Dreams Really Do Come True: Joyce DiDonato and Il barbiere di Siviglia [The Royal Opera’s The Barber of Seville, 4-18 July 2009]

Written by: Mansel Stimpson

Mansel Stimpson talks to the acclaimed American singer Joyce DiDonato as she returns to Covent Garden and to the role of Rosina in Rossini’s most popular opera…

Joyce DiDonato. Photograph: Sheila Rock

When Joyce DiDonato stepped off the plane ready to return to the production by Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier of Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia in which she had triumphed in 2005 she did not imagine for a moment that she would be appearing in public on the main stage of the Royal Opera House ahead of the first night. In the event, however, she was one of four artists to step in at short notice to participate in a recital programme, one that had twice had to be changed because of indisposition. Those of her admirers who missed that event will hardly be surprised to learn that her part of the concert included pieces by Rossini but far less predictably she included also two popular American songs both delightfully delivered. One of these was Harold Arlen’s ‘Somewhere over the Rainbow’ from The Wizard of Oz. That meant that we heard the song linked to the dreams of Dorothy from Kansas being performed by a singer who herself hails from Kansas. It was that fact that made me wonder about the dreams of young Joyce – Joyce Flaherty as she then was – who thought of becoming a music teacher but who can hardly have imagined that she would embark on a singing career that would take her if not over the rainbow then certainly all round the world.

When we meet I ask her to elaborate on this parallel, but I should perhaps preface her remarks by adding that while Joyce DiDonato is now an American diva of distinction the person who talks to me is as far removed as is possible from any stereotype: if some Americans are brash, she is not, and, if some divas seem interested in their own celebrity and in maintaining their image, Joyce in contrast is happily content to be her natural self. So what does she see as she looks back now at the teenager she once was?

“What has happened to me is something that I never dreamed of, and that’s because I never would have dared to dream quite so big. I was in my father’s choir and I took piano lessons and what I thought about was the possibility of teaching music. I felt that there was something noble in being involved in education whereas the idea of performing felt a bit self-gratifying – perhaps because I enjoyed it so much. My father was the one who emphasised to me that there was more than one way of educating, touching and reaching out to people, and his comment was crucial: it was the key that made me start to think about a dream, about the rainbow. Somebody asked me in a recent interview where I saw myself in ten years’ time and I just said that I couldn’t make any assumptions because where I am now is so much further than I would ever have dared to dream. That’s not because I didn’t have confidence but because it was so out of the realm of what was then my world. Growing up and seeing stars like Renée Fleming at the Met or Pavarotti or Domingo, they just seemed larger than life and sometimes it’s still hard for me to believe that I’m doing what I’m doing.”

In retrospect two events were the true pointers in her life and both occurred when Joyce was nineteen or twenty. One was being in the chorus of a student production of Die Fledermaus. “What influenced me was not going to the opera and saying ‘I want to do that’ but the experience of being inside it and actually doing it. Although it was operetta rather than true opera, I regarded it as classical but I found myself thinking ‘This isn’t stuffy, it isn’t boring: it’s fun’ – and that was when the bug bit me.” The other more-or-less contemporaneous event came when she heard a broadcast of Don Giovanni. For some time her father had tried to interest her in opera, but where he had failed Carol Vaness now succeeded and she did it through the impression she made when singing ‘Non mi dir’.

Joyce DiDonato in Il barbiere di Siviglia for Royal Opera, 2009. ©Bill Cooper

By embracing a singing career Joyce found her true vocation, what she was meant to do. “I do believe that in music there’s something bigger than ourselves. [Recently] I heard a speech given at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. The speaker was asking how it is that when we sing a Schubert song or hear a Mozart concerto we feel that these men who lived centuries ago know how we feel. By knowing something about us they enlighten us. I take that very seriously, and that’s why I feel a sense of vocation, a responsibility to bring music to as many people as I can, to do it as honestly as I can and at the highest level of which I am capable. In some respects this business can be very devastating: the highs can be very high, amazing and wonderful, but it’s a life of extremes and the lows can be terrible. That’s because they can hit you when you’re alone, on the road and in a stressful situation cut off from your support network and without a person to whom you can turn. But you learn that such moments will pass. It wouldn’t be worth it if you were in it just for the money or for the screams of an audience at the end of a show. But I can say that it does justify being away from your family and everything else when you get a personal response, perhaps by e-mail, from somebody who simply says ‘I cried’ or ‘I had a moment I never thought was possible’. Then you know that it’s worth it.”

