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An Interview With Joyce DiDonato: Rossini as Her Barometer

November 10, 2009

When mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato made her San Francisco Opera debut in 2003, as Rosina in The Barber of Seville, it was immediately apparent that audiences were hearing an artist of extravagant vocal gifts. The Kansas native has gone on to sing a wide variety of roles — from Cherubino and Cenerentola, to Octavian (which she sang in San Francisco in 2007) and Sister Helen Prejean in Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking.

Still, there’s no finer Rossini interpreter working today. 

Her new CD, titled “Rossini–Joyce DiDonato–Colbran, the Muse,” is garnering rave reviews (see SFCV’s review ). She’s spent much of this year as Rosina, appearing in Barbers at the Met and Covent Garden. In the latter, she broke her leg in a well-publicized fall from the stage; undaunted, she finished the evening on a crutch and finished the run in a wheelchair. She returns to the role in her Los Angeles Opera debut on Nov. 29. Before that, though, Bay Area audiences can hear her in a San Francisco Performances recital Nov. 16 at Herbst Theater. We spoke midway through her Barber run at the Met.


This is a Rossini season for you. Does it feel a bit like you’ve come full circle?

Absolutely. It’s always been sort of my spinal column, the thing that I’ve always come back to. He’s a composer who has been very good to me. When you do something and it’s such a natural fit, any time you try and go against that, nature is going to bring you back. So I use Rossini as my measuring stick, my barometer.

Your new CD is fabulous; I don’t think you’ve ever sounded better. Is that how you feel?

I do, and I would be worried if I didn’t feel that way. I’d hate to think I peaked a few years ago; that would make me sad!

I don’t feel that I would have been a success doing this disc four years ago. It felt that the timing was right. To be honest, I also knew, in today’s recording climate, that I would likely get one chance at my Rossini disc. I wanted to make the most of it, so I prepared really hard for it. Of course, you can plan things on paper, but you never really know how it’s going to come together, and I’m sure in a year, I’ll want to re-record it. But I gave it everything I had. It’s a true representation of where I am with this repertoire, and that feels really good.

This disc is not only a tribute to Rossini, but also to his wife, Isabella Colbran. Tell us a little about her.

She’s a bit of an enigma. She was about eight years older than Rossini, so she was maybe one of the original cougars! And they were enamored with each other. When he first met her, she was at the height of her powers. She was one of the great prima donnas of the day. It’s obvious to me that she really struck his imagination – we’re calling it Colbran the Muse because I don’t think you can look at the depth of roles he wrote for her and argue that she was not a muse for him. You look at these roles like Armida and Semiramide, which he wrote at the end for her, when her vocal capacities were diminished — she got terrible reviews at the end, but he was still composing for her — and he sort of carefully crafted these roles for her, with easy warm-up scenes and a few hours to come out and finally nail this huge finale. It’s fascinating to see this chemistry between composer and singer.

Is there a different way that you approach new music as opposed to the standard repertoire?

Actually, I approach the standard repertoire differently because of the work I’ve done on new repertoire. I did a number of premieres in Houston under David Gockley — Little Women,Resurrection, Jackie O — and then when I did Dead Man Walking in New York, it had already been premiered in San Francisco, but it was certainly a new piece. I open these scores and there’s no tradition and no recording legacy to learn from and say "here’s how this goes." You feel trepidacious, and then you realize that it’s your job to take the information the composer’s given you and learn it on your own. It’s difficult, and a little scary, because you arrive on the first day with the conductor and think “I hope I got it right.” But then there’s a real sense of empowerment and ownership, because you know that you’re doing it with your voice, and not subconsciously imitating someone else.

How do you know when a role is a good fit, and have you ever started a role and said no way, it’s not going to work?

