In the fall of last year, just before the world blew up, star mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato was riding a career high. She had just debuted the role of opera singer Arden Scott in Great Scott at the Dallas Opera and was planning a world tour of little-known bel canto works.
Then gunmen and suicide bombers attacked the streets of Paris, sending her on a dramatically new, heartfelt artistic course. It’s resulted in a deeply moving CD, a multimedia concert that soon hits Vancouver, and even a website and hashtag (#TalkPeace) for people to share their hopes and fears. Her driving question: “In the midst of chaos, how do you find peace?”
“For some reason the Paris attacks struck me very strongly,” she tells the Straight over the phone from Amsterdam, where she’s about to perform In War and Peace: Harmony Through Music. She has just premiered it the night before in the still-fraught city of Brussels, where the terrorists hatched their plan. “I had just finished the role in a new opera in Dallas, where my character wondered if art really mattered. And I said, ‘I want to do something important and bring peace to the forefront.’ We look to music to calm us down.”
The affable, Kansas-raised artist admits that what drove her to do the project was that she found herself, normally an optimistic person, becoming frantic at each day’s headlines in the wake of the terrorist acts. “That’s why the project feels so personal,” she says. “I was getting pessimistic: ‘Why bother? What can I do to make a difference?’ And I think that’s deadly!”
To build a show that speaks to contemporary conflict in the world, DiDonato went back—centuries back—to the music of the baroque era.
“Always in my career I keep returning to this world,” says the singer, who is equally praised for her bel canto and contemporary work. (The New York Times has gushed that her performances are “a model of singing in which all components of the art form—technique, sound, color, nuance, diction—come together in service to expression and eloquence”.) “I find it infinitely rich in treasures and many of these pieces are new to me and I’m revelling in them.
“I’m presenting arias that are 300 to 400 years old, but are so prescient to today. It could be poetry written for today,” she continues with passion. “The text is repeated for you, so it’s almost meditative. It gives a lot of space for the listener to move into it—regardless of religion or politics. For me, the world of baroque presents that kind of landscape and texture.”
When the Vancouver Recital Society brings her striking new show here, it will take audiences on a journey from darkness to light. The first half of the evening descends into early-music works about war and inner turmoil—George Frederick Handel’s battle-torn “Scenes of Horror, Scenes of Woe” opens the program, with his aching “Lascia ch’io pianga” expressing inner suffering. Those works of despair, however, give way to songs of peace and calm by Handel, Claudio Monteverdi, Henry Purcell, and others.
DiDonato calls the beginning of the concert the “blackest night”. But because her singing digs so emotionally deep, isn’t it going to be difficult for her to go there each evening on a tour that stretches from Helsinki to Vienna to Chicago?
“Even just from a technical standpoint, the drama of these arias at the beginning are fraught with anxiety and horror,” she says. “I have to keep enough of a distance that the voice does what it has to do.…Also, it’s very emotional for me and I feel these things very deeply.
“But I know that in life you really can walk through the fire,” she adds. “The payoff comes from having weathered the storm and coming through wiser and stronger. For me, it is a chance to give voice to emotions that I’ve been feeling the last few years: fear, horror, compassion. And I’ve been using the section of peace to really call that into my life.”
Those emotions are heightened in concert not only by the nuanced period instruments of early-music ensemble Il Pomo d’Oro, but by artful lighting and video design, avant-garde M.A.C makeup, and gowns by DiDonato’s frequent collaborator Vivienne Westwood—including an unearthly gauzy-silver creation that had Belgian and Dutch fans all a-Twitter.
DiDonato has always defied the stereotype of the opera diva, from her punk-chic cropped blond hair to her strikingly cinematic music videos. But now, more than ever in her nontraditional career, DiDonato seems to be redefining opera performance for a new generation. And she’s succeeding not because her image is being managed by others, but because it comes so honestly from who she is.
“It’s not in me to falsify,” she says with a laugh. “I’m very lucky. I’ve surrounded myself with people that will support this vision. I’m doing something very original and outside the box,” she continues. “Singing is such a personal fingerprint and I have to be authentic at every level. I think people can enter that concert hall and they know they’re going to get the best of me. They know they’re going to have a deeper experience. That’s what the music deserves.”
In fact, DiDonato admits, she and her team weren’t quite sure what effect this latest experiment, one of the most ambitious and personal of her career, might have. All that was answered at the premiere in Brussels, where many in the audience were reportedly in tears.
“It was very emotional to put it in front of an audience for the first time,” she says of the previous night. “I wanted a place where people could come to explore the idea of peace.
“I realized, putting it in front of an audience, that the wounds are sort of still raw.…There was an electricity that I have rarely felt in a concert hall. It takes me back to the days after 9/11 and those first experiences when people needed to be in the concert hall—their confusion and their desire for something beautiful.”
While the opera star acknowledges that her own home country is suffering division due to the recent election, she has come to see her project on a wider level. “We continue to live in a very, very unstable world. I’m glad Vancouver is not on this list, but in many of the cities I’ve been travelling to, they’ve been directly affected by the bigger division and fear in the world,” she says, and then adds before retiring into the Dutch evening: “The longer I’m in this project, it’s not so much about finding world peace. If I think of that, I get completely overwhelmed. But I can take care of my world, and that will have ripple effects to the community around me. And that starts to take bigger effects.”
The Vancouver Recital Society presents Joyce DiDonato at the Orpheum on Wednesday (November 30).