Through the Lens of Joyce DiDonato

An Audio Slideshow from the American Mezzo-Soprano

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Singing everything from Baroque to contemporary music, the Kansas-born mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato has become a fixture in the world's top opera houses. She is currently the midst of a particularly busy season that includes the recent release of her album "Diva, Divo;" a starring role as Sister Helen Prejean in Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking at Houston Grand Opera; and her Carnegie Hall recital debut on March 6.

DiDonato is also an avid photographer, and she often draws links between music and images. At Carnegie, she'll give the premiere of Heggie's The Breaking Waves, a composition that inspires some of the below photographs. "Jake is not only one of the most prolific composers of our time, but is also a dear friend, and there is no mistaking the joy that accompanies a musical collaboration between friends," she said.

"When asked to put together a slideshow of some of my favorite photos, Jake's music served as my inspiration, for both his compositions and his life incorporate an organic poetry of beauty and human emotion which I find to be very inspiring. Below is a collection of a few of my photos from the past five years which I hope might illustrate a few glimpses of the beauty found in Jake's evocative music."

Joyce DiDonato

Moby Dick: In August 2009, Jake Heggie and I were invited on a cruise with the Metropolitan Opera Guild and when we saw the destination was Alaska, we jumped at the chance for the new adventure. As luck would have it, Jake had just finished writing and workshopping the piano/vocal score of his opera Moby Dick, and after this short break, the actual orchestration (or "ORCA-stration" as we began to lovingly call it) was waiting for him. It was a monumental task and he knew that spending time with nature and fresh air would certainly serve him well. What perhaps came as an enormous surprise was the numerous whale sightings with which we were blessed. I will never ever forget the look of wonder on Jake's face as he was on the open sea waiting for that spout of mist signaling the great whale's entrance. It was pure magic. One of the puzzles he was struggling with was how to recreate the actual sound of the whale's spouting, but by the end of the cruise he just smiled slyly and said, "I've got it."

Audio: Joyce DiDonato sings Heggie's "To Say Before Going to Sleep"

 


Joyce DiDonato

By far the most memorable afternoon for us was on an actual "whale watching" boat at sunset. As if on perfect cue, a mother and her calf began playing and splashing and giving an indescribable display of awesomeness! Most fortunately, our guide had just given the instruction: "You know, you never know when something exciting could happen, so I suggest that maybe you set your cameras to multiple-shot frame mode."

I do believe I had just changed my settings when the fireworks began. It all happened so quickly and we were all shaking with delight and wonder, that I had no idea what kind of photos I was actually getting, but once they sailed away and we all caught our breath, this one was waiting for me. (Now I just need to ask Jake to do an arrangement of "Zip-ah-dee-doo-dah" to accompany this photo, and I think we're set!) A special thank you goes out to this beautiful baby whale for actually looking into the light! "Bravo!"

Joyce DiDonato

The Breaking Waves: Darkness

"The trees know ... they hover, they abide ... they become mystics ..."

Taken in August, 2010 at Pfeiffer Beach in Big Sur, I did something I rarely do: I set my alarm for before sunrise in order to assure the best advantage for what, I had been told, would be unforgettable photo ops. Understatement is the word that springs to mind. My husband and I seemed to be the only human beings on the planet for those few hours on this secluded beach, and the mysticism that overwhelmed us seems to have been channeled by these very words of Sister Helen. This life-force of a tree indeed hovers over the path to the sea and to the breaking waves waiting to greet you.

Audio: Joyce DiDonato sings Heggie's "Final Monologue from Masterclass"

 


Joyce DiDonato

"In my deep down being I know darkness well ... the inward place where miracles begin ..."

Again, text by Sister Helen identifying the fear of expectancy, of the unknown, of darkness enveloping us as we wait for the light.  

Joyce DiDonato

"Huge and towering,

Green, translucent,

The wave comes crashing 

And swallows me up

Nowhere to run

It engulfs me

Tosses and turns me,

No escape

But, oh, I can breathe here.

Even here

In all this mighty power

I can breathe here

I am alive

Oh the joy ..."

Joyce DiDonato

Dead Man Walking: I first encountered this life-changing piece at New York City Opera in 2002, and I find that returning to it over eight years later at the Houston Grand Opera, the piece packs an even greater emotional punch for me this time around. I'm struck at how intimate an opera it is, and how every human being that encounters it leaves the theater moved in some deep way. This is one reason why I love art. But it is, above all, an opera about human beings, and so I turned to portraits of the astonishing human beings who helped bring this to life here in Houston. Taken in August of 2009 while walking in a rain forest in Alaska, I caught Jake simply observing something in a tree - maybe a leaf, maybe a bird? But in his eyes I find that curious imagination observing and searching for understanding - the very same quest for comprehension that I hear in his music. Perhaps it's just simply "wonder."

Audio: Dead Man Walking: Prelude

 

 


Joyce DiDonato

My most preferred portraits are those where the person is not aware that they are being photographed. I prefer not to have to battle too many masks through the lens. But during a tech rehearsal at HGO, there was a fair amount of waiting around as they made technical adjustments, and so each time we were clear I ran for my camera. Happily, Philip Cutlip, singing his first "Joseph DeRocher" here, didn't hesitate to look straight at me when I yelled, "Hey, Philip -- over here." I found this set to be like a playground for a photographer, and wished I had only a few more minutes off-stage where I could have indulged a bit more!

