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Prairie Village's Joyce DiDonato Brings Power Of Music To Moscow, Sing Sing And Kauffman Center

Luke X. Martin
KCUR 89.3
Joyce DiDonato's upcoming program with the Kansas City Symphony isn't an easy one, but the mezzo-soprano isn't afraid of jumping into a challenge completely. "It is my thing," she says.

She's taken her craft from Barcelona to Beijing, but this weekend Joyce DiDonato will grace a stage much closer to home.

Before the Grammy-winning mezzo-soprano brings the music of Leonard Bernstein and Hector Berlioz to life at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, we sat down for a wide-ranging conversation on KCUR's Up To Date. We talked about the kindlings of her now red-hot career, an upcoming tour to Moscow, and recent student protests that have captured the nation's attention.

DiDONATO: You know "West Side Story" is a story about teenagers who are fed up, and saying, "this doesn't work anymore, the system that we're a part of." I admire what these students have done and are doing in leading with voices of reason about their safety, and their right to go to school and be educated in a safe place. I applaud them. If I could give them a standing ovation in the spotlight, I would.

KRASKE: You're going to be singing "West Side Story" and Bernstein this weekend, right?

DiDONATO: Absolutely. This is the centennial year of his work, and his extraordinary contribution to American music and international music.

If I had the dream to work with one person who has passed on, it would be him. I think it would have been astonishing to be conducted by him.

("'West Side Story") is a piece that I grew up singing from teenage years, so to hear it come alive with the symphony this weekend — people will not be able to sit still in their seats.

KRASKE: You’re also going to be singing Berlioz's "Death of Cleopatra," which is said to be a killer. The New York Times once said of this score, "In the wrong mouth it can turn intolerably artificial and false, which is why many singers find it safest to aim elsewhere." So why aren’t you aiming elsewhere

DiDONATO: Because it’s brilliant! Berlios was a very very revolutionary composer and he really set the world on fire and made a lot of people uncomfortable.

Credit Florian Kalotay
DiDonato says singing in English can be tough. "We tend to speak a little bit lower in in our throats ... we speak very backwards as Americans," she says. "When you hear Italians, everything is very forward, vowels are very pure, so it’s conducive for acoustical singing."

This was Berlioz's third attempt at winning the Prix de Rome ... a very famous competition that every composer that wants to be somebody and be recognized would have gone for ... and he was rejected. As he was trying to win this competition, he sort of threw everything (at it) ... assaulting the classical senses of this panel at the Prix de Rome. So you have to either go there 100 percent, or I think, as the Times says, "better not to go there." And I'm somebody who likes to go there.

KRASKE: Opera Wire was saying all these wonderful things about the great year you just had in 2017 with these new recordings, you showed up on The Today Show, you celebrated The Metropolitan Opera's 50th season, there was (a Grammy nomination). Did it feel like 2017 was something of a peak year to you?

DiDONATO: I hesitate to use the "peak" word because that makes me nervous, because what I feel is, "Oh no, now the other side is, is upon me." But it was an extraordinary year. I brought my "In War & Peace" tour around the world. We're going to head this year to Moscow with it. And then we take it to Asia and China and the Middle East. I hope I haven't peaked yet because there's still a lot ahead for me to do.

KRASKE: Tell us about that, you're taking this to Moscow. What do you hope to convey?

DiDONATO: Peace, really simply. What I've found in my life is that music has often been sort of a North Star. It's a place to come and find calm. It's a place where I can ... explore the darkness and the difficulty of being a human being. But music can also pull me back into the light and into a positive path, into a joyful path. There's a power in depositing that, and sharing that in a community. 

That community in Moscow will be a new theater that they're building, and they've asked for this program. I will come with the fantastic Il Pomo d'Oro Orchestra, and we're going to help them feel peace. What happens after that is out of my control, but I feel really good about bringing that there.

KRASKE: When you were on The Today Show last year, you were talking about your work bringing art to prisons. What are you doing on that front?

DiDONATO: I'm riding the train that is set up by Carnegie Hall, which is extraordinary. They work with between 25 and 30 men who are incarcerated at Sing Sing, which is a maximum security prison, and they're teaching these men to write music. And it is transformational in every way.