I’ve been really fortunate. Most of the ones I’ve taken on have been really good fits. I sang the Fox in The Cunning Little Vixen and when I finished it, I felt that I had done a good job, but I said "I don’t think I should do this again: There are other roles that would show me off in a more successful way." Now I’m starting to get into slightly more complicated territory. When I did Cendrillon, that was a big question — is the bigger French repertoire going to fit? I thought, yes, this fits, and when Marguerite [in Gounod's Faust] came up this season, it felt like a natural progression. I’ve agreed to do Maria Stuarda in a few years, and I think it’s going to be a good thing. Preparing this music for the recital also tells me that it’s possible to go into these different types of roles.

What will the San Francisco recital program include?

A: Well, this is the big challenge for an opera singer, doing art song recitals. I have not cracked the code yet, because there’s so much amazing literature for piano and voice, and I want to do that. On the other hand, you’ve sort of built a reputation as an opera singer. So I’ve tried to balance that and find repertoire that is slightly operatic in nature and that I love and have an affinity for. I snuck in the Willow Song from [Rossini's] Otello. It’s so beautiful and so intimate, I thought I can get away with this. That will be the focal point of the first half.

I’m also doing some beautiful, rather unknown songs by Francesco Santoliquido, a 20th-century composer I call Frank Holywater. They are as close to Puccini as I will ever get — lush and gorgeous with snippets that sound like they’re stolen from Boheme and Butterfly. I just love them. The second half is all Spanish, and certainly they have a lot of operatic flair — [Enrique] Granados Majas dolorosa are quite virile and amazing. It’s repertoire that’s not done so often, and I think [the songs] are a good representation of my temperament as a singer.

In general, are recitals as important to you as opera? Where do recitals fit in your career?

It’s kind of hard to talk about that without also discussing where the art song recital is today in general. Trying to book a recital tour in the States is a huge challenge, whereas I could book three full recitals in about a week’s time in Europe. That’s just a reality. You have these amazing halls — for example, Spivey Hall in Atlanta — that is one of the greatest halls I’ve ever sung in. It seats maybe 800 people, and if they sell 400 tickets, it’s a great success. I think that’s tragic. So I think, if I’m doing a recital, do I need to be doing all arias?

Artistically, I find that it’s an enormous challenge to sustain a two-hour evening all by yourself and a piano. No costumes, no colleagues to inspire you. It’s a dialogue between you and the audience, and it’s a huge responsibility. But what you have to do is delve into this music, and give credence to these songs as a storyteller and a musician. I grow by leaps and bounds as an artist, as a musician, when I’m preparing a recital, because the only thing I have to paint with is the text and the sound of the voice. It’s hugely informative and generous in what it teaches me. … I just hope there will continue to be an audience.

Let’s talk about that fall off the stage. A lot of singers would have bowed out, but you finished the night and you finished the run in a wheelchair. Why did you do that?

Well, it’s probably my Midwestern work ethic — it’s like, I’m not dying, and I have a contract, so I’m supposed to work. We had a number of conversations, and I said I don’t want to be obstinate and insist on going on. I don’t want to hurt the production, but if there’s a way to make it work and not compromise the evening for the audience, I’m willing to do it. I think we came up with a pretty spectacular solution and the audience seemed to enjoy it. You know, the show goes on, and I had a great support system in place with the cast, the Royal Opera, and my husband. He happened to be in town, and he made my life a lot easier.

Now you’re back in the Met’s Barbiere. Are you recovered?

So far so good. I’m still in physical therapy, but it’s going well. It’s lovely, in this particular climate, to have a show where people just come and laugh and have a good time. They come ready to do that, and they’re enjoying it. It’s a great production: It’s really fresh and there’s a lot of space for the performers to do our thing. Nothing interferes with the music, but there’s a lot of movement, and that’s great. It’s really just a question of trusting Rossini. We forget what a masterpiece it is, because we all know how it goes. But it’s so brilliantly crafted you just have to get out of the way and let his genius come through.

Georgia Rowe has been a Bay Area arts writer since 1986. She is Opera News’ chief San Francisco correspondent, and a frequent contributor to San Francisco Classical Voice, Musical America, San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, and San Francisco Examiner. Her work has also appeared in Gramophone, San Francisco Magazine, and Songlines.