Joyce DiDonato’s climb to top of opera world was long and hard

09/17/2013 8:55 PM

09/17/2013 8:55 PM

This story first appeared Feb. 24 in The Kansas City Star Magazine.

Two hours into an intensive, nonstop master class, after listening and giving patient and pointed feedback to four student operatic singers in succession, Joyce DiDonato takes a question from the audience in the Juilliard School’s Paul Hall.

A young woman, 17, wants to know what advice DiDonato, Kansas City’s unofficial ambassador to concert halls around the globe, would give to a singer aspiring to a career like hers.

Easy answer: “Quit thinking only about opera,” DiDonato tells her. “What interests me is performers who bring their life to the stage.”

Yes, DiDonato, wearing a crisp white shirt over a black skirt and boots, has her career in perspective. Sitting on top of the opera world, sent there from suburban middle America and a constant regimen of hard work, she makes a case for balance. For several minutes on that stage, she delivers a motivational talk about learning from life, about overcoming adversity, about turning off the hypercritical voice that threatens to derail one’s focus and, mainly, about being true to oneself.

“I had to go inward to find strength for myself,” she says. “Why do I have the nerve to ask people to pay money to hear me sing onstage? I had to find it on my own.”

She’s the operatic equivalent of Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods in their respective sports, says Stephen Smith, an influential voice teacher now based at Northwestern University in Chicago. Over the last 20 years or so, Smith has watched and helped guide DiDonato from a going-nowhere newbie to her current superstar status.

“Her reason for singing is really, truly to share the music, “ Smith said by phone recently. “She’s the most generous, giving performer I’ve ever seen in my life.”

Adds Alain Lanceron, Paris-based president of the Virgin Classics record label: “She never disappoints her audience ... never, never. And she’s one of the best-loved classical artists of our time. It’s rare to find this degree of sympathy for her or love for an artist.”

Says Peter Gelb, general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, where, on this weekend in late January, DiDonato would sing the last, stunning performance of “Maria Stuarda,” “She’s the perfect opera star for today.”

Most people credit DiDonato’s success to her magnetic personality, the way she connects with audiences and her ability to match the range and trills of her bel canto (or “beautiful singing”) style with a formidable sense of drama.

DiDonato knew she had talent, but, over a diet cola on a Friday afternoon in New York, she says she never dreamed of reaching this level of achievement and acclaim.

“I’m probably the first in line, “ she says, “to be surprised with how it all happened.”

There she is, standing on a cafeteria table, draped in a boldly striped sweater, belting out the high notes of “Oh Bless the Lord My Soul.” It’s a dress rehearsal for the Bishop Miege High School production of “Godspell” in 1987, and the video Robin Murphy is showing me on her computer at Olathe Northwest High School, where she now teaches, looks like an episode of “Glee,” or one filtered through a sepia-toned tintype smear. But Joyce Flaherty’s voice and stage presence are unmistakable.

She was president of the Thespian Society and invaluable theater department assistant to Murphy, then Robin Mesh, a young drama teacher just a couple of years out of college.

“She was so reliable,” Murphy says of her student, and “mature for her age. We knew she was a gifted singer. ... She was just one of those perfect students.”

Murphy reconnected with DiDonato last year when the Kansas City Symphony presented the mezzo-soprano in a weekend concert series captured on video by KCPT, Channel 19, for a PBS arts series. The concerts marked DiDonato’s first performance at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts and resulted in an audio recording, “Homecoming, “ that went on to garner a Grammy nomination, rare for a download-only product.

“I cried,” Murphy says. “I knew her when she was 16 years old. She’s just so amazing.”

After that event Murphy stood in line holding a copy of DiDonato’s “Diva, Divo” CD, her previous Grammy-winning project (2012), which packages aria hits from her repertoire of female and “trouser” roles - from Rosina to Romeo, that is. When Murphy got to the front of the line, DiDonato looked up and squealed, “Shut up!” Hugs ensued.

“She’s not just an exceptional talent,” Murphy says of DiDonato. “She’s going to change the world of opera. She’s so approachable and adorable. She is so real.”

Music was not a foreign thing in the Flaherty household. DiDonato’s parents had met as singers in their church choir. Don Flaherty was an architect, and he and his wife, Claire, listened to opera and had classical music on in the car. Before Sunday dinners, he’d put on an album of big band music, and the children would dance. (He died about six years ago, and she died six months later.) A few of DiDonato’s siblings ventured into piano playing.

Emily Flaherty, now Wilcox, was two years older, and she and Joyce became the closest of friends, roller skating, dreaming together about the Royals baseball players whose faces adorned their walls, about going to ballgames and about what they were going to do in life.

“I tell Joyce,” Wilcox says, “that I got to fall in love with you before everyone else did.”

