Joyce DiDonato's Opera America Interview

Joyce DiDonato needs no introduction, but for those who may not already know, she is one of the world's foremost mezzo sopranos. Amidst her busy international singing schedule, she makes time to share her story with the opera-loving public as well as conducting masterclasses with the intention to help singers grow in their craft.

I had the pleasure of attending an interview she did at Opera America on December 7, 2015, in which she talked about her career trajectory, the pivotal points in her development as a singer and artist, and her new project, Opera Rocks, which is an online space for high school students to connect with each other over their mutual love of opera. 

For those singers out there interested in what the great diva had to say, here are some of the main points (paraphrased) you may find helpful. Joyce said: 

  • So much of being a singer is learning to let go.
  • Approach the classics as though no one has ever sung them before - dive in. Don't be beholden to tradition.
  • Before you enter the competition circuit, your technique has to be there.
  • Once you connect to your breath, your voice can come out.

I got to ask her what she meant when she said that once she was connected to her breath her voice was able to come out. She explained that technically it meant that she was releasing any illusion of control, which is really just tension (whether it be in the throat, chest, etc.) on her instrument. After this unnecessary tension was finally released, her instrument was free to do what it needed to do musically. She was able to express unhindered, which is what great art is all about. She also noted that working on this aspect of her technique was a three-year process, during which she worked with the acclaimed voice teacher, Stephen Smith, author of The Naked Voice.

When she was a young artist doing programs and the competition circuit, she describes starting "behind the eight-ball, with not a very solid technique...it was working, but I was fighting with it. I think the American scene continued to hear me with ears of not a rock solid technique, and I couldn't get American management...I was thinking and hoping that if I could just break in, I could maybe have a good regional career....I was leaving the Houston Opera Studio feasibly one of the top young singers in America, but it wasn't breaking through for me. I did the competition in Hamburg, and the next Monday morning when I got back, I got a phone call from an agent at IMG in London, who told me: "I think you're going to be a huge star, and I want to represent you worldwide."

At this point Joyce rolled her eyes and said her reaction was obviously one of disbelief. But, that the first thing he did was send her on a round of auditions in Europe, where at the time, no one knew her. He sent her to 13 different cities in 16 days, all regional B and C houses - She got 12 outright no's.

Then, on the 13th audition, she sang for the Paris Opera, the only A level house in her audition tour. Two hours after she performed for them, they offered her a new production of the Barber of Seville. Now, she says that at this point, her technique was "consistent," and so she sang essentially the same audition for every house on her tour. So what made the difference? She thinks the person who she auditioned for had his ears tuned to a different frequency that day when he was listening to her, because a friend of his, who had worked with Joyce previously, told him to pay attention to her, that she was good.

Sometimes, that's all it takes to get someone to pay attention: a referral from someone they trust. But concomitantly, Joyce had also been preparing for that opportunity for years before this big break happened - She describes it as "falling into" an A level house. From that point forward, everyone who had previously heard her with generic ears turned around and took notice. She continued her relationship with that first manager for 16 years, and he was instrumental in helping her develop her outstanding career. This is how the world got to know the wonderful Joyce DiDonato - The rest is history.

I want to thank Opera America for being the awesome resource it is for artists and singers. Without them, I am not sure I would have had the chance to see this great singer in person giving an intimate interview. Thankfully, they also film and post these interviews online, so the wider public can share in the conversation.

If you're interested in watching the entire interview, click on the "Source" link below.