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Joyce DiDonato breaks the opera diva mold

Lively and engaging (she writes her own blog), the mezzo-soprano from Kansas City is a breed apart from the untouchable singers of years past.

November 29, 2009|By James C. Taylor
  • Starting out, Joyce DiDonato didn't expect to be much more than a regional singer. But a trip to compete in Germany would help set her on the path to international fame.
Starting out, Joyce DiDonato didn't expect to be much more than a regional… (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from New York — For young opera singers, lucky breaks don't come easy -- and for mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato they tend to be incredibly painful.

This summer, DiDonato was in London performing in Rossini's "The Barber of Seville" (a role she reprises today in her LA Opera debut). She was well on her way to a successful opening night at the Royal Opera House, finishing the famous aria "Una voce poco fa." Then suddenly, DiDonato tripped on a metal flap track onstage and fractured her fibula.

Most singers would (and probably should) have called for an understudy immediately, but DiDonato insisted on hobbling though Act 1. At intermission, she swore off the doctors and went out for Act 2 using a crutch. She received rapturous applause at the curtain call and soon became a darling of the European press when she finished the entire run -- not missing a single show -- with her leg in a cast, singing Rossini's ingénue from a wheelchair.

Speaking last month during a run of "Barber" at the Metropolitan Opera, DiDonato, 40, says she never considered not going back on stage: "That wasn't an option for me. I just kept thinking, 'I just sprained it. If I can put ice on it and keep it elevated when I'm offstage, then I'll get through this OK.' That was my thinking, it wasn't at all that I can't go on."

In many ways DiDonato represents a new wave of American opera singer -- and not just because of her toughness. The stereotype of opera divas has long been women who are serious, stout and secretive -- who like to be adored only from afar. DiDonato could not be more different. She's svelte, as cheery in person as she is as Rosina, and has no interest living her life behind a veil of PR, spin and celebrity hauteur.

This persona was formed in Kansas City, Mo., where DiDonato was born and raised. Her father was a church choir director and, she says, "when I entered college I was 100% sure that I would be a music teacher." Toward the end of her time at Wichita State she became interested in opera -- partly because "I got more scholarship money by singing in the opera chorus." But the art form clearly appealed to her: "Intellectually, musically, emotionally, physiologically . . . I started really getting seduced by it."

But her desire to teach hadn't diminished when as a student teacher she was assigned to two low-income schools. "I saw such an immense need for good teachers. And I was really pulled because that felt like the place I should be."

Some advice from her father ("There's more than one way to educate and touch people and make a difference in their lives") helped DiDonato decide what to pursue. But the long odds of becoming a professional opera singer -- let alone a star -- were not lost on her. "At that point when I was being pulled by opera, I'd stop and think, 'I'm in Kansas? I really can't be a performer, I mean that's crazy.' "

And yet DiDonato not only was accepted into a competitive graduate program at the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia, but three years later she landed a coveted spot in Houston Grand Opera's young artist program. It was there, as she was flush with anticipation, that it suddenly all appeared to be over.

"I was 26 when I got into the program and my teacher . . . in my first lesson said, 'Joyce, you're musical, you're talented, you're obviously intelligent; but there's no future in the way you're singing."

Rather than quitting or seeking out a different teacher, DiDonato dug in and found a way to persevere with her instructor, Steve Smith: "Here I thought I had made the big time, you know, the Houston Opera Studio, one of the top programs in the country. And yet I was just old enough and just scared enough, that I think I trusted him. And he said, 'You're singing on youth and muscle, and that's going to last about three years.' And he was right."

She wasn't supporting her singing with proper breathing technique: "I would often cross my fingers behind my back going 'I hope I get the high note.' " Her charismatic stage presence helped hide this from previous voice teachers. "Also I fooled people and fooled myself because I could produce a pretty substantial sound. I had a lot more expression in me than I was able to produce -- I wanted to do a lot of musical things, but I didn't know how."

For the next three years, DiDonato went through a struggle that makes her adrenaline-fueled run this summer in London seem like a cakewalk. DiDonato says she started from scratch: "With singing there's lot of comparisons to sports things. If you're a golfer, the first thing you have to do before you learn the proper grip is learn how to let go."

It wasn't easy to let go. "There was years of built up muscle memory," she says, " . . . after the first lesson, I said, 'Steve, I feel completely naked,' and he said, 'Yeah, now we can start.' "

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