Along with their interest in culture, the Flahertys gave their children something even more important.

“Our parents instilled in us that we siblings are there for each other, and never one of us felt alone in accomplishing something.”

They also urged their children to excel. “Whatever you’re going to do, “ Wilcox says, “be the best at it and make a living at it.”

Years later, when DiDonato was indeed making a living, she gave her local recital debut at the Folly Theater on what’s now known as the Harriman-Jewell Series. Wilcox recalls sitting with her parents in the audience and, as her sister sang, coming to tears.

“I realized, “ she says, “this was not the Joyce I had heard the last time. ... There was a quality, a warmth I hadn’t heard before.”

Joyce DiDonato was not an overnight success. It was a long and sometimes painful slog getting to the point where she brought tears to anyone’s eyes.

DiDonato — or still Flaherty at the time — went to Wichita State University thinking she’d be a music teacher. By the time she finished, she was on another path. She told her father about her plan, and, in affirmation, he told her there’s more than one way to teach people.

She stayed in Wichita an extra year to study with George Gibson, a voice teacher whose career now spans more than 50 years. Gibson had spotted some issues in her voice — how she sang vowels and made “breath connections,” he says — and she worked to correct them.

“The germ of her voice was there,” he says, “ the color, the timbre.”

And her commitment to the acting side of vocal performance was evident even then.

“She was a member of the chorus in ‘The Saint of Bleecker Street,’ and I have a vivid recollection, “ Gibson recalls by phone from his home in Tucson, Ariz. “She played an older woman of the chorus, and she was constantly in character from the moment she came onstage till the moment she left. She stood out as someone totally committed to her job.”

After Wichita, DiDonato spent three years in the early 1990s floundering — her word, confirmed by others — at the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia, then apprenticing with opera companies in Santa Fe, N.M., and Houston. In Houston, she underwent what in effect was a wrenching transformation of her vocal talent, probably the most important experience of her career.

She had heard Steve Smith, her vocal teacher at the Houston Studio, tell her that the way she was singing, she’d be done in four or five years. He’d used that kind of shock tactic with others, but it was a real assessment of her vocal production, he says today.

In their first one-on-one session, Smith put his hands to her face, intending to gauge the tightness of muscles in her jaw and below her tongue. DiDonato recoiled in horror, as if in a flash of a second, Smith says, she realized she had to make a fundamental change in how she sang. She was 26, and her youth and muscle would take her only so far. She had to throw out everything she’d done till then and rebuild the apparatus of making and projecting sound.

Smith was aware that the word about DiDonato was not universally good at the time. Some people at the Academy of Vocal Arts felt her voice was limited, he says, and suggested her chances at a career were slim.

But he knew, and she knew, that she possessed a great natural talent and great potential, and Smith convinced her that she would not realize that success unless she started over. That meant, essentially, learning to relax her facial muscles as she sang.

“I said if you change that” — her vocal production — “you could have a future.”

“That year was a struggle,” Smith says. “She would lose control of her voice. ... But it was not any different than any super-talented athlete who has to redo a golf swing or a tennis swing.”

Before the end of their first year together, she sang Rossini’s “La Cenerentola” in a benefit event for Houston Grand Opera, in front of an audience of major donors. As she reached for three B naturals, her voice cracked and cracked. She was mortified. Smith was thrilled.

“I’m so proud of you, “ he told her. “It means you’re letting go.”

The cracking continued, but she made progress learning to sing without tension in those key facial muscles. She was replacing years of muscle memory with real technique. After two years in the Houston Studio program, she stayed a third year to study privately with Smith and to make sure she’d develop a sense of confidence and trust. When she emerged in 1998, she had the proper tools, an instrument commensurate with her potential.

Yet DiDonato watched as some of her peers caught breaks and made inroads in the fickle world of opera. At the time, closing in on 30, she couldn’t even land an agent.

The New York agents were all very polite, she says, but gave her the old don’t-call-us line. The typical response, she says: “Let’s see where you go in another year or two.”

DiDonato persevered. After Houston, she won a few awards and began landing roles with regional opera companies. Deborah Sandler, now the general director of the Lyric Opera of Kansas City, had auditioned her in Houston and hired her to sing the role of Rosina in “Barber of Seville” at Kentucky Opera.

“She was outstanding then, “ Sandler says, “and she has not stopped learning.”

DiDonato figured she was in for a life traveling the regional American opera circuit.

Later in 1998, she sang in Placido Domingo’s Operalia global competition in Hamburg, Germany, and won second prize. The next morning, the phone rang. It was Simon Goldstone, a prominent London agent. He’d heard her there, told her she was astounding and thought she was on her way to becoming a star. He wanted to represent her. She thought he was kidding, or at least couldn’t see how that would help her career in the U.S.

