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Following @Joyce DiDonato

The mezzo of the moment is using every available digital resource to bring her passion for unadulterated opera to current fans and potential new audiences. F. PAUL DRISCOLL checks in with opera’s most accessible diva.

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Photographed by Dario Acosta in New York
Gown by Michael Kors; stud earrings by Noir; Bulgari MVSA Collection ring and necklace in pink gold, amethyst, topaz, rubellite and diamonds. Clothes styled by Caitlyn Leary; Makeup and hair by Affan Malik.

© Dario Acosta 2015
Facts and Figures   Double Bar 250
Blue Spacer 814 Number of Years Joyce DiDonato has been on Twitter: 4.5
Blue Spacer 814 Number of Twitter followers: 27,500
Blue Spacer 814 Numbers stored in her cellphone: “300–400”
Blue Spacer 814 Numbers classed as “favorites”: 9
Blue Spacer 814 Number of selfies typically taken on the first day of rehearsal: “4? 5. Okay, maybe 6.” 
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Leather jacket by Rick Owens; tights and skull ring by Alexander McQueen; spiral pavé earrings by Noir
© Dario Acosta 2015
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Joyce DiDonato, who sings the title role in this month’s The Met: Live in HD presentation of La Donna del Lago, is opera’s most connected singer. One of the first artists in her profession to have a well-designed, user-friendly website (joycedidonato.com), DiDonato has embraced Facebook, Twitter and Instagram as ways of keeping her audiences informed about and involved in her activities as singer, teacher and arts activist. 

DiDonato’s fans are passionate supporters of their favorite mezzo:last October, they started a social-media campaign to have DiDonato, a lifelong Kansas City Royals fan, sing the National Anthem at the 2014 World Series. Using the hashtag #letjoycesing, the campaign gathered enough momentum to win DiDonato an invitation to appear at game seven of the series, singing live before a television audience of twenty-five million. 

The current season is one of the busiest of DiDonato’s career thus far. Autumn saw the release of her latest Warner Classics disc, the Grammy-nominated Stella di Napoli, an international concert tour of Handel’s Alcina and — as part of a season-long, multi-event Perspectives series at Carnegie Hall — a solo Carnegie recital that was live-streamed by medici.tv. In early November, DiDonato visited the offices of OPERA NEWS to guide us on a tour of her website.

OPERA NEWS: How long have you had a website?

JOYCE D I DONATO: It probably was birthed in 2005 or ’06, I think. I said then that the only way I would be comfortable doing [a website] would be to make it really personal. And that was the starting point for everything.

To this day, I’m doing my own tweets and Facebook posts and all that. I used to do all the content for the website itself — somebody else designed it, but then I went in and I put the captions on the photos. I did everything, because I couldn’t stand the idea of it being manufactured or fabricated in some way. 

ON: I’m just looking here at random in the media section of your website. Here you are teaching a master class. When you did a master class for OPERA NEWS last season, you requested that the video from the event go up on our website immediately. And your master classes at Juilliard have been live-streamed. Whose idea was that?

JDD: I was getting a lot of e-mails from people in Colombia and Brazil and Australia, saying, “Could I do a master class with you? Can I take a lesson with you? Can you teach?” And my resources are such that I can’t just do all of that. So I said to Juilliard, “Let’s put this [master class] out there, so people have a resource.” I wanted it to be a destination as a resource — the smart ones will take this and run with it. I know that when I was in school, if Marilyn Horne had had a live-streamed class on the Internet — if the Internet had existed back then — I would’ve been rewind, rewind, rewind, rewind. I would have just eaten it up. Not everybody’s going to do that, but I think the inventive, smart, industrious singers will do that. And this is a way that I can be in Colombia and Australia and London without being in those places. My time is of maximum use, because I can reach more people.

ON: When you’re talking to a student in a master class that’s being streamed, do you ever have a minute when you think, “My god, thousands of people are listening to me say this?”

JDD: No, I don’t. It’s the same thing when I do HD broadcasts for the Met, or the live-streamed recital at Carnegie Hall the other night. If the thought does flash in, I’ve trained myself enough so that I don’t hold onto that thought at all. My total priority at that moment in a master class is dealing with [a singer] in the context of what my priority for a master class is — to teach process in a general way. It’s not that I’m going to try and change a singer’s life in that moment. I’m there for the class. I’m trying to teach specifics in a more general, conceptual way. I want to teach in a way where the twenty-six-year-old or the eighteen-year-old watching the master class remotely in Colombia can go, “Oh right, double consonant,” or, “Oh, spin of the…,” and they can interpret it. You know, it’s a question of maximum bang for the buck. [Laughs] I’d like to help as many people as possible. I know it’s not always the most effective way to teach — sometimes I will concentrate on something very specific to a particular singer, but again, the smart ones watching and listening will know how to interpret that for them, or the resourceful ones.

