November’s cover story: Opera megastar Joyce DiDonato
Once upon a time an opera diva was a temperamental, capricious creature, as petulant as she was all-powerful. From Cuzzoni to Patti, Melba to Gheorghiu we knew what to expect from our star singers. But then along came mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, a self-styled ‘Yankee Diva’ from Kansas, who has turned the traditional image of the diva on its head with her down-home attitude and grounded approach. To her fans she’s just “Joyce” – no surname and still less ceremony.
We meet at London’s Barbican arts centre on a rainy afternoon that has driven DiDonato off the lakeside terrace and into Nicholas Kenyon’s office (you know you’re a star when the managing director of a major arts institution gives up his inner sanctum for you). This warm, talkative woman is a world away from the figure I witnessed onstage at the Royal Opera just a few days earlier. Imperious and commanding, poised at her bloody death and ferocious in her infamous confrontation with Elizabeth I, DiDonato didn’t need the anachronistic period costumes of Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier’s new production to set her apart from everything going on around her.
Maria Stuarda is a character that DiDonato has lived with now for over two years, since she made her role debut at Houston in 2012. Since then she has reprised it at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, in London, and will finish 2014 with a run at Barcelona’s Gran Teatre del Liceu. So what is the ongoing appeal of a role DiDonato herself has described as “probably the most challenging” she has ever sung?
“Everything!” She beams. “First of all it’s the biggest vocal stretch that I’ve ever had. The first time I did it I felt like I was right at my limit. The second time in New York I conquered a lot of the hurdles, and felt like I achieved everything but about 16% of what I wanted from it. A year and a half later I’ve come back to it, and now I feel like I’m in the driver’s seat in every phrase. I’ve overcome quite a lot of the vocal limitations I had in the beginning, so I’ve learned such a lot about singing by taking the role.
“The other huge challenge with Maria is that, from her very first utterance, every single syllable that she sings has this supercharged emotional content. She is fighting for her religion, for her politics, for love, for her pride; she’s fighting for her life in every sentence. It has taken me a long time to find that balance where I can convey the emotion but not feel it. There are still moments where I still do – the adrenalin rush of ‘vil bastarda’ and that whole scene with Elisabetta is unstoppable.”
DiDonato, unusually, has also worn Elizabeth’s crown in the opera. “That really clarified the confrontation scene for me,” she explains. “Having sung both Elizabeth and Mary, I now know that they are both collaborators, success hasn’t always come so easy.
DiDonato is, by her own admission, a grafter. Hers isn’t a story of overnight success, and she attributes a lot of her approach and personality as a singer to this early struggle. “I have an insecurity about the inherent quality of my voice because in all my formative years nobody talked about how beautiful it was. They talked about my stage presence or my musicality; I was intelligent, I had good language skills. All the while I was just waiting and hoping that they’d talk about my voice.”