“Nobody had used language like that about me, “ she says. She wondered if he was selling her snake oil and almost hung up.

“Wait, “ he told her, “you realize we have opera here, too.”

He convinced her to meet him for lunch.

They’ve been together ever since, and, indeed, on the day of our interview across the street from Lincoln Center, DiDonato had just left lunch with Goldstone.

He lined up a brutal audition tour in Europe: 13 cities in 16 days. Twelve cities into it, she got her 12th rejection. The 13th audition was scheduled for the Paris Opera, and DiDonato was frazzled, angry and not sure whether it would be worth the effort.

“If Nancy” — a small provincial city in France — “doesn’t want me, how would Paris?”

She gave the same audition she’d sung, futilely, a dozen times before. Two hours later, Goldstone called: “They want to offer you a new production of ‘Barber of Seville.’”

By the time that Paris production of “Barber of Seville” came around, DiDonato had already made her debut at La Scala, the legendary opera house in Milan, singing “La Cenerentola” (”Cinderella”), a role that remains one of her signatures.

But even then, in 2001, it wasn’t smooth sailing ahead in the new millennium. Later that year, she returned to La Scala for a holiday concert gig singing Vivaldi’s Gloria, with Riccardo Muti conducting the La Scala Orchestra.

She recounts her first meeting with Muti as pretty much a disaster.

There was a long table in La Scala’s famous Sala Gialla (or Yellow Hall rehearsal room, now demolished) and a famous portrait of conductor Arturo Toscanini on one wall. Maestro Muti sat at the Steinway.

A single phrase into it, Muti stopped playing, turned to her and asked, “Why are you singing so poorly?”

DiDonato didn’t know what to say.

“Would you like to start over?” she asked.

“No,” he said, then closed the score and walked out.

She was stunned. Just as she was gaining traction, she was fired by Muti.

Later in the day, the phone rang in her hotel room. Muti, she was told, wanted her to come back and work with an assistant. “Joyce,” the caller said, “he does this to everybody.” (Indeed, in her book about the opera world through the eyes of Cecilia Bartoli, Manuela Hoelterhoff notes how the Italian soprano, as well as Renee Fleming and just about everyone else, had survived Muti’s “Sala Gialla course in artist abuse.”)

For DiDonato, there were two sessions with Muti’s assistant, and then the concert. Onstage, Muti conducted with minimal gestures, forcing DiDonato to go with her gut. “He wanted to see if I could sink or swim,” she says. “It was an amazing experience.”

For his part, Muti, communicating earlier this month through intermediaries, says he recalls nothing unpleasant about the concert.

After Muti, the first years of the 21st century were relatively good to DiDonato and set the stage for her rise to the top of the game. She made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera in the 2005-06 season, singing Cherubino in Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro” and Stéphano in Gounod’s “Romeo and Juliet.” She was 35 — “way later than a lot of my peers,” she says, “though I’d already been in Paris, Milan and Munich.” (When he learned of her Met debut, her father said: “So Joyce, you’re really doing this.”)

She won the Met’s Beverly Sills Artists Award in 2007, a $50,000 prize given to gifted singers younger than 40 who have already been featured in a Met production. In 2010, Gramophone, the British music magazine, anointed her artist of the year. London, Paris, Madrid, Geneva, Vienna, Houston, Barcelona, San Francisco, Tokyo. She wowed audiences everywhere she went.

In 2012, she won her first Grammy for “Divo, Diva, “ and despite all the prior acclaim, to her family, she says, “That was absolutely a moment of arrival for me.” Gramophone magazine is one thing, but to her nieces and nephews, a Grammy is the real deal. “That’s Michael Jackson territory,” she says. “That puts it in a context for them.”

DiDonato’s most recent star turn came in “Maria Stuarda,” a 19th-century bel canto opera by Gaetano Donizetti. It’s the second of three connected tales about the struggles of British royalty. In her first experience with the opera, eight years ago in Geneva, DiDonato sang Queen Elizabeth.

She premiered the title role of Mary, Queen of Scots, at Houston Grand Opera in 2012, then sang it again this winter at the Met in New York. Opening night was New Year’s Eve. She was nervous but knew she’d done all the work she had to do. As she told her master class students: rehearse the singing, rehearse the acting, then put it all together.

“Maria Stuarda is the hardest role I’ve ever done,” she says.

You would never know that if you watched the Met’s HD broadcast to movie theaters in January or saw the production onstage. DiDonato as the imprisoned, doomed queen was mesmerizing, powerful and celestial.

For her blog, DiDonato wrote: “My joy in this role is to highlight the emotional journey of longing, faith, fear, guilt, love and eventual surrender in order to let the audience define Mary through their own eyes.”

