Interview: Joyce DiDonato

Eva Mackevic 18 October 2021

The mezzo-soprano superstar on solitude, hope, and what we can expect from her upcoming show at The Barbican

Reader’s Digest: Your upcoming show “In My Solitude” is all about loneliness, human interaction, and is bound to be an overall emotional affair. How was the idea for it born?

Joyce DiDonato: Originally, my pianist, Craig Terry, and I were to come with a band performing our project Songplay, but as another casualty of COVID strikes, we had to pare down the size of our concert and switch course a bit.

As a response to all we’ve been feeling, Craig and I wanted to use one of the pieces from Songplay, Duke Ellington’s “In My Solitude”, to use as a mirror to directly look at what so many of us have dealt with over these past 20 months.

We then began looking at all the examples of isolation and solitude over the centuries, and we discovered worlds on Greek Islands and in the pyramids of Egypt, in addition to that smoky room of Ellington. It may sound a bit bleak, but I find great comfort and solace in knowing that this is not the first incident of isolation in world history—quite the contrary. And we’re still here. So I’m filled with hope.

RD: How does singing jazz, popular song, etc, compare to singing opera to you?

JD: It’s quite interesting, because much of my career has been centred around Baroque music which has incredible parallels to the musical world of jazz: figured bass lines, sparse melodies that are waiting for the singer’s embellishments, deep emotions coming straight from the heart. So the leap to jazz feels actually more like just peeking in a different room in the same house. I’m also from Kansas City—a central figure in the development of jazz—so a part of me was born with a bit of jazz flair.

RD: How do you know Craig Terry? 

JD: Craig and I go way back, but the birth of Songplay—and now Solitude was born in his living room at a dinner party. He had been thinking of playing with some of the 24 Italian Art Songs, and giving them a special “treatment”. He sat down at the piano and began playing with “Caro Mio Ben”—a beginning voice anthem—and it felt as if it was always meant to be sung and played with a bit of the blues. I knew at that moment that it was something special that the two of us could bring to life.

Joyce Di Donato

RD: The COVID-19 pandemic has turned the world upside down—what did it look like for you? 

JD: I think I have to answer that in the present: what is it looking like for me? Because, of course, we’re not quite finished just yet, and the repercussions—particularly in the field of the arts—will be long standing. I have tried to meet it exactly where it is, and have embraced a profound place of silence.

At the start I had the sensation that there was a hidden gift in this—and that was the opportunity to get off the hamster wheel of life and just stop, rest and listen. I am, however, keenly aware of the suffering it has caused so many—by death, long-term illness, economic devastation—we all know the tragic toll it has taken on many.

"I waffle between great despair and great hope, to be completely honest"

But I had the great opportunity to stay quiet (and healthy!) and to use the time to go deeper somehow. My hope is that this has prepared me now for the energy that will be needed on the other side—and that my performances will reflect this in a profound way, bringing great joy and comfort to people as we emerge. 

RD: Have you had any big revelations as a result of it? 

JD: I waffle between great despair and great hope, to be completely honest. If this period doesn’t teach us to love one another more strongly, and to work together more earnestly, I’m not sure anything is up to the task.  That’s my despair speaking. But I am speaking now with a lot of young people, and they see great opportunities (and great absurdities!) abounding around, and this—this is my hope! 

RD: Numerous artists across all styles and genres took their work online during the pandemic; have we learned anything new about the opera format as a result?

JD: I’m not sure about opera, specifically—but one thing is abundantly clear now: we need the arts in our lives. We need the beauty, the harmony, the soul-food that it provides ceaselessly. And we need to experience it as a community—not via wireless speakers in our basements. It has everything to teach us about going forward humanely and in love. And this is the world I want to emerge into.

RD: Have you experienced any anxiety about going back up on stage after such a long break? 

JD: I have experienced an abundance of gratitude and a renewed sense of savouring every single, solitary note and syllable. The only thing for me that has been tricky is the stamina of a live performance. There is no way to prepare for it—even singing hours in your home is not the same. It can only be gained by doing it. But I feel really rested, and immensely clear on what I want to say right now, and that feels amazing.

"We need the arts in our lives"

RD: What do you do to relax? 

JD: Meditation. Yoga. Photography. Painting. Bird watching. Gardening. Laughing. Dreaming. 

RD: What music have you been listening to lately

JD: I’m a big fan of Beautiful Chorus who I discovered in the past few months, and there just may be a brilliant collaboration brewing… stay tuned! 

Joyce DiDonatoIn My Solitude, an intimate recital with pianist Craig Terry exploring themes of solitude and love, is on at the Barbican on Tuesday, October 26. Tickets are available here.

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