ON: So we’re looking now at the screen on the “Recording” section of the Yankee Diva website. This one — ReJoyce! — is the one that intrigues me, because you crowd-sourced it. How did that work, and whose idea was that?

JDD: That was my idea. My record company said, “It’s been ten years that you have been with us — it’s time to do a compilation ‘Best of’ disc.” And I thought, “How do we make this interesting? How do we create a story around it?” And it just happened very organically. It started with the title — “Ah, we should get the fans to name the disc” — and then expanded into them actually selecting the repertory on it and contributing photos. As of now, I’ve almost met every person whose photo was used. They’ve come to concerts, and they bring me their disc and say, “This is me. This is ME!”

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Taking a selfie with some other famous faces at the 2014 opera news Awards
© Dario Acosta 2015
 

ON: Talk a little bit about how you interact with your fans on Twitter. 

JDD: It’s very time-efficient for me. It doesn’t cost me anything. Writing a journal or a blog entry is a four- to five-hour process for me. Making a video, four- to five-hour process of just editing it, not even the filming. So Twitter is efficient, but I can use it in a way that also feels very true to me. I can post an inspirational picture. I can re-tweet a quote. These last two months have been a bit more self-promotional than I’d like to be, but there’s been a lot to share. Now, I’ll have a kind of radio silence for a while, because I am sick of hearing about me.

ON: Social media has given your audience so many ways to reach you — Twitter, Facebook, Instagram. Where is the space that no one else is allowed in? As this world gets bigger, does it become harder to keep space for yourself for what we laughingly call a private life?

JDD: Yes and no. The beauty of this social connectivity is that my private life — which is dinners with friends, phone calls, Skype sessions, any moment that the phone is off and the computer is off — is somehow intensified, and so, it’s even better.

ON: That’s good.

JDD: But I work at that. That’s a priority for me. I know, on the surface, it must seem like I’m doing the social-media thing all the time, but it’s very clear in my head where that very fine line is. The reason that I’ve embraced all of this so much is that I like to promote the art form. I also like to promote projects that I’ve put a year of my life into. I’m okay with that. But I’d say that’s — I don’t know, I’m going to randomly say eighteen percent of what I do in the social-media world.

The majority of what I do there is educational. I am very consciously working to engage people — because if people are engaged and invested in this, they’re going to volunteer at their opera house. They’re going to join the Metropolitan Opera Guild, they’re going to bring their friends to the opera, they’re going to host an online party from Carnegie Hall. What I see is a very engaged, active, passionate, young group of people — I cannot look at them every day of my life and remotely join the argument that opera is dying. I cannot. I can listen to people in power in our business, and I can read statistics, and I can say, “Oh god, yeah, this is a tough time, okay.” And I’m not naïve about that. I’m not ignorant of it. But in my everyday life, opera is kicking, screaming, alive, breathing, passionate, a little over the top sometimes. And I prefer to pour my energy into that and empower those people and charge those people and motivate them with the hopes that that has ripple effects. Does it? I haven’t the faintest idea. Does it sell two more albums? 2,000? Does it get five more people in the theater? 500? I don’t know, but I would sure rather try than not try.

To be clear — I’m completely improvising all of this. I’m giving myself permission to think outside the box, with full knowledge that what I do will appeal to some people, and other people will be repulsed by it and say, “Ah, well, I don’t know why she’s doing that.” Great. I don’t care.

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Backstage at the Met, during a break from her hosting duties for The Met: Live in HD presentation of Faust, 2011
© Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera 2015
 

ON: You seem to enjoy the risk-taking aspect of this.

JDD: I’m happy to redefine some things and to take risks, knowing that not all of them will work. I am 
the first one to do it, but that’s the only way we’re going to discover new successes, new ways to do this. I am not religious about many things, but what I am religious about is, no matter what venue I go in, no matter what new tool I’m trying to use, my guiding principle, my home base, my due north is the quality of what I’m putting out there. That never changes. And I will not pretend that I’m something other than an opera singer. I will celebrate that I’m an opera singer.   

