Opera singer Joyce DiDonato talks about her all-American work ethic

Mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato will perform Tuesday at the Kennedy Center, then she'll make her main-stage recital debut March 6 at Carnegie Hall.
Mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato will perform Tuesday at the Kennedy Center, then she'll make her main-stage recital debut March 6 at Carnegie Hall.
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 11, 2011; 6:10 PM

"We don't think you have anything to offer as an artist."

That, says the mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, is what she heard after singing in a British vocal competition when she was just starting out in 1997.

Those words have been debunked since, in a couple of senses. For one thing, the judges in question have since insisted that they could never have said them. For another, DiDonato's career obviously has flourished. She's singing leading roles in the major opera houses of the world: Paris, London, the Met. She's turning out first-rate recordings: Her latest, "Diva/Divo," contrasting female roles with the "trouser roles" that are a staple of the mezzo repertory, came out in January. And she has embarked on a recital tour that on Tuesday will bring her to the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, en route to her main-stage recital debut March 6 at Carnegie Hall.

But there's reason to remember the British judges' supposed words, and not simply because they have entered into the storied pantheon of misguided put-downs (along with the people who told Enrico Caruso, Lucia Popp and Renee Fleming to consider throwing in the towel). It's because they would stand to demonstrate the full measure of DiDonato's achievement.

It's awfully easy to assume that DiDonato, who turns 42 Sunday, is just another American singer. She's spunky and blond and cute. She's from the Midwest - Prairie Village, Kan., to be exact - with a fierce work ethic, but she never thought of singing opera until her junior year in college. She upholds the show-must-go-on credo to such an extent that after she broke her leg on opening night of a "Barber of Seville" performance at Covent Garden in 2009, she finished the performance in a wheelchair and did the remaining shows on crutches (a feat that will probably be mentioned in everything written about her for the rest of her life, up to and including her obituary).

But DiDonato is more than just another earnest American singer. Her strong vocal technique encompasses trills and runs, a smooth legato, and lets her go, as she put it in a telephone interview, "from softest of the soft up to loudest of the loud, and hopefully any degree in between."

Most important, though, she offers a strong involvement with the music that helps bring what she is singing to life. That's the element of artistry that's hard to pinpoint and can't be taught. And it's an element DiDonato didn't always show, even to her teachers.

At the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia, one of the best vocal programs in the country, which she attended for graduate work, she was, she says, "on the back burner."

"Why doesn't anybody see that I have that inside of me?" she recalls thinking then. "What those years taught me is nobody will ever hand you a career on a silver platter."

Later, in the apprentice program at the Houston Grand Opera, "I found a voice teacher and actually learned how to sing," she says. Her teacher, Stephen Smith, is now at Juilliard and still gives her the occasional lesson via Skype.

Houston also opened the door to contemporary music - and a career. Under its former general manager, David Gockley (now head of the San Francisco Opera), the company was known for presenting new American operas. DiDonato wasn't, at first, a big fan of all this new strange work: Tod Machover's "Resurrection," or a piece by Mark Adamo called "Little Women." But it was career-making: "Little Women," especially, had a lot of success and was broadcast on national TV (it was released on DVD last year).

"I realized as an artist what it's like to be a part of the creative process," DiDonato says now. "I want to have a dialogue with the composer." A new song cycle, written for her by Jake Heggie, will have its world premiere at her Carnegie concert, although it won't be heard in Washington.

Vocal recitals are far different from opera performance, and DiDonato is one of the rare singers who is equally adept at both. "Success in opera doesn't guarantee success in recitals," says Gerald Perman, the founder and head of Vocal Arts D.C. DiDonato's Feb. 15 concert is a joint presentation of Vocal Arts D.C. and the Washington Performing Arts Society; part of the occasion is a celebration of Vocal Arts D.C.'s 20th anniversary.

DiDonato wasn't a known quantity when she gave her first Vocal Arts D.C. recital in 2003. Perman, however, has never been averse to risk. A psychiatrist, he founded the series in 1990 as "a shot in the dark," engaging a young singer named Renee Fleming as one of his first performers and presenting concerts at the Sumner School, which provides facilities to nonprofit groups for free.

Since then, the organization has moved all the way up to the Kennedy Center and has presented some of the biggest names in the business: Fleming and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, Gerald Finley and DiDonato. It remains the only series in the country devoted solely to voice recitals.

Yet the organization suffers from its niche status. Ticket sales have declined. Vocal Arts's loyal audience "are my peers," says Perman, now in his 80s. They are dying out. And there's another obstacle: Washington, primarily, is an opera town - and opera audiences don't always transfer to the recital format any more comfortably than opera singers do.

"There's an awkward straddling that an opera singer has to do in a song recital," DiDonato says. "A lot of people buy tickets because of the big name and are waiting [throughout the program] to see what the encores are going to be." Song recitals focus on the art-song repertory, but an opera singer might throw in an aria or two for a crowd-pleasing encore.

On DiDonato's current tour, she's compromising by offering some big, dramatic concert pieces, starting with Haydn's "Scena di Berenice," which she describes as a miniature opera, "a theatrical morsel for me to bite into." Contrasting with these are songs by Cecile Chaminade, more intimate works that may not fit as well into the overgenerous spaces of the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.

Song recitals are intimate by nature: The singer appears alone, without costume, orchestra, sets or other singers to help carry the evening. No opera role, as DiDonato points out, calls for a solid hour-plus of solo singing. The day after a recital, she says, "I feel I've run a marathon."

But recitals are a vehicle for the thing DiDonato is best at: communication. It's a skill that has been honed with years of work. Certainly, the singer has a circle of advisers - including her second husband, the conductor Leonardo Vordoni, who she says manages the adroit feat of "being a very supportive husband but, when it comes to the music world, very objective."

DiDonato, however, starts and ends the process, from learning the music herself at the piano to bringing it to artistic fruition at the final concert.

"Nobody can do the work for you," she says. "If I want this, it's got to come from me."

Joyce DiDonato performs with pianist David Zobel at 8 p.m. Tuesday in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. More information at www.kennedy-center.org.

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