When she sang the Italian equivalent of the lyric “that I should love life as I did as a child,” her performance was heart-stopping. There were moments when she seemed to be singing to the clouds, and her second-act string of five arias in succession, leading up to Mary’s martyrdom, prompted a booming, roaring ovation from the sold-out Met audience of 5,000.

Writing in The New York Times, critic Anthony Tommasini declared, “Ms. DiDonato’s performance will be pointed to as a model of singing in which all components of the art form — technique, sound, color, nuance, diction — come together in service to expression and eloquence.”

Steve Smith, as he has done before, watched and listened to it closely as it unfolded on a big movie screen a week earlier, and, ever the dutiful teacher, he was prepared to take notes and offer advice. He sent her an email shortly thereafter saying he just couldn’t follow through.

“You were so in the moment,” he recalls telling her, “and I was so drawn into the character and what you’re trying to share, I could not critique it.” A few days later, he told me, “She truly delivers the drama and character in the way nobody else does.”

DiDonato means a lot to the Met — and vice versa. Although he couldn’t be specific, Peter Gelb acknowledged that she sells tickets. In its 130-year history, the Met had never produced “Maria Stuarda,” and it’s something of a gesture to DiDonato that the company expanded its repertoire to match her bel canto and baroque-period specialties, Gelb says. She’s not ever likely to sing Wagner, but who cares?

“One of the things the Met has to offer is a global audience,” he says. “A good case for that is ‘Maria Stuarda,’ which was heard on radio by millions of people around world and seen by hundreds of thousands in the HD broadcast.

“We can offer singers something others can’t, which is true global distribution. And I wish we had more of her. The minimum for us is to get her every season.”

Emily Wilcox is lounging on a settee in the small dressing room backstage at the Met where her sister is reading fan mail and being attended to by a hair dresser and makeup artist. Plates of cookies and a bouquet of flowers sit nearby. An hour from now the curtain will go up on the final performance of “Maria Stuarda,” and four days from now DiDonato will board another jet, embarking on a two-month tour of Europe where she’ll sing the regal roles of last year’s “Drama Queens” recording wrapped in a vivid red gown — a marketing department’s dream — giving a series of recitals not unlike the stunner she sang in November for the Harriman-Jewell Series in Kansas City.

But right now it’s casual time. DiDonato tells her sister about the previous day’s master class. It was live-streamed on the Web, a first for her, and as many as 6,000 people watched, she says. There’s banter and a little gossip about comings and goings at the Met.

DiDonato will get to spend a few hours with her sister the next day, a Sunday, but the to-do list for the next few days seems foreboding.

“I have to recover from ‘Maria Stuarda,’” she says. Her computer hard drive needs attention. She has to ship a suitcase home — home, of course, being the downtown Kansas City condo she shared with her second husband, Italian-born conductor Leonardo Vordoni, and touches down in when she has a break in her schedule and needs to catch up with bills, family and friends.

She has to close up her New York apartment for the coming year, get some shoes repaired, drop off some dry cleaning and say goodbye to friends. It’ll be a while before she’s back in New York.

Later this summer she’ll make a return visit to Santa Fe Opera, and in September — ta dah — she’ll star in a Lyric Opera of Kansas City production of Bellini’s “Capulets and Montagues”

To some who know her, DiDonato has benefited from being in the right place at the right time. How long can she ride the wave?

Her coach, Steve Smith, says she could sing “as good if not better” for 20 or 25 years. “She probably won’t,” he adds. “It’s such a high-energy lifestyle. ... And she doesn’t have anything left to prove.”

In her master class at Juilliard, DiDonato talked about having the freedom to walk away from that world if it got in the way of personal happiness.

But to one of the students, a mezzo-soprano named Rachael Wilson, she emphasized the value of work. She’s urging a connection with the character Wilson is singing, which happens to be a role DiDonato knows well — the teenage boy Sesto from Handel’s “Julius Caesar.”

“Immediately,” DiDonato says, “you are no longer 14 years old, you’ve become a man who has seen the worst of the world.”

She tells Wilson to take off her shoes and feel the blood of her father rising up from the stage and into her own body. “Try it a little slower, “ she says.

Wilson sings a phrase again, and DiDonato asks, “How is that feeling? ... You’re present in the moment. You feel it. You connect to it and you go for it.”

Sing it different ways, DiDonato tells Wilson. Find it in your gut. “Does that make sense?”

All Wilson can say is, “Yeah, you’re like blowing my mind.”

The master class turns out to be a riveting experience. DiDonato reminds the students she’s not a voice teacher, and in no way does she pretend to be a “master.”

And in that motivational talk about finding where you belong and how you negotiate the world of high-level performance, she says: “If I were going to have a conversation with my young self, I would say, it’s going to be OK. Actually, you have no idea how OK it’s going to be.”

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