In April [2014], I was asked to perform at a Broadway Battles Bullying benefit. There was not one person in that theater that would have been likely to attend an opera. I sang “Una voce poco fa” for them. And I explained it a little bit first — this is a girl who stands up to her tutor, so she’s against bullying, she’s somebody who’s standing up for herself. There were no subtitles. There was no anything, but they laughed at the language. They got it. I got three applause breaks in the middle of the aria, OPERA NEWS! I did a ta-pi-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa — and they immediately, instinctually, reflexively applauded. But I didn’t go there to that benefit and water Rossini down musically. I spoke their language in introducing it, but I gave them what I do. And you know what? They leapt to their feet, not in any kind of obligatory way, but in a way that was like, “Oh my god, I didn’t know a voice could do that.” And I’m not saying that to brag about what I did, what I’m saying is, I took opera to them, and they got it. It’s why people go crazy at “Nessun dorma” on American Idol. It’s something extraordinary.

The Crowd Speaks     

When a “best of” disc was proposed to mark DiDonato’s first decade with Erato/Warner Classics, the mezzo invited the public to suggest names for her album, select its content and provide testimonial quotes and photos.

Blue Spacer 814 The #JoyceAndMe crowdsourcing campaign ran from May 15 to July 1, 2013, beginning with a YouTube video and ending with the testimonial submissions.   

Blue Spacer 814 Fans sent DiDonato suggestions from all of her recorded work, and Erato/Warner compiled the most popular picks, plus a few previously unreleased selections, into a 2-CD tracklisting. The cover image was a candid photo submitted by fan Xenia Varelas.

My whole thing about this situation is this: in a world where everything is homogenized and everything is flattened out — even our manner of speaking is flattened out, like Kim Kardashian [she imitates Kim Kardashian] — you don’t want to act too excited about anything. You just really want to, like, “Oh no, it’s cool. How are you? I’m fine. I’m okay. I’m cool.” Everything is blah. People are starving to have the best of humanity, and that’s what opera is. It can represent the best of humanity.

So, if that is my guiding principle, I’ll package it in a lot of different ways. I’m not opposed to that. I’ll go on Twitter. I’ll go on Instagram. I’ll have fun with it. I take the art form — my work in this art form — very seriously, but I still have a very hard time taking myself seriously. I get uncomfortable if it’s all too Callas, you know what I mean? The moment to pull the Callas card for me is onstage, not in everyday life. And by the Callas card, I mean that iconic diva thing — which should be dictated by the music and the context. When I deliver something, my goal — and I know I’m not always successful — but my goal is to deliver the purest approach to opera that I can, because I know that’s where our power as an industry lies. It’s not in sexing up the shows. It’s not in dumbing it down. The minute we start doing that, it becomes a watered-down Kim Kardashian thing — and people are not going to go to it, because we will have lost the essence of what we do. 

I believe that the only hope the arts community has for really moving through this challenging period is if we get really clear on why we’re doing it. Why is this important? And unless we have a very clear, passionate answer, I don’t think we’re going to fight hard enough for it. But if we have clarity about this, we can’t help but fight for it. Look what happened in San Diego. That community went, “Oh no. Oh no. We cannot lose our opera company.” And then they found the wherewithal to support it.

A lot of things are important, but I believe opera is necessary. That doesn’t mean it’s necessary to everyone, but it’s necessary to our culture, it’s necessary to our society. A not insignificant portion of society needs this in their lives — it’s a source of beauty and power. Those people will take that empowerment into other segments of society. It may not be direct, but it’s the ripple effect.

 

ON: So, for novices, newbies and uncommitteds, how would you guide them toward La Donna del Lago, which will be a worldwide Met: Live in HD in March?

JDD: [She knocks on wood] It’s going to be some of the most Olympic-type singing you will ever hear. It is athletic. It is acrobatic — Rossini asks for the quadruple salchow, quadruple flip. It’s a very good example of this genre of opera, where the plot exists to show very heightened emotion, so that the voices can do spectacular things. You don’t go to this opera for the experience of, let’s say, a Carmen, where the plot pulls you right along and the story is daring and exciting. The plot of La Donna del Lago exists as a tool for exceptional emoting and singing. That’s my way of avoiding saying the plot is more than a little convoluted, and you have to take some things with a grain of salt. But that’s okay, because it was that plot that provided the vehicle for an unbelievable terzetto in the second act — which is unlike anything else that exists in the operatic canon, you know? And two great mezzo roles, two tenors pitted against each other. You should come to La Donna del Lago ready for an extraordinary vocal and musical experience, and that alone is worthwhile. We don’t have to sit there and go, “Oh, but the plot.” No! That is the genre. 

You know, you can look at a Rothko and say, “Ugh, yeah, okay, but where is the painting?” Or you can get lost in the same Rothko painting and realize that that subject of a square of whatever shade is the platform for being able to be drawn into this color world of very subtle, shifting shadows. It all depends on what you come to it for. spacer 

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