Interview: Joyce DiDonato returns to Covent Garden for Don Giovanni & Barbiere

'You have to give yourself the licence to fail, otherwise you're in a straightjacket and you play it safe. I don't think that's interesting in an artist.'

27 August 2008

Joyce DiDonato (credit: Sheila Rock)American mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato goes from strength to strength as an artist. In the last couple of years she's sung a total of seven new roles, including Romeo in Bellini's I Capuleti e i Montecchi at the Paris Bastille, the title part in Massenet's Cendrillon in Santa Fe, Octavian in San Francisco, Handel's Ariodante in Geneva, the composer in Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos in Madrid and the title role in Handel's Alcina in Milan. In this wide range of repertoire in houses all over the world, DiDonato has won critical praise and an increasingly large fan base.

British audiences will remember her for her extraordinary assumption of the role of Rosina in Il barbiere di Siviglia in a new production at Covent Garden in December 2005, described as 'A mesmerising performance' by The Times. DiDonato returns to the role to close the Covent Garden season next July, but before then she's also opening it with her role debut as Donna Elvira in Francesca Zambello's production of Don Giovanni, as well as opening the Wigmore Hall season and returning for a concert at the Barbican in December to promote her forthcoming Handel disc, Furore. Despite this enormously busy schedule, the extremely charming and unaffected DiDonato took time out of rehearsals for Don Giovanni to bring me up to date about her future projects.

The role of Donna Elvira has been taken on by a lot of different types of singers, from Kiri Te Kanawa and Felicity Lott to Cecilia Bartoli and Susan Graham. Why does it appeal to DiDonato? 'This is the first time I was offered it,' she explains. 'Somebody was asking me the other day if I had sung Zerlina, which would have been a more natural request at the beginning of my career, but I was never even offered the role! I don't know if I would've accepted it or not. It was the opera house who suggested Donna Elvira: I think they were going through the schedule and seeing what was available, and they proposed it. I don't know that I would have come up with it necessarily on my own. But when they said it, I went "OK, let me look at the score". If you look at it, in the scheme of things it's not so very different from Dorabella in Così. The arias are a bit different but in the ensembles especially, what's required of Dorabella is similar to Elvira. And also, having just done Idomeneo where I have that first aria of Idamante: honestly, as a lyric mezzo if you can sing that number you can almost sing anything! So I looked at it and sang through it a bit. Musically and vocally I thought I could do it, and Elvira is a role that can stand a lot of different voices and interpretations. Then I looked at the character and thought, "God, she's fabulous!". I'm just now finding her; I've done my work on my own, but it all falls into place differently when you come together with colleagues.'

I ask her about her interpretation of the character: 'I'll probably have a more concrete answer by my last performance – I suspect I might just be getting into it by then! But you know,' she whispers, 'I think she's really in love. I think she bought his lines, one hundred percent, when he said "I love you, I want to make you my wife". She really believed him. Did she see something in him that was long ago buried and real? Or did she imagine him to be something that he's not? A lot of people do that – they create a story about the person that they're with which is not reality. But maybe she sees something, because up to the very end she's trying to save him. I think she changes a lot in the opera, because when she first arrives it is "This man left me, and I'm coming to hunt him down".

'Then it changes a little bit when she sees him with another woman,' she continues. 'I think there's some jealousy in it: I haven't talked to Francesca [Zambello] about it, but there's no denying that not only is she another woman, she's of a lower station too. And I think immediately that she's protecting Zerlina, but also saying "Don't go near that man!". So there's jealousy, which is a natural thing, but as it goes I think she really sees that she has to be very desperate to sustain what happens after the trio with Leporello. We've just been staging that. I think the reason that it can be believable – that she doesn't notice the smell is different or the hands are bigger [when Leporello and Don Giovanni swap clothing so that the former can decoy Elvira while the latter escapes] – is, she wants to believe it so much that she talks herself into it. And the second it's over, I think she knows, and she feels shame. A transformation then comes over her in the Sextet and into the aria – 'Mi tradì' is so amazing!

