The 2013 Honorees

By Zachary Woolfe

Few people in opera radiate her degree of natural goodness. Chipper, generous, versatile, and game for almost anything, she is the American opera singer par excellence, with an apple-cheeked Midwestern spin all her own.

There are artists who are nice, and then there is Joyce DiDonato. Onstage or off, on Twitter or on her exuberant blog, Yankeediva, few people radiate her degree of natural goodness. Chipper, generous, versatile, and game for almost anything, she is the American opera singer par excellence. She has the warmth and immaculate industry reputation of fellow mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade, but with an apple-cheeked Midwestern spin all her own.

“I can go out there and hold my own and avoid looking stupid,” she said with a self-deprecating laugh, summing up her performing abilities in a phone interview from her Paris hotel recently.

It goes without saying that she does much more than that. At a recital at Carnegie Hall in March 2011, she sang an aria from Rossini’s Otello with velvety focus, then brought the same sensitivity and care to the world premiere of a song cycle written for her by Jake Heggie. Last season, playing the vengeful sorceress Sycorax in the Metropolitan Opera’s Baroque pastiche The Enchanted Island, she emanated a delicate, moving mixture of hurt and anger in a melancholy number sung to music from Ferrandini’s cantata Il Pianto di Maria.

A master of opera’s strong, specific emotions, DiDonato acts with fluency and exudes a fundamental decency both in the opera house and on screen in the Met’s Live in HD broadcasts. She dismisses the idea that different kinds of performing styles register differently live and in the movie theaters.

“It’s not a question of being big or small. It’s a question of being true or false,” she said, adding, “For me, the truth lies in the eyes.”

Born in 1969 in Prairie Village, Kansas, DiDonato set her sights on the Broadway and pop worlds when she was growing up, and at Wichita State University she initially studied music education, aiming on becoming a teacher. But after appearing in Die Fledermaus her junior year, she enthusiastically turned to opera. After getting her graduate degree at the Academy of Vocal Arts, she did the grand tour of American young artist programs: at Santa Fe Opera, in 1995, then in Houston and San Francisco.

In the early 2000s she began to make her mark in classic mezzo roles like Dorabella, Rosina,  Cherubino, Sesto in Handel’s Giulio Cesare, and Annio in Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito. She also scored a coup in an important contemporary opera, taking over the lead in Heggie’s Dead Man Walking from Susan Graham (who had originated the role of Sister Helen Prejean in San Francisco) when the work was performed at New York City Opera in 2002.

In July 2009, appearing as Rosina at Covent Garden, she slipped onstage just after her Act 1  showstopper, “Una voce poco fa,” and fractured her fibula. She sang the remainder of the three-hour opera on crutches, and finished the run in a wheelchair and more crutches, incorporating the injury seamlessly into the action and not missing a performance.

It was the definition of a trouper move, the DiDonato-est thing that could have happened. Dovetailing with her maturing career, including a coveted record deal with Virgin Classics, the publicity she got out of the broken leg kicked things up a notch, to the point that she was tapped for a performance at a Grammys preshow ceremony this year.

“If you’d asked me 10 years ago where I saw my career going,” she said, “I would have drastically  underestimated what has happened.” Rather than fitting into preconceived productions, she is now able to get opera companies to mount things on her behalf, even relative rarities like Rossini’s La Donna del Lago and Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda.

But as she moves into what she calls “big girl” roles like these, she is also becoming more selective about her opera appearances in general. Recital and symphonic concert performances are scheduled much closer to the date than is opera, so DiDonato and her manager are intentionally leaving more room for those, and for downtime. She will spend much of next season on tour in support of “Drama Queens,” a recital program (as well as a recording coming out in November) featuring Baroque arias sung by royal characters.

It is no accident that DiDonato is turning her attention to nobility as her repertory deepens and she moves away from adolescents and trouser roles. When it comes to the “big girls” she now increasingly plays, perhaps the only thing her fans have ever feared is that she’s not, well, crazy enough. Her radiant charm, good nature, and adorableness, which make her so perfect for Angelina and Rosina and  Cherubino, could conceivably make tragic heroines like Maria Stuarda a less natural fit. Fundamental decency, after all, has less to do with much of the serious repertory than the ability to chill an audience’s spines.

But video and audio footage from her debut run in that Donizetti role at the Houston Grand Opera this past season make it clear that she has the intensity, fury, and abandon—that elusive mixture of qualities that opera queens call “demented”—to do the part justice. In the great lady-on-lady confrontation scene, facing off against the Elisabetta of Katie Van Kooten, she rose to fearsome stature.

On New Year’s Eve she will headline the Metropolitan Opera premiere of Maria Stuarda in a David McVicar production that Peter Gelb originally intended for a soprano, Anna Netrebko. DiDonato’s mezzo take will naturally be different, using the full power of her darker-toned agility.

“Instead of taking the role and ornamenting it to make it more canary, I do it centrally,” said Musical America’s Vocalist of the Year. “I do ornament it up, but also down, trying to find my voice in it. That automatically gives it a different color and spin. I feel the music quite deeply and it’s a role I really love. And vocally and personality-wise it’s just a strong fit.”

New Year’s Eve at the Met may well be a night to remember. And it will have very little to do with being nice.

Zachary Woolfe writes about classical music and opera for the New York Times and is the opera critic of the New York Observer.




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