Joyce DiDonato at the Kennedy Center

A Yankee Diva Phenomenon

Joyce DiDonato
courtesy of the Washington Performing Arts Society
Joyce DiDonato

Unless you’re a classical music and opera fanatic, you may not have heard of Joyce DiDonato. But take my word for it—and I’m no expert in this field—Joyce DiDonato is a woman on the verge of a major breakthrough. She is as hot as you can possibly be in the here and now, driving critics to a kind of ecstasy in their descriptions of her.

Try this one: “it is a remarkable package that DiDonato offers: a mezzo cast in milk chocolate, but so smooth and agile that it can reach up to a diamond-bright soprano as well as sink to a rich, chesty alto. And then there is that instinctive charisma: she is always engaging, always sparkling…”

This quote is from the Times of London, probably not prone to comparing a singer’s voice to chocolate very often.

We caught up with DiDonato by phone as she was making her way by car from Houston to Dallas. DiDonato is at the Kennedy Center’s cavernous Concert Hall this Tuesday for a recital of works by Haydn, Chaminade, Hahn, and most notably Rossini, a composer whose music she consistently knocks out of the ballpark.

Even though Texas had been hit by seriously bad weather at the time, DiDonato didn’t seem to mind. “It’s not that long a trip,” she said. “And I love road trips, anyway. You see so much of the country, the real country. It’s not just dropping down in an airplane, get picked up and go to the hotel, go to rehearsals and perform.”

You’re on level-headed ground talking with her; she doesn’t do diva airs, even if she calls her blog Yankee Diva. Yes, she has a blog, which has now been more or less merged with a very attractive, diverse and comprehensive website

“I want to do more than perform, more than sing, more than be on that stage,” she said. “I want to communicate my love of the music, my love for the fans that follow my work, what I learned day to day, and the world I live in.”

She’s pretty savvy about this sort of thing. Check out her website—it’s a regular wonderland of performance, reviews, bios, pictures, thinking out loud and news of what’s next. She is right now the middle of an eight-city recital tour with pianist David Zobel, of which the Kennedy Center appearance is a part.

It’s hard to imagine her by herself on a big stage like the Kennedy Center accompanied only by Zobel. But if anything can fill the stage and the space, it’s probably DiDonato. She has a way of expressing charm, enthusiasm and passion about her work just by talking about it, let alone performing and singing.

“I like doing both,” she says of opera and recitals, “but they’re very different challenges. In an opera, there’s a certain amount of safety net. It’s an enterprise of tons of people. You’re never really alone, and it’s a family kind of thing—a team effort, if you will. In a recital, you’re pretty much alone, no safety net. It’s you, the accompanist, the music and most important of all the audience. And you can’t for a second lose the audience. That’s what makes it challenging, and I love that. It’s risky out there, and I don’t mind it one bit. I’m not the kind of person who believes you have to be perfect if that sort of attitude keeps you from taking risks.”

She already has honors—too many to name, but notably Gramophone’s Artist of the Year. And she recently came out with a new album, “Diva, Divo,” in which she alternates traditional operatic heroine roles with “pants” roles arias. “I love doing them,” she says. “It gives you a lot of insight into everything, and you really have to use all aspects of your voice.”

She is accessible and, at 42, one of those energetically attractive blue-eyed blondes whose rich array of hair begs to be constantly shaken and stirred. Over the phone she sounds a little like what she looks like on performance videos: strong-voice, high-energy, warm—a born storyteller without any fussiness.

“Some people have done this girl-next-door thing with me, as was done with Beverly Sills,” she said. “You know what some people said: she had a wonderful smile, she was sweet, but she had steel when it was required. Well, I can be tough when I need to be, I know what I want musically, how I want to do it. I don’t mean I’m temperamental, there’s just not a lot of time for that sort of thing.”

She performed here with the Washington National Opera right after 9/11 in Mozart’s “Cosi Fan Tutte”, an opera not done here again until last fall. “I can’t say I remember much about that,” she said. “It was such a strange time to be here, to be doing what I’m doing.”

She is by all accounts one of the finest interpreters of Rossini you can find, having done “The Barber of Seville” in many venues, including a performance that is becoming legendary for its above-and-beyond-the-call-of-duty aspect. The production in London was rolling along nicely in the first act at the Royal Opera House, when DiDonato tripped and fractured her fibula. She waved off a doctor, and appeared in Act 2 on a crutch. If that doesn’t get you a standing ovation, nothing will. And it did.

“The show must go on, right?” she said, and laughed almost sheepishly. Recently she was in a production in Houston of the much more modern opera “Dead Man Walking,” about a man on death row and the nun who tries to help him. “To me, an opera like that is an emotionally shattering experience. I am so glad I had the opportunity to do that.”

All this from a girl named Joyce Flaherty, born in a small town with the classic small-town name of Prairie Village, Kansas. “Yup, really small town,” she said as we compared notes on growing up in small town Midwest America. “You weren’t really exposed that much to classical music and opera, although I liked it. At most I had dreams of becoming a pop singer maybe, or teaching music in high school.”

You can almost see her as a schoolmarm, getting kids enthusiastic about Rossini and the like. She is not one of those girls who had voice lessons from age three and worked in the local opera company, or a child prodigy whose gifts were recognized early. “I didn’t know I had a voice, in the senses of having a gift for this,” she said. “It’s still a work in progress, as far as I’m concerned.”

It wasn’t until college at Wichita State University that she became interested, especially after performing in a production of “Die Fledermaus.” She was hooked, like a girl falling in love for the first time. She did graduate work at the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia, and from that point she became serious, and rose fairly quickly to the top.

Not bad for a kid from a family of seven children, Irish through and through (DiDonato was a name acquired from her first husband. She is now married to Italian conductor Leonardo Verdoni). “No kids yet. No pets,” she said. “We lead a pretty hectic life, although we live in Kansas City.”

She’s often quoted as having an aversion to being called a “star.” “That can be such a trap,” she said. “It’s the music, getting better, giving your audience an experience that will enrich them, that they won’t forget. I mean sure it’s nice. And no question, we have a very, very good life, traveling all over the world, performing in a very rarefied atmosphere. But I think my upbringing keeps me grounded.”

Or as grounded as a self-described “Yankee Diva” can get.

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