Joyce DiDonato (credit: Marty Umans)'You see these two extremes where she's scorned and abandoned, but if I look at him I want to give him my heart. It's such a human, natural, beautifully feminine, confused state of existence. But I think something happens at the end of that – she supersedes the jealousy, she supersedes "I want to rip his heart out", and moves to "I just want to save him". I love him so much; I don't need him, but I don't want him to be condemned to eternal damnation. So it ends up that she's actually the most loving, and least selfish, person on the stage. But it takes a while for her to get there.'

I ask her whether she has good chemistry with Simon Keenlyside, who is reviving his famed interpretation of the title role. 'No, he's a terribly, terribly difficult person, no stage charisma!' she laughs. 'I'm joking! We're just starting, tiptoeing into the staging now, but what's lovely about him and Kyle [Ketelsen, the Leporello] is that they listen. They're opera singers who act by listening as well as singing gloriously – and they've fleshed out their characters because they've lived in their shoes for a long time. It's lovely to watch them work, but it's lovely to watch them react too. I was trying some things in the opening scene and Simon said "Ooh, no Elvira's ever done that before, I love it, let's try that!". And so they're very patient and open.'

The revival is being conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras, a veteran of numerous Mozart productions at Covent Garden and an expert in period performance practice.
'It makes me really nervous!' she confesses. 'I haven't been this nervous in front of a conductor for a long time. First of all, you're walking into the room with a legend. And even though we're all musicians, and we're colleagues and we're collaborating, he's a legend. So I'm a little starstruck for the moment. But from a musical standpoint, what's lovely is that we received a score, several months ago, where he has marked everything. There are no decisions to make, no debating. It's "This is the appoggiatura, this is double-dotted, this is a short rest". He's thought it through, and especially for me doing it for the first time – on a truncated rehearsal schedule! – it gives me all the information I need right from the very beginning. I have to infuse it with subtext and reasoning, but from a musical point of view I'm able to be very prepared.

'But what astonishes me is his ears.' She drops to a whisper again and says with awe: 'He hears everything. Everything! Most conductors think that as long as it doesn't fall apart, we're OK. Not him – he hears everything. So when you know that, and especially the first time you're putting a scene on its feet and get the music right, it's a little unnerving, but it's exciting! We don't often get a chance to work at such a high musical level, unfortunately. It's absolutely thrilling, because I love to be challenged and to have a lot demanded of me. It's nerve-wracking, but it's exciting.'

Joyce DiDonato (credit: Marty Umans)DiDonato talks enthusiastically about Francesca Zambello's production, which is being revived by the original director herself. 'Francesca is very keen on the class structure of everyone. She feels that that moves the plot. The power of the feminine also drives it. She was saying to us in the rehearsal we've just had that this amorality is so strong in Don Giovanni that it actually takes the collective power of these women to overcome it. What's interesting in this opera is that as one of them falters, another steps up. That's why this opera is such a masterpiece: there are so many levels on which you can interpret it, and there are so many possibilities even within the same production and the same cast. Every night it's different. And it's ambiguous: we can interpret it one way, and a hundred people sitting in the grand tier can see a different story according to what they're bringing to it. It's Da Ponte and Mozart at their best.'

The opening night of the season is being broadcast live to cinemas around the UK and the world. DiDonato laughs. 'Apparently I've been doing too many drugs lately or something, because I said "Oh sure, yes, let's broadcast my first public Elvira on a very short rehearsal schedule!". I've done one before from New York – the Barber of Seville broadcast – and that was so much fun. But Rosina to me is like Simon's Giovanni or Kyle's Leporello – I knew it inside out so I could just play with it. It's a tall order for me to have my first portrayal of it broadcast, but on the other hand, knowing that when I'm going into it, you put your concentration on it, and I think ultimately it'll be a great thing. It reinforces the idea that Elvira doesn't know what's going to happen. She doesn't know how Giovanni's going to react, she's played it a million times in her head while she's been travelling around the world – she has a rifle in this case – but you realise in 'Mi tradi' that she's experiencing it all for the first time. It's so much deeper and more profound than she could have imagined. So I will very much be bringing a freshness to that!