Having belief in what she was doing was very necessary to sustain Joyce at one stage in her career. After teachers at Philadelphia’s Academy of Vocal Arts showed a lack of belief in her, it took Steve Smith at Houston Opera to get to the nub of the problem by persuading her to rethink her technique. Another challenge to her confidence came in 1997 when a judge in a competition at Wigmore Hall in London dismissed her with the remark that as a singer she had nothing to say and, later still, when her agent encouraged her to go for auditions in Europe she faced a situation in which she failed to get a single offer thirteen times in a row. Referring to the Wigmore Hall incident, I congratulate her on what seems to have been an ability to turn a negative into a positive through the way in which she responded, but Joyce tends to disclaim any credit for it. “It sent me into a spiral for a few months, I think, and I was quite angry at first. It may be my Irish background, but there’s a little bit of the spitfire in me. That was what made me want to say ‘Okay, if you want me to say something, then I will’. But once I’d calmed down I thought that there must be some grain of truth in what had been said because the comment had been made by an established professional. So I decided that I better make sure that I always knew what I wanted to say: I might be off-track, I might be wrong, but at least I would have a point of view. If your goal is to please everybody, you end up very vanilla and very in the middle, which is not what I want.

Joyce DiDonato & Juan Diego Flïórez in Il barbiere di Siviglia for Royal Opera, 2009. ©Bill Cooper

“Furthermore, there’s a reality that you have to accept, namely that at auditions you are bound to encounter the subjectivity of the listener: some people will never put you on their list of favourite mezzos, but you may well be on someone else’s list. There’s also another lesson that I learnt when pondering what had been said at the Wigmore Hall. I came to recognise that I had allowed myself to be influenced by ideas of how a singer ought to behave on-stage, something that wasn’t personal to me and which for that reason was causing interference in getting my message across. Perhaps it’s to do with confidence and maturity, but I realised that there’s real truth in the need to find out who you are. By doing a concert in which I would stand there and simply sing as Joyce, I could achieve something genuine. It was a case of just letting that arrive, not holding it back and not adding anything to try and puff it up.”

Just how right Joyce was to recognise that you can never please everybody was proved conclusively when that disappointing series of auditions in Europe ended with the last one of all turning up trumps. She gained a contract for Paris and not for a minor role but to appear as Rosina, the very role that she is now reprising at Covent Garden. Furthermore, since that production was not to be unveiled until 2002, she was free to appear first in Milan in La Scala’s staging of La Cenerentola. These performances would lead to recognition of Joyce’s special empathy with Rossini. Nevertheless, in a career that is wide-ranging there is already one other composer with whose work she is particularly associated: Handel. She has said that performing Handel has taught her things that she could have learnt in no other way.

“The technical demands of singing Handel are exceptional: with Mozart you may be on a tightrope, but with Handel even more precision is required and Handel’s coloratura in contrast to that in Rossini can go into crevices that you don’t expect at all and that adds to the challenge. Then there’s the need to use your imagination: where Puccini, Massenet and [Richard] Strauss will tell you everything through what’s written on the page Handel may just offer a figured bass for the conductor to build on while the singer may have a long aria with just two sentences to sing. You have to infuse it with colour, with sub-text, and even before you get to the da capo, you have to discover different layers and colours which you can only find through what is happening mentally and psychologically. That challenge has taught me to go right into the bone marrow of a character and I love it.”