Joyce DiDonato

Our stage director was Leonard Foglia, and I have rarely enjoyed working with any professional as much as I relished working with Lenny. He created an intensely safe place for us to create these complex, challenging characters and brought out very true performances where any hint of falsity would have been devastating to the story and emotion. During this same technical rehearsal, I grabbed my telephoto lens and I stalked him just a tiny bit from the wings. Without his realization that he was being photographed, I could catch a true artist in action working to sculpt his vision of this piece into reality.

Audio: Joyce DiDonato sings Heggie's "The Deepest Desire"

 

 


Joyce DiDonato

These performances in Houston will mark Frederica von Stade (Flicka's) final operatic performances. After more than four decades of performing, stirring the hearts and souls of her adoring and fortunate fans, it seems nearly impossible to imagine the opera family without her waiting in the wings with her generosity, humor and raw vulnerability. The devastation of her performance in this role of "Joseph's Mother" is already legendary, and not a single person leaves the theater unmoved. It is vintage Flicka. My character rarely leaves the stage during the course of the evening, but I do slip off for about one minute. I had asked my dresser to meet me stage left with my camera and telephoto lens, as it was a moment I did not want to miss.  

Audio: Heggie: "Looking Back: Grounded" (DiDonato & von Stade)

 

 


Joyce DiDonato

The Deepest Desire: "Primary Colors"

In December of 2008, again on my "Furore" tour, Paris was the European Capital and for the month of December they lit the Eiffel Tower in the European Union colors, with the star symbol highlighting it's role. I have never seen the monument look more arresting, and spent a very cold night taking photos from every possible angle, marveling at the primary colors and how they completely changed the atmosphere of this over-photographed structure. My hands were nearly frozen at the end, but I loved every colorful moment of it.

Audio: Joyce DiDonato sings Jake Heggie's "Primary Colors"


 

 


Joyce DiDonato

PASSING BY

"Facing Forward / Looking Back: Grounded"

Jake wrote a cycle of duets for a mother and daughter coming to terms with age and death, and on his recent recording, I had the great pleasure of singing with Frederica von Stade. This photo was taken in December of 2008 in Spain during my "Furore" tour, capturing a rather rare snowfall in those parts, and with my telephoto lens I was able to spy this solitary bird "looking back," and thought it the perfect illustration of a lone creature, pondering a life that has passed them by. 

Audio: "Looking Back: Grounded" (DiDonato & von Stade)

 

 


Joyce DiDonato

"Life was once fine feathers and so much delight"

I was performing La Donna del Lago in Geneva and took advantage of a beautiful sunny day to spend time with the swans on Lake Geneva. Timing is very important in photography, and so I made sure to hit the lake just before twilight to take full advantage of the setting sun, but I couldn't have anticipated the swans cooperating so beautifully by opening their wings so the light would hit them so perfectly. It seems to be a perfect match to the vulnerability and "light" that is in Flicka's voice as she sings this line.

Joyce DiDonato

"Facing Forward / Looking Back: Facing Forward"

"Which way was I looking? What was I looking for?

In the fall of 2007 my husband and I ventured to South Africa for a safari -- a trip which I had dreamed about for years, and the catalyst for buying my first "big girl" camera with a fierce telephoto lens. It's where I fell in love with photography and where I dream of returning many more times. I marvel at the clarity you see in these beautiful creatures' eyes and often wish that it was easier for us mere mortals to attain such vision. This song of searching and yearning, an emotional battle between looking back on past mistakes or regrets and trying to look forward towards a better future seems somehow less confusing in the eyes of this majestic, regal beast. He seems simply to "be."

Audio: Frederica von Stade sings Heggie's "Looking Back / Facing Forward"

 

 


Joyce DiDonato

"Let it go, let it out of your heart.  Set it free ... and you want to be free, don't you?"

Looking forward: no fear, only clarity of goal. Freedom. This stunning leopard, found on a sunrise drive at Krueger National Park, graced us with her presence for nearly 90 minutes as she pounced and flopped around in the morning, looking for food. She wasn't successful while we were with her, but she never, ever lost this fierce determnation in her eyes. No defeat entered into the picture, no frustration or sense of "I can't." She simply let go of the past and continued looking forward.

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Comments [4]

Zalman Blaier from Israel

I've always loved the singing of Frederica fon Stade, and I can join in my oppinion to those of Michael Meltzer and Gaulimauli.

Feb. 04 2011 03:33 AM
Michael Meltzer

This is not a criticism of the current choice, I think she is excellent, BUT:
Since WQXR is a public radio station, and since the designation of "Album of the Week" must be of great benefit to the designee, it would be appropriate for WQXR to post, for the public to learn, just how the CD to be showcased is selected, and how an artist goes about becoming eligible for consideration as deserving.

Feb. 03 2011 08:17 PM
Gaulimauli

Mr. Meltzer(above comment) is correct.She has done Bach, Vivaldi and, of course, Haendel with excellent results.Sometimes I think she doesn't know her own strength. She can produce that spine-tingling intensity that few are capable of. Only wish we could hear more of it.

Feb. 03 2011 03:57 PM
Michael Meltzer

Her voice is very pure