'And I think that's one of the advantages of not having done a role a million times; you really don't know what's going to happen. But it's a tall order from a vocal standpoint, so I have to have all my ducks in a row so that I'm not preoccupied with what comes next. I want it to be great. And I want to arrive already having found a lot of layers to it, and not just getting through the performance. I want it to be nuanced and rich. Knowing that there's a camera in front of you keeps you very honest and focussed. I really like that. You'll never replace being in the theatre and experiencing it live, but being more concentrated and focussed as a performer – because you know the camera's watching you and you can't fall off for a second – makes the performance in the theatre more energetic and immediate, too. So I think it's a great thing.'

Joyce DiDonato as Rosina in Il barbiere di Siviglia in December 2005 (credit: Bill Cooper)DiDonato is ending the season, too, as Rosina in a revival of Il barbiere di Siviglia. Covent Garden has gathered the starriest cast of the season for it, with Simon Keenlyside as Figaro, Juan Diego Florez as Almaviva, Alessandro Corbelli as Bartolo and Ferruccio Furlanetto as Basilio. 'I can't wait!' says the mezzo. 'I enjoyed working with this team so much. It was such a rewarding experience for me, and I'll be working with Maestro Pappano for the first time in opera. And the cast is not bad either! I think it's going to be so much fun, knowing these performers. Simon's such a clown, in a harlequin sense, which I think was their vision of Figaro in this production, and with Corbelli, Florez and Furlanetto it's going to be wonderful.' When I ask her about the recent announcements in Opera magazine's 'We hear that' column that she's returning to do Cendrillon and La donna del lago, she replies with an innocent smile, 'I've heard that too'.

I bring up the subject of DiDonato's return to the Wigmore Hall to open the new season. 'Oh yes, a week on Saturday, the day after the general rehearsal of Don Giovanni!' she laughs, nervously. 'I'm taking so many vitamins, I can't tell you!' How does she put the programme together – just by picking favourites, or by choosing special things for that audience? 'It's a combination of the two. I'm fortunate that I've sung there now a couple of times. I don't want to say that I feel at home because I don't want to be presumptuous, but I have a wonderful feeling when I perform there.' One of DiDonato's previous visits to the Wigmore was released on the hall's in-house record label. 'Yes!' she enthuses. 'It was the Venice one with Julius [Drake]. That was the lunchtime recital. I'd love to do that programme again – we've only done it that one time for that one concert! When I do tours I want to do that recital, but it includes the Wigmore so I have to do something else.

'Choosing for them requires a combination of things for me, because I know you can't just do any programme, but I also think the most successful recital programmes are the ones where you sing music that you love. So that's my starting point. I have done a recording of Copland's Dickinson songs, which I know are not necessarily easy for an audience, and they have a very distinctive sentiment which not everyone likes. But I think they're wonderful, and especially as an American, I feel a real sense of pride in not always doing German Lieder or Spanish songs, which I love. This is my musical language, my heritage. And since we've recorded it but never performed it, I thought this would be a good opportunity to bring them in person. But knowing that that's demanding on the audience, I wanted to make the first half a little bit lighter. So there's the Vivaldi, which is beautiful, and the Chausson are very beautiful pieces that I adore.'

DiDonato has a multi-city Handel concert tour with Les Talens Lyriques later in the year that comes to the Barbican on 13 December. 'It's promoting my debut opera arias disc on Virgin Classics. I've just heard the final edit and seen the cover art, so I'm seeing the pieces coming together. It's amazing how nerve-wracking that is now because I know I've done all the work, but people are starting to hear it for the first time and so I sit worrying about whether they're going to like it. The people behind it are really enthusiastic about it. I'm so passionate about Handel: it's taught me so much as an artist; it's taught me so much as a performer. It continues to blow my mind, to take my breath away. We went with the idea of Handel knowing that next year is his anniversary, so we wanted to find something that really keyed into my temperament, rather than just doing a 'greatest hits' Handel disc – which I would gladly have done as well! We started from the Dejanira mad scene, and thought about doing all mad scenes but it seemed slightly limiting. So we came up with the title 'Furore' – 'Fury' – and we decided, for example, to do three arias of Medea from Teseo in which you see her collapse into vengeance and vindictiveness, and three of Dejanira that show you where her madness and fury come from. There's also Sesto, Xerxes and Amadigi. It's an intense disc – not necessarily easy listening – but it's stuff that I love. I want to have an impact, to make people go 'Wow!' when they feel the depth of emotion that Handel gives you.'

