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Opera singer Joyce DiDonato: "I sang for prisoners in Sing Sing. They were restless, but later, you could have heard a pin drop"

Joyce DiDonato (51) is a mezzo soprano. The sixth of seven children, she was born into an Irish-American family - Flaherty. From Kansas, she lives in New York City with her partner. He is a ballet dancer


Mezzo soprano Joyce DiDonato

Mezzo soprano Joyce DiDonato

Mezzo soprano Joyce DiDonato

I'm an opera singer. My days are very different depending on where I am, and whether it's a performance day, a rehearsal day or a coronavirus day.

Recently, I had a strange day. What should have happened was a dress rehearsal at the Met [Metropolitan Opera, New York]. It was due to start at 10.30am in front of an invited audience; the final dress rehearsal for Massenet's Werther. But it was cancelled because of coronavirus.

It's heartbreaking, but I can't say it was surprising because as the days were creeping up to it, we were sensing that we were going to cancel. My hope was that we would get the final dress rehearsal in because the Met always films it. When you know that you're not going to have the chance to realise something, it's tough. We can rehearse all we want and that's a great experience, but it doesn't fully come to life until the audience arrive.

But I decided to do something about it. I called Piotr [Beczala] the tenor, and our pianist, and invited them to my little apartment in New York. We sang excerpts from the opera and streamed it live. It was nothing fancy, no costumes, just a chance to sing through it one more time. And we also did it as a fundraiser, because artists are going to be facing really dire months with no work, and uncertainty about the work that will be coming back afterwards. We asked people to donate, and that will be helping.

But let's go back to a normal day before all of this. I wake up at around 7am and have a cup of coffee. I try to have a half-hour here in my own space and to get in some body movement and meditation. It will be the quietest moment of the day for me. This time of day is only for me, and it's very important because I need to start in a calm place. Once I go outside the door, there are going to be a lot of requests on my time. If I don't start the day really grounded, I'm in trouble.

I've never been a big breakfast person, and if I start getting into the habit of eating it, I gain weight like crazy. I have a system that works well. I have two coffees, and then I'm not hungry until lunchtime. It's kind of that intermittent fasting. But by the time the dress rehearsal is over, I'm starving.

I can eat pretty much anything, but I steer clear of most dairy. But I will never give up mozzarella cheese because I won't give up my caprese salad.

Is there a base in an opera singer's life? A lot of the time, there isn't. My family is from Kansas City, so if I go home there, I have a place to stay. But I spend a lot of time in NY. I have an apartment here. When you wake up in New York, you wake to jackhammers, so you just close the window.

My partner and I have a place outside Barcelona. So if I'm off, that's generally where we go. It's important for me to get off the grid and to find some refuelling time. I like being in nature, in the open sky. I enjoy working in the garden, and the only sound I want to hear is birds singing. Nature restores me.

To be an opera singer, it takes 10 years of training before you are ready to spring out and go. We have to master the physicality of what it is to stand there and sing for three hours; to produce a beautiful sound that can fill an entire theatre without amplification and with an over-100-people orchestra.

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Sometimes people say, 'Oh, in opera, the soprano is always dying'. Yes, she is always dying because we're all going to die, and we're all going to suffer and hate and be jealous and be happy and ecstatic and miserable. It's the human condition, and we're all going to experience those things if we are lucky in our lives. Opera is an opportunity to expose those emotions in an exaggerated way, so that we can really feel and connect. And so, we can say, 'Look, there is somebody else who has been suicidal and who would have done anything for their love or child'.

In New York, most people leave me alone as I walk along, but the closer I get to Lincoln Hall, people often stop me. Generally they are discreet, and they usually talk about a memorable moment and how my performance helped them. There is a kind of intimacy that happens in a theatre, it's live between the performer and the audience. I like to get to the theatre two hours before curtain. Sometimes I'll do my own make-up. I like that transformation where my face starts to disappear and the new face starts to emerge. I spend a lot of time on my eyebrows. Your female readers will understand this.

As well as performing on stage, I do other projects. I sang in Sing Sing, which is a maximum-security prison north of New York State. In the beginning they were restless, and I didn't know how it was going to go. But I explained the story of the aria that I was going to sing. I said, 'You guys know Cleopatra, queen of the Nile ?' They started whistling. I explained how she was sad that the love of her life had been killed and that she was crying, and then later, she was angry and was going to get revenge on the man who killed him.

They listened closely to the sad bit, and then, when they heard the angry bit, they were shouting: 'You make him pay. Get him'. And then when she went back to being sad, saying that revenge is fruitless, you could have heard a pin drop. I thought, 'They get this'. They felt what the music was doing and they went with me. It was one of the most important things I ever felt. I love what I do.





In conversation with Ciara Dwyer


Joyce DiDonato is scheduled to perform at NCH on Saturday, May 23 at 8pm

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