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BWW Interviews: Joyce DiDonato Talks Houston & Houston Grand Opera's 60th Anniversary Gala

Joyce DiDonato
Photo: Pari Dukovic

In honor of Houston Grand Opera's 60th anniversary season, the Houston Grand Opera is holding a special concert featuring Joyce DiDonato with Patrick Summers, the HGO Orchestra, and HGO Studio Artists. I got the chance to ask DiDonato a few questions about her ties to Houston and the HGO.

BWW: You're in New York now [performing in LA DONNA DEL LAGO at the MET]. You'll be traveling to Houston afterwards. Then you're jetting off to Germany. In other interviews, you've mentioned the difficulty of the opera life, including its nomadism. Has it gotten any easier?

Joyce DiDonato: In many ways it has, because I've adjusted to the demands, and simply knowing the scope of the pressure and the possible stress means I'm ahead of the curve. But at the same time, your body needs the time to adjust to new time zones, and there is no prescription for the modern woes of cramped airplanes and security lines!

BWW: Speaking of busy schedules, how have you found time to prepare for this concert?!

Joyce DiDonato: Happily, the Maestro and I have chosen a program that highlights some of my "hits" which means they are firmly in my head and voice. It will be a thrill to bring these pieces, which I love and know very well, to my old stomping grounds at HGO on such an important occasion!

BWW: Are you excited to be returning to Houston? I'm curious about your impressions of the city. Do you have any favorite spots to visit?

Joyce DiDonato: I'm thrilled to help this opera company that has been so formative in my career, and the lives of so many colleagues and patrons! Of course, I will have to visit the original Ninfa's, and if I have a free hour, I'd love to get back to the zoo and see the lemurs I love! (I have some amazing photos of them from the past years!)

BWW: How did HGO and Houston shape your education and eventually your career?

Joyce DiDonato: In every conceivable way! It's where I truly found my voice as an artist, securing a technique that has served me ever since I "graduated" from the young artist program, but it is also the "home" where I sang some of the most important and formative roles in my career: Dorabella, Maslova, Sister Helen, Mary Stuart. I've forged life-long friendships with colleagues, patrons, stage-hands, and will always feel immense gratitude for each opportunity that has come my way from HGO.

BWW: What have been your biggest musical or artistic lessons? And from whom did you learn (e.g. singers from the past, contemporaries, instructors, good old-fashioned self-reflection or spending too much time with your thoughts)?

    Joyce DiDonato: One of the most important started out as a voice lesson, but I quickly realized it was a life lesson: don't avoid the negative - do the positive. Back when I was learning my technique, in an effort not to crack the high notes, I would grip the breath and hold on to the sound. This was avoiding the negative. My teacher, Steve Smith, prompted me to instead do the positive (move the breath through the vowel), and voilà: no cracking. I employ this philosophy liberally in life, as well, trying always to move through challenges from an active, positive place, rather than one of defense.

    BWW: I like to think that you can find out quite a bit from someone based on how they handle life's blocked shots, so I often ask artists about what they see as their biggest failure and how they recovered from it. I pose the same question to you.

      Joyce DiDonato: I tend not to think in terms of failure - but if you ask me what I learned from my biggest struggles, then we can talk! A struggle for me has been giving myself permission to think outside the box - which is not always an easy thing when your medium is an art form dating back four centuries! However, when I remember that all the greats from Mozart to Handel to Rossini and Wagner were all revolutionary in their way, that permission is easily attained. It's exciting to be a part of the Operatic World at this moment, because a lot of revolution is happening, and I find it thrilling.

      BWW: In your Juilliard commencement speech, you mentioned that an evaluation sheet for the Houston Opera Studio once declared you to possess "not much talent." In hindsight you can laugh (maybe?), but how did you continue to work and create at the time? It sounds frightening.

      Joyce DiDonato: It was frightening - but I felt something deep within me that had to get out. It took a lot of humility to look at the situation objectively and realize that I was blocking so much of what I had within me to offer. It was, in fact, a great gift to see that evaluation sheet!!

      BWW: As an artist, you have to keep working, but you also have to keep learning. How do you find that balance for yourself?

      Joyce DiDonato: It's simple - I stay open! I'm curious! I welcome "not knowing" and relish the opportunity to grow. I don't allow it to threaten me.

      The 60th Anniversary Concert with Joyce DiDonato is on Thursday, March 19, 2015 at 7:30 pm. The Cullen Theater, Wortham Theater Center. Tickets are limited so don't wait. Secure your seat today!


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