Joyce has taken on seven fresh roles in the last two years or so and she has welcomed that. Nor does she lack the desire to cover more new ground including French repertoire and bel canto but, having recently taken on so many parts for the first time, her prime concern now is to repeat them. “I’m planning to revisit some of those amazing roles because there’s such value and richness in living with a character for a while. It’s only then that you can really season it. So I’ll do Cendrillon again, and there’ll be more Roméos, more Sestos in La clemenza di Tito and more Octavians. I shall also be delighted to return to Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking in America because it’s a great role and a great opera, and to do new work with the composer present is so important.”

Joyce DiDonato. Photograph: Sheila Rock

For the remainder of our time together we talk about Covent Garden and about her work in London. I recall especially her appearance in 2006 as Rosina and her Donna Elvira earlier this season when she was in awe of Sir Charles Mackerras but found his support amazing. With those performances in mind, I tell her that London audiences have taken her to their hearts and she is touched to hear it (“if you can earn love from an audience in a great theatre like this, it is something that I do not take lightly”). What is brand new for her this time is working with Antonio Pappano. He conducts all but one performance of Barbiere and was the pianist in the afore-mentioned recital. Pappano’s qualities being what they are, it is not surprising that he should be praised by most interviewees who are working with him, but Joyce’s detailed comments deserve to be set out in full.

“I wasn’t as nervous in approaching him as I was with Mackerras and in any case his warmth and generosity immediately put you at ease. With him it’s just ‘Hi guys’. But, that said, I have no doubt about one thing: while he is already one of the greats, as he goes on his name will be at the top of everybody’s list as one of the all-time great opera conductors. He supplies everything I need and want but so rarely get: there’s not a trace of ego there, not a trace. Everything is in the service of the music and of the singers, and with us he knows what we are going to do three measures before we do it. However, he’s also very exacting and his standards are so high that it’s a little unnerving. You can’t relax at all, you always have to be on the game: but, come on, that’s what we all want, that kind of inspiration. And the other thing is that he is constantly listening and discovering – he doesn’t take one single note for granted, not one. As for what he did at the piano in that recital, two things especially blew my mind. One was how he made that Steinway sound like a harp at the beginning of Desdemona’s ‘Willow Song’ from Rossini’s Otello. The other was the jazz stuff he did, particularly in ‘Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man’ [Show Boat] but also in ‘Rainbow’. It was all improvised and different from what we did in rehearsal. At one point I almost got thrown: I found myself thinking ‘I wasn’t expecting that, but it’s fabulous’. Whether it’s his playing or his conducting it’s of a kind that invites you to be better than you knew you could be.”

When we turn to the subject of Barbiere, Joyce points out that all five main characters have a big number early on. In Rosina’s case it follows only the briefest of appearances in the first Scene and it is the aria ‘Una voce’ heard at the start of Act One/Scene II. “It’s nerve-wracking when it comes up because the opening phrase is so exposed and you have no orchestra under you, but that aria tells you so much about Rosina’s character. She has kept up her spirits perhaps for years by writing in her diary about her need to escape and to get away from her unscrupulous guardian and she will play tricks to achieve that. But she’s never had to put her money where her mouth is and now there’s this man, seemingly a poor student, who can help her, but she doesn’t know if it’s really going to work. However, what’s so beautiful about her is that she’s actually going on a journey and when the student comes out and says ‘I’m the Count’ she had gained in confidence and is able to see him as her future. By the close she’s ready to be the Countess.”

However, Joyce is also aware of how the opera has to work as an ensemble piece, even if the individual relationships are important (when we talk she is awaiting her Count in the person of Juan Diego Flórez but has already began rehearsals with Colin Lee – “he too is super-talented” – who appears in this role in two performances). “You may have moments of star singing, but the interaction is vital in this work which is, I believe, Rossini’s greatest. Its quality stems from the brilliance of the original play and in this production we are trying to be true to that and everybody is entering into that approach.” Every revival brings some changes however small and one detail that is different this time is that Joyce is no longer wearing a wig. She now feels more comfortable that way which is not something that she had foreseen but, as she says, what she does is always likely to involve surprises. Let us end with one general comment that she makes about being an opera singer: “It’s never boring and you can never quite predict how things are going to fall out – but that’s true both on-stage and in life. The stage teaches one so much about life and I’m fortunate to have that teacher.”

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