One step from Eden on Earth

One step from Eden on Earth

Ever since her Rossinian debut in Cinderella in 2001, Joyce DiDonato has been one of the most beloved mezzo-sopranos by the Scala audience. Her performance of Eden retraces five centuries of music history.

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Even a voice that masters the great Baroque repertoire (as Joyce DiDonato recently demonstrated in Theodora at La Scala) knows you can’t live only by the past. This is where Eden comes from. The album encompasses a range of music that covers almost half a millennium, from Biagio Marini to the contemporary composer Rachel Portman, and it has been transformed into a global tour, embellished by projects that raise awareness for environmental issues. It is the portrait of a mezzo-soprano activist who will present the results of the project through pieces by Gluck, Händel and Mahler, introduced by Charles Ives’ enigmatic “The Unanswered Question”, in her show on June 23 at La Scala. The evening will support the Fondazione Francesca Rava.

LB: Ms. DiDonato, take us on a journey through your Eden.
JD: The seed that inspired it was a quote from playwright Jonathan Larson: “The opposite of war isn’t peace, it’s creation.” This program contains masterpieces that span centuries (like the aria “Toglierò le sponde al mare” from Mysliveček’s Adamo ed Eva alongside “Nature, the gentlest mother” by Aaron Copland), which invite us to connect more deeply with the world we live in. The symbolic ambition is to plant and nurture a new garden.

LB: Is that why you give away seeds at every stop on your tour?
JD: We have given out 44,000 “seed cards” in more than 27 cities. By the time we arrive at La Scala, it will be almost 70,000. The beautiful thing is that in every single city, I noticed incredibly active and engaged listening. And I would not want to forget the presence of the Children’s Choir, children being Eden incarnate, a gift of living hope. It is without a doubt the greatest project of my career.

LB: Eden seems to be a new manifesto of today’s singer. It is not just well-sung arias but music that “serves” society.
JD: We are fundamentally disconnected in today’s world. It’s as if we are unconsciously looking for more and more noise to placate ourselves, to eliminate the questions we hold inside. Naturally, those of us who love music perhaps already have an ear for listening more deeply, but I see a nihilist tendency, also in the music industry, and I would like to try to eradicate it. If we listen to “As with Rosy steps the morn” and we are incredibly moved by the peace and sense of profound, well-deserved hope that the aria awakens in us, then it is our individual responsibility to keep that awareness alive. We cannot simply exit and immediately succumb to the desperation and chaos outside. On the contrary, we are called to carry with us the hope that the composer, librettist and performers have given us.

LB: What hope did you have when you debuted at La Scala?
JD: If I’m being honest, I was incredibly nervous but perfectly prepared. I was singing in the second cast of Cenerentola directed by Bruno Campanella. I was worried about being booed, so I mentally prepared when I made my first appearance (with my back to the audience while they ground the coffee). I was ready for the worst. But instead, the magic seemed to overcome me, and that evening I truly felt like Cinderella. I will never forget when, just before the final aria “Non più mesta”, the great Michele Pertusi, who was playing Alidoro, took my hand and said, “Have fun!” I sang to the best of my ability, with Maestro Campanella smiling from ear to ear. The audience erupted with applause, and I fell in love forever with this incredible theatre. Unforgettable.

LB: Your home is at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, a theatre that is focusing heavily on contemporary titles.
JD: I will open the season at the Met in September with Dead Man Walking by Jake Heggie. I have sung it a couple of times and can say without hesitation that it is the most profound theatrical experience I have ever had. I think the key is in finding pieces that allow the voice to take off and highlight the depth of emotion of the characters and tell a story that truly matters. We might not always do a good job (even Mozart missed the bullseye a few times!), but the reward lies in being able to leave our collective mark for future generations.

LB: You dedicate a lot of time to the development of young, talented singers. What type of teacher are you?
JD: I am very demanding, but always from a supportive and not destructive standpoint. When I was younger, I suffered from a humiliating and dismissive form of teaching, and I would never dream of inflicting that on someone else. Singers have so much to process, navigate and understand that they certainly don’t need insults to get better. But my standards are incredibly high, and I almost immediately know how far I can go with a specific singer. Ultimately, the best students are those who aren’t defensive because they are more open and willing to grow to expand their talent.

LB: You sang and often sing also in places that have been forgotten by music, like prisons.
JD: Those were the most profound experiences I have had in music. I don’t think it would be out of place to say that, although wonderful, opera lovers often have impossible standards for you to reach. And I understand only to a certain extent because we must give ourselves the chance to fail, to take risks, to explore, to grow. But few singers feel free to do so for fear of not meeting the expectations of the industry. When I perform Händel, Mahler or Rossini at a prison where there is no context or recording to refer to, people react with pure instinct, viscerally experiencing the thrill and the profound emotions of the human voice.

LB: Can you share your most recent experience?
JD: In December, I was at Sing Sing maximum-security prison. I sang “Ombra mai fu”, a piece that closes Eden. To those listening, I simply said, “It’s a pretty silly song. It is only about someone who appreciates the shade of a tree. Usually, opera has more passion and drama. But, even if it is silly, I think that you will be amazed by its beauty.” When I finished singing, a young man in the first row raised his hand and said, “Miss Joyce, I don’t want to be disrespectful, but I don’t think that song is silly. I would give anything to sit under a tree like that right now.”

LB: Have you managed to get your unconventional audience to sing?
JD: Of course. Once, three men joined me in singing “Pur ti miro.” They told me they had saved up to by the CD, they learned Italian, and we performed together in front of 150 people. This is why we must be bold and bring music to the hearts of those who need it.

Luca Baccolini