Interview: Joyce DiDonato

A questing mezzo-soprano's journey brings her to the main stage at Carnegie Hall.



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DOWN-TO-EARTH DIVA Joyce DiDonato has kept fans abreast of her rapid ascent with a popular blog.

DOWN-TO-EARTH DIVA Joyce DiDonato has kept fans abreast of her rapid ascent with a popular blog. Nicholas Heavican

The first time Joyce DiDonato set foot in Carnegie Hall was while rehearsing for her 2003 debut there, a Bach B minor Mass under Peter Schreier. Then a promising lyric mezzo-soprano playing major regional stages, she has since catapulted forward—via awards, new stagings in leading opera houses, and audio and video recordings—to world fame. Along the way she played Carnegie's smaller spaces: a song program at Weill Recital Hall in 2007, Handel arias at Zankel in 2009. Two years later, with a provocative, wide-ranging aria CD, Diva/Divo, newly released and an appearance in the Metropolitan Opera premiere of Rossini's Le Comte Ory on deck, DiDonato faces every musician's Big Hollywood Moment: a recital debut on Carnegie Hall's main stage.

What's more, DiDonato has proved unusually adept at describing her journey. Acknowledged as one of the most accomplished, delightful singers around, she's also among the vocal set's more eloquent and worthwhile writers, as seen on her blog, Yankeediva (( Speaking by phone from Oregon, where her husband, rising conductor Leonardo Vordoni, is rehearsing Turandot, the ebullient Kansas City mezzo confesses her awe at the prospect of playing Carnegie.

"There's a handful of places that you walk into and feel the ghosts: the Palais Garnier, Covent Garden.... Singing in Notre Dame was a pretty cool experience!" DiDonato says. "You enter, and there's atmosphere. At Carnegie you feel, For this concert, I add a few notes to the chain of the hall's history. There have been so many wonderful moments there over the years—not only classical stuff, but things like the Buena Vista Social Club. It's pretty overwhelming, the legacy and the standard of excellence required at that place. Plus, there are things under the my niece at 16 beating me to a Carnegie debut in one of the summer high-school choral workshops!"

DiDonato's partner for the occasion is the fine Toulouse, France--born pianist David Zobel. The two met in San Francisco's Merola Opera Program in 1997, and bonded over a mutual love for Rossini. At Carnegie, that shared passion is reflected in some rare songs, as well as the staggering Willow Song from the composer's Otello, a highlight on DiDonato's 2009 CD, Colbran the Muse, a tribute to Rossini's wife, Isabella Colbran. "We are good friends, have deep discussions and love our collaborative process," DiDonato says of Zobel. "David has a rare sensitivity and joy in music that I need: to be onstage with someone that loves what they're doing."

Those Rossini items are just one facet of an unorthodox, intriguing program. "Both halves form progressions from angst to redemption and joy—maybe that will resonate with people in New York after the hard winter," DiDonato says. First comes Haydn's impassioned Berenice, che fai?, which portrays a woman negotiating life-and-death stakes between two potential lovers. "It's very dramatic; she goes a little bit crazy at the end. It gives me the chance to be operatic in the song-recital context." After the Rossini rarities, the first half ends with mlodies by Ccile Chaminade, the first female composer awarded France's Lgion d'Honneur. "The song 'L't' caught me hook, line and sinker—it's over-the-top, like airy whipped cream," the singer explains. "Such things need to be sampled in the right dose: that French lavender to clear the palate."

Immediately prior to the nine-city recital tour that ends at Carnegie, DiDonato finished an intense Houston Grand Opera stint playing Sister Helen Prejean in Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking, the work that furnished her first New York City Opera run in 2002. She's collaborated with the Bay Area--based composer before, notably on an orchestrated version of a quartet of meditations by Sister Helen, The Deepest Desire. At Carnegie, after the sublime tensions of the Otello scene, DiDonato and Zobel unveil Heggie's The Breaking Waves, a Carnegie-commissioned premiere based on poems by the celebrated nun.

"Jake and I have similar artistic visions of what one can do with art and voice," DiDonato explains. "I wanted it to be uplifting, about joy. Sister Helen's four texts have a mystic quality, about light, dark and water. Like Sister Helen, [they're] not preachy or overly theological, but very elemental. She's a big fan of surfing—she has surfing calendars! Finding the right wave can bring bliss."

Joyce DiDonato performs at Carnegie Hall Sun 6.

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