Sheltering in the countryside near Barcelona, the opera diva from Prairie Village tries to sound upbeat in a trans-Atlantic What’s App call. Joyce DiDonato’s liquid voice—deeper than expected and scrubbed of any regional accent—soothes as she talks of improvising and finding joy in the dark days of coronavirus. But anxiety tinged with anger lurks below the placid surface. Her voice has a tell: When she comments on America’s failed response to the pandemic, for example, her words slow and then escalate in tempo and pitch, like a finger racing up the piano keys from middle C. You wonder if she is going to sing the next sentence, in fiery aria style. And then, just as quickly, DiDonato gathers her breath and re-centers.
Born Joyce Flaherty, the sixth of seven children of a self-employed architect and a church choir director, the three-time Grammy winner and four-time ECHO Klassik female artist of the year, attended St. Ann’s Catholic School and Bishop Miege High School before earning a bachelor’s degree in music education at Wichita State University. She did post-graduate studies at Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia, then spent three long years with a vocal coach completely changing her technique, a risk that paid off in marquee billings at La Scala, Opera National de Paris, the Royal Opera House and the Metropolitan Opera. She got a late start at age 35, but at 51, she is still at the top of her game.
DiDonato, who has been married twice and is currently in a relationship, kept the name of her first husband. She has headlined in all the world’s great opera houses and sung nearly all the major lyric-coloratura mezzo-soprano roles. Before the Met was forced to go dark, she sang the title role in Handel’s Agrippina to stellar reviews in a February and March run.
DiDonato is known for daringly fresh interpretations of classic roles on stage, and also for shedding some of the conventions of diva behavior off-stage. Her website, joycedidonato.com, has an entire section devoted to her activism, mainly music education in prisons, empowering young girls in poor countries through music and advocacy for LGBTQ equality. Her Twitter and Instagram feeds are a charming and personal mix of backstage moments, gardening photos, art and, lately, Black Lives Matter posts.
DiDonato’s most recent Grammy-winning album, Songplay, mixes jazz, Latin, and tango rhythms into arrangements of Italian Baroque arias, jazz standards, and tunes from the Great American Songbook.
DiDonato will perform in a livestream at noon CT Sept. 12, from the Fundació Hospital de la Santa Creu I Sant Pau in Barcelona, Spain, joined by pianist Carrie-Anne Matheson and a yet-to-be-announced guitarist as part of the Met Stars Live in Concert series. Tickets cost $20 at metopera.org; the concert will be available for later viewing for 12 days.
You have homes in Kansas City and outside Barcelona. Why did you decide to shelter in Spain?
All my work for the year has been canceled. I was due to be at the Met performing through the end of April and then touring the States in May, and it all got canceled. With my partner, we made the impulsive decision to be here rather than to stay in New York, so right now it feels like we made 100 percent the right decision.
Just watching, you know, what should have been the greatest country in the world completely and utterly fall down on the responsibility of this pandemic has been extraordinary to watch. I have to say—horrifying and extraordinary.
I’m looking at my industry and it’s been decimated without any real signs of coming back in a viable way, at least until next year. That’s been horrifying to see for my colleagues, for culture in general and for the human spirit.”
What is your pandemic life like?
We’ve just been doing a lot of work, like many people, in the garden and trying to fix up some things around the house. But emotionally I have to say I’ve gone between two extremes without a lot of middle ground—from really, really, really, really enjoying kind of a blissful time of quiet and solitude and reflection and going inward in a way that I haven’t been able to do ever in my life. And the other part has been grief. I’m looking at my industry and it’s been decimated without any real signs of coming back in a viable way, at least until next year. That’s been horrifying to see for my colleagues, for culture in general and for the human spirit. The thing that we need so much is comfort and solace, which can be found in music. People are relying on artists to go online and do what we do for free and be there for people, but meantime so many colleagues have no security of paying their rent next month. All my colleagues are independent, self-employed people that don’t get unemployment benefits, so it’s been devastating to my industry. And at the same time, I’ve lost close friends to the virus, and I see what’s happening to my country, and I’m in a state of grief.
Does being immersed in the world of opera affect the emotional landscape of your life off-stage?
I think having the chance to immerse myself in that level of drama and emotion has actually brought a lot of clarity in my life about balance and the extremities of humanity. What it’s taught me is how to be present, how to be really connected to the present moment, because that’s where you have to live on the stage—not in what’s just transpired or what’s coming up. The other thing is it’s bred a tremendous amount of empathy. I think I’m sort of geared for that anyway, but as I look around at the world today, I’m glad I know how to access empathy, and I want to continue to bring that to the world, because that’s what’s really missing right now big time.
In one of your master classes online, you are helping a young singer and telling her that in one passage of a song, “You have to earn that note,” you can’t just leap into a big note, you have to get the audience to come along with you first.
Mmm, that’s something that I find a lot in terms of performance, but it’s also true in life, you know? I mean, it’s not always that things are just going to fall in our laps. I think our sleeves have to be rolled up all the time.
You started out studying to become a music teacher in college. Is it satisfying after becoming a big star on stage to add the teaching part now?
Enormously so. It’s been a gift for me to interact with young people. That moment where you see the inner light bulb go on in the student’s head, when they make a connection and I’m just sitting here like a pinball machine, just keeping the ball in play, not actually doing anything, but keeping it in play, and they make the connection. I find that exhilarating.
What was it like, performing a duet of Simple Gifts remotely with Yo Yo Ma, with each of you in your own homes?
On the one hand it was incredibly satisfying and beautiful to work with him, because he’s the greatest musician in the world, and on the other hand it was very sad because I miss the presence of being in the same room, because that’s how music can be created not just put together.
How do you think the arts are going to be changed by both the Black Lives Matter protests and the pandemic? What are your fears and what is your hope about what could emerge?
My fear is that we won’t change.
What do you mean?
Finally, it is the moment where awareness is coming into our lives. We are starting with our eyes to see things our fellow human beings have been experiencing that we’ve either been oblivious to or ignorant of or purposefully have turned our eyes from. And when you see these things you can’t un-see them, and you can’t un-know them. From my point of view as a fellow human being, a world where discrimination and hatred are acceptable is not a world that I want to live in or participate in, you know?
Sandy Hook is an example. We live in a world where people are OK with young children being gunned down. I don’t like that. I think a world that allows that really has its priorities completely turned inside out. And so my fear is that we get upset but nothing really changes in the art world. I see enormous potential for growth and for expansion of artistic experiences and voices coming in and realizations, we have so much to learn from all different kinds of cultures, so much to learn from all different kinds of artists and their experiences. The whole driving force of art is to open up eyes and hearts and ears and minds and to see how extraordinary life can be through so many filters and angles, to say, “This I like, that I don’t like,” and to move in directions that bring growth.
So I’m not afraid of the changes that are hopefully coming, but I’m afraid of the status quo at this point. And that’s not to say we must turn our back on everything we have been as an industry. I mean, we’re a white European art form, essentially, and we don’t have to deny that. But also, we are an art form that is full of potential and possibility, and the more that we can integrate and expand—for me that potential is infinite and that excites me as an artist.
Interview condensed and minimally edited for clarity.