortunately, they lost.
As part of Carnegie Hall’s Perspectives series, she is appearing there twice this fall and twice in the spring in programs she has selected.
Her next appearance will be with pianist David Zobel tonight. Titled “A Journey Through Venice,” the program will feature music set in that city from Vivaldi, Faure, Rossini, Head and Hahn, spanning the eras from the Baroque period to the 20th century. It will be Webcast free on medici.tv and available for 90 days online.
DiDonato brought Gaetano Donizetti’s opera “Maria Stuarda” to the Met, appearing in the first production there in its title role in 2013, and, in another Met premiere, she will play the title role in its first production of Rossini’s “La Donna del Lago” in February. She sings opera all over the world, from San Francisco to London. Her critical notices often read like mash notes, paeans to her beauty and voice.
But it hasn’t always been thus. Her first roles were tiny, and while she got to sing at La Scala early in her career, as she notes, it was in the second cast. She didn’t make her Metropolitan Opera debut until she was 35, and it was in a small part. “All of the big moments I have had, have had a little parenthesis around them,” says the singer, now 45.
She recounted her early career struggles in a moving commencement address at Juilliard in May, including not securing management until she was 29, and an “evaluation sheet for the Houston Opera Studio which simply declared me to possess ‘not much talent.’”
“This business is full of a lot of, ‘Oh, you’re great!’” she says now. “It’s lovely to hear for about 30 seconds. When you’re looking to get started, if you’re a third of the way or half way, it can be a devastatingly cruel business. There’s very little separation between the voice and the self, and the more honest I can be about the pitfalls and struggles — the smart ones will take that to heart.
“I do think there’s a place for a diva to be mysterious and above the fray, but that’s not me,” she adds. “My desire has never been to be in the spotlight. I thought I would have been a teacher, and to open up with real frankness [as she did at Juilliard], that scratches the teacher in me.”
When she performs at Carnegie Hall, she says, “I can’t think of anything other than that it’s Carnegie Hall, and you’d better be at your best. You walk in immediately and feel the legacy and the historical import of it, have a sense of wonder and go, ‘Oh, my God!’ It’s huge, with the most extraordinary acoustics. It invites you to give everything that you have, to take a risk, extend phrases more than you can. It’s an artistically satisfying building that itself helps you perform.”
To keep her voice in shape, she says, “Rest is the number-one key. My instrument isn’t just my voice, it’s my whole body. I’m not a smoker; I don’t take drugs. I might have a glass of Champagne after a performance, but I don’t drink the night before. I try to eat well, and try to stay happy. That for me is the biggest weapon.”
On the subject of where opera is as an art today, she says, “We’re sort of in an adolescent phase. I mean, I think it’s bigger than opera. We’re a part of a fine culture in our society that is being redefined. I feel like we’re all adolescents, and we’re all supposed to ‘get it.’ People keep saying that opera is dead, but that’s not true. I’ve worked very hard to reach out to young people. If opera doesn’t speak to young people personally, why are tons of them at concerts, at the stage door, and my concerts selling really well?
“I’d rather the industry promote what we are and what we have. We represent the best of the best,” she continues, comparing top singers’ work to Usain Bolt’s performances at the Olympics. As for converting people to opera, “Nine times out of 10, if we present it to them at the highest level, they’re usually astounded. The voice has a direct connection to the human heart, and it conveys all emotion. It’s an extraordinary thing that almost everybody has who wasn’t born mute.”