An important engagement for DiDonato this season is the world premiere of Peter Lieberson's song cycle, The World in Flower, with the New York Philharmonic and its next music director, Alan Gilbert. Why does one of the world's foremost bel canto singers want to venture into contemporary repertoire? 'Before I ever sang Handel opera, during my training in Houston I participated in three world premieres. Then in 2002 I did Dead Man Walking. I know the music is challenging, and not all new operas are big hits, but I think it's so rewarding and important for a musician to be a part of the creative process – and to have the luxury and beautiful gift of opening up the score and 'crack': you know nobody's seen it before. Nobody's heard it, nobody knows how it goes. It's brand new, there's no recording to listen to, there's no authority, no tradition.

Joyce DiDonato (credit: Marty Umans)'To create something has absolutely without a doubt informed the way I look at Rossini, who you could just pick up and hear Marilyn Horne sing it and think "Oh, that's the way that goes". That doesn't interest me at all. What interests me is having a dialogue with the composer and being able to have a real conversation rather than a 'virtual' one is very exciting. It's also a very rewarding thing to know that the audience is waiting to hear what happens next. I have a voracious musical theatrical appetite – I love to try things. You have to be judicious about how much you do, because I don't ever want to be seen only as a Rossini or contemporary music singer, or whatever. One of the reasons I love the Rossini so much is that it's not the only thing I do. When I come back to Rosina after an Idamante or a recital, I'm still really excited about it. It's like an athlete – stretching your musical muscles and not just having one groove in your vocal palette. For me it's something I really appreciate. I think it makes me a better performer than I would be otherwise because I learn so much.

'The other thing that's wonderful about this particular cycle is that he chooses a lot of different texts. It's poetry, and some of it's new. It's full of beautiful sentiments – he's a Buddhist, and it's focussed on peace. Ultimately, that's what we do: music is such a powerful force that every once in a while it's nice to say something substantive, not just to entertain.'

Another of DiDonato's forthcoming engagements involves taking German music to the Germans – she's singing Octavian for one performance in Berlin. 'Oh my God, in February! Yes – that's a big risk! It's my debut in Germany. But I sang it in San Francisco with Miah Persson as my Sophie and Soile Isokoski as the Marschallin.  Donald Runnicles conducted. I'm telling you, that spoiled me for all other things. People kept telling me to wait for Octavian. I'd seen two productions, and thought, yes, OK, you get to sing the Presentation and the Trio and you get to dress up as Mariandel, haha. But when I did it myself and got into it, I fell madly in love with this character of Octavian. He's just shy of getting it. He thinks he gets it, but he doesn't get it. And it's a brilliant score – even though it's a long night, for Octavian there's not one extraneous syllable. It's like Mozart in that way. It's just perfection. It requires everything you have as a performer, from comedy to tragedy to passion. And vocally it's the most gratifying thing to do: you do all this work, and you hear this soaring vocal line and it's just incredible. I'd love to do it here!'

Joyce DiDonato (credit: Marty Umans)I mention DiDonato's forthcoming appearance in the title role of Donizetti's Maria Stuarda at the Met in 2012-13. I ask her whether she's singing the version performed by Maria Malibran, Donizetti's first Maria, but DiDonato isn't sure whether such a version exists. 'I'm calling it the Janet Baker version,' she explains. 'I think two of the scenes are transposed. This is an opera that has withstood a lot of transposition – two mezzos, two sopranos, one of each – and I sang Elisabetta a few years ago in Geneva. I loved it and would love to come back to it at some point. But Maria is also a great character, and my first thing is that you get to sing that final scene – if I'm still standing!' she jokes.

'And again, it was the case that they asked if I wanted to do it – it's not necessarily something I'd have come up with on my own. But it was Patrick Summers at Houston who said I should do it, in the right version. So I took a look at it, and there's not such a difference between the range of Maria and Elisabetta, especially if you do the Baker version. Elisabetta was a good role for me – I'd like to come back to it when I'm older, but we had a great directorial team that played the two ladies as very young, so it was a very lyrical approach. I just sang my first Romeo in I Capuleti and it blew my mind. This idea of the bel canto is not so far from Handel – they're all so closely associated; it's both demanding and rewarding. This piece has never been done at the Met before – it's never been a huge bel canto house. So I think when Maria comes along in a few years, it will be good timing.'

