About 450 star-struck St. Ann Catholic School students got to experience a little world-class singing in the school’s church.
Internationally recognized mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, a St. Ann alumnus and Prairie Village native, on Thursday answered students’ questions about her career singing on stages around the world and performed two songs for the giddy audience. DiDonato had help from her sister and St. Ann music teacher, Amy Hetherington, who played piano for the performances.
DiDonato was in her hometown last week to play Romeo in two performances of The Lyric Opera’s production of The Capulets and Montegues, which tells the broader story of the feuding families that surround Romeo and Juliet.
Reading questions submitted by students, Hetherington asked her younger sister if opera was always the career path she wanted to pursue. DiDonato, who graduated from Bishop Miege and studied music education at Wichita State University, said her early career hopes were a far cry from Europe’s grandest opera houses.
“I absolutely wanted to be a pop singer and a Broadway singer. I wanted to sing backup for a popular singer of the day, Billy Joel,” she said, before pausing. “Has anybody heard of Billy Joel?” To her relief, many of the students raised their hands.
She added that her early practice routine involved using an upright vacuum cleaner as a microphone. She didn’t consider a career in opera until her early 20s, she told the kids. Then, she gave them her big pitch for the art form.
“Here’s what I love about opera,” she said. “It’s a physical thing, because I’m actually using my instrument — my voice. It’s a mental thing because I have to memorize all the words for a three-hour opera, and it’s almost all the time in another language. I have to learn other languages.”
“It’s a spiritual thing, because I’m talking about things like big emotions,” she continued. “It’s a psychological thing, because most of the time the people I’m portraying are dealing with really big issues.”
As much as she likes the craft, the opera community has gone gaga over DiDonato over the last several years. Since 2000, she has performed with the Washington National Opera, New York City Opera, San Francisco Opera, among many others. In 2012 she was honored with the Grammy Award for Best Classical Vocal Solo for her album of arias, Diva Divo.
When asked about her experience performing at the Grammys, DiDonato couldn’t help but gush a little. “I was singing for the whole music industry. Like, I was singing for Taylor Swift. She was listening to me. I was like, ‘Really?’ It was really fun,” DiDonato said.
For her first performance for the children, DiDonato sang “Una Poco Fa” from Gioachino Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville.” DiDonato’s soaring voice proved a little bit much for some of the students, most still new to the art form, sitting in the front pews. Many covered their ears as particularly high notes echoed off the church’s walls.
For her final performance, DiDonato sang a tune long associated with her home state, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” from “The Wizard of Oz.”
“I’m going to get sentimental for a half second, so bear with me,” she said after the song. “One of the reasons I love that song is line that says, ‘the dreams that you dare to dream really do come through.’ So, what ever you have the courage to dream can come true.”
After the performance, the students lined up and walked back to their classrooms and were mostly impressed by what they saw. Lena Madden, an 11-year-old sixth-grader, said she didn’t know much about opera before that afternoon, but she still enjoyed it. “It was really cool,” she said. “I do the choir.”
Her friend and fellow sixth-grader Abby Gorman said it was an interesting performance. But she didn’t think it would make instant opera fans out of her and her friends. They’re going to stick to popular British boy bands like The Wanted.
After the performance, DiDonato said she liked coming back to her old school and still felt connected to it.
“It’s that dichotomy of feeling like it was a lifetime ago, but feeling so connected to here,” she said. “I’ve never been too far removed from here, but to see the whole school assembly and my sister, who has kind of paved the path to get them talking about opera, it just doesn’t happen in that many schools.”