Just this last fall, I was there and we premiered a duet ... where (this) character is begging for forgiveness and my character says no, and I say it very strongly and very harshly. It's clearly something I'm holding onto. We were performing this in front of 300 fellow prisoners, and so he's standing there in front of his peers. He fell to his knees and he covered his head with his hands ... crumbled. It took me so much by surprise because it was such a visceral, honest, fragile thing for this huge six-foot-something African-American prisoner to do in front of my feet.

Credit Luke X. Martin / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Coming off a very successful 2017, DiDonato says it's been fun, but can filled with pressure. "It's a lot of travel, there's a lot of demands, and it's very easy [to] go into that mindset sometimes where I get exhausted."

Fast-forward 18 hours later and I'm on stage at the Metropolitan Opera in an HD live performance of "Norma." My character, Adalgisa, falls to her feet ... asking for forgiveness, and I did the same gesture I had been doing for five weeks of rehearsal and performances. This is the power of music, because it expresses the deepest part of humanity.

(Sister Helen Prejean once) summed it up. She said music has the possibility to open hearts, and that is something that is a very powerful tool right now, today. With all the anxiety, with all of the trepidation and the insecurity around us, the ability to open our heart and understand the point of view of somebody else. That is an extraordinary tool.

KRASKE: Were you still in Prairie Village or had you gone elsewhere when you began to realize that maybe you had something special going on with your voice?

DiDONATO: I was in Wichita, at Wichita State — go Shockers! But when I was at Bishop Miege, my sophomore year, I did my first solo in the choir. It was the girl's choir and we were doing Benjamin Britten's "A Ceremony of Carols" at Christmas. I sang that ... and my dad heard it and I got a big voice of approval from him, and I thought, "Oh, that felt good." But I would have never dared to dream for the stars at that point.

KRASKE: Who got you going ... on the opera thing, because you weren't crazy about it at first?

DiDONATO: No, my dad tried over the years. He was a subscriber to the Lyric Opera and the symphony and the Harriman-Jewel program. But I never understood the sound, just the sound that came out. It sounded really artificial to me.

When I went to college and was studying to be a music ed teacher ... I started understanding the organic quality of producing an acoustic sound, which is the world of opera because we don't sing with microphones. We have to be able to project without ... any electronic help at all to an audience of 3,000 people. That took away the misunderstanding of the sound, but it was coupled with singing extraordinary poetry about deep emotion and deep psychology and the human condition, and that is what lit my world on fire.

KRASKE: So today, how do you convince other people to give opera a try and open themselves up to it?

DiDONATO: Bring them. Bring them by the hand and do it with excitement and simply telling them what's happening.

I mean, "The Barber of Seville" is going to be coming up at the Lyric Opera this spring. This is about a 16-year-old girl who is ... being tapped down by this oppressive old world around her, and she's going to figure out how to get out. What teenage girl can't understand that?

You're going to come and you're going to laugh and you're going to hear music that is extraordinary — that kind of sounds familiar because Bugs Bunny and all of that. But bring them, and give them the chance to sit in a space for a couple hours where they get to totally transport into a different world.

This transcript was edited for length and clarity. Listen to the entire conversation here.

Joyce DiDonato performs Bernstein and Berlioz with the Kansas City Symphony, March 16-18 at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, 1601 Broadway, Kansas City, Missouri 64108. For more information, visit KCSymphony.org.

Steve Kraske is host of of KCUR's Up To Date. Follow him on Twitter, @SteveKraske.

Luke X. Martin is associate producer of KCUR's Up To Date. Contact him at luke@kcur.org or on Twitter, @LukeXMartin.

When I host Up To Date each morning at 9, my aim is to engage the community in conversations about the Kansas City area’s challenges, hopes and opportunities. I try to ask the questions that listeners want answered about the day’s most pressing issues and provide a place for residents to engage directly with newsmakers. Reach me at steve@kcur.org or on Twitter @stevekraske.
As culture editor, I oversee KCUR’s coverage of race, culture, the arts, food and sports. I work with reporters to make sure our stories reflect the fullest view of the place we call home, so listeners and readers feel primed to explore the places, projects and people who make up a vibrant Kansas City. Email me at luke@kcur.org.