I ask DiDonato about her early experiences of music in her childhood. 'I can't remember the first time I heard it because it was always a part of our household. My father was a huge lover of music and probably my first musical memories are sitting in a choir loft watching him conduct his church choir on Sunday mornings. I waited anxiously until I was old enough to sing in the adult choir! We would always have choral music on, and he played the Met broadcasts. I was never interested.

'I remember the first time I heard opera and became interested, though. I had gone to college and started taking voice lessons, but my degree was in Music Education. I was nineteen years old at the time, and I heard Don Giovanni from the Met on a PBS broadcast. It was Carol Vaness singing 'Non mi dir'. I don't remember the rest of the cast. She launched into this, and I just went "Oh!". Something inside me pivoted and made me realise I wanted to do that.

'It made me think, well, I kind of like this, but it didn't really enter into my mind to be a performer. I was going to be a teacher! But I slowly went into it, and I knew I had to go for it one hundred percent – all the way – if I was going to make it.'

Joyce DiDonato (credit: Sheila Rock)Does she have any ambitions? 'Well, I'd like there to be peace in the Middle East, and for people everywhere to be happy and peaceful, but that sounds a bit like I'm answering a Miss America question! My ambition has never been to be a big star. It doesn't resonate with me so much. I can look at a piece of paper and see that I'm on the cast list of Don Giovanni at the Royal Opera House and think "That's cool!". I'm not naïve about it, but I do know that the second you hit "stardom" it's a short-lived career. The second you're a "star" in the fame sense, people are waiting for the next star to come along. I tend to look at people like Lorraine Hunt, Frederica von Stade, Mirella Freni – they're stars because of their body of work, their sincere passion. They actually sing well! That's what interests me, because that's what has staying power. The idea of glamour and stardom in the opera world is not as new as people think it is. They complain that it's all about looks, but if you go back to the divas of the 1930s and 1940s, they're the most glamorous people around. In Handel's day, too, it was all about sparring divas, and the public loves it. So this is not a new thing.

'What is new is the toys that come with it – we have the big screen high definition movie theatres, glossy magazine covers – and I'm not naïve about it. If I want people to know about my performances and buy my discs, you have to be in the public eye, and that's part of this. But the thing that I'm really clear about is that I want it to be organic, to come from my work, and I think I'm doing that. It feels good because I don't have any sense of superficiality in the things I do. It doesn't mean I'm always great or that I always choose the right things. I'm now choosing a few roles that are a little risky, but that's intentional. I want to try new things. I could sing Rosina for another ten years, but the audience will have heard it all. If I go back to the Met four times, they've heard my Rosina and it's not so interesting for them, or even for me. I'm fully aware that some of these things will be huge hits and that I may have one or two misses, but I'm OK with that. If I'm not, that means I'm not going to continue to take risks.

'You have to give yourself the licence to fail, otherwise you're in a straightjacket and you play it safe. I don't think that's interesting in an artist. They'll be calculated risks, and I'll do everything within my power to make sure they don't fail, but I don't ever want to put the pressure on myself to think it's got to be perfect, because then you close yourself down as an artist and you're not free.'

By Dominic McHugh

Joyce DiDonato plays Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni at Covent Garden from 8 September 2008. Booking is open. The performance on 8 September will also be broadcast live to selected members of the Curzon, Vue, Picturehouse and Empire cinema chains, more details of which can be found here.

DiDonato returns to The Royal Opera next July for a revival of Il barbiere di Siviglia, which is part of Booking Period 4.

Her forthcoming recordings include a disc of Handel arias called 'Furore' on Virgin Classics and a complete recording of Handel's Alcina on DG/Archiv Production, in addition to the critically-acclaimed Wigmore Hall recital released on Wigmore Hall Live recently. She will also appear at the Wigmore Hall on 6 September.

Joyce DiDonato's blog is updated almost daily and contains many pictures taken by herself. It can be read at

Interviews with other singers in Don Giovanni:

Simon Keenlyside
Kyle Ketelsen
Marina Poplavskaya
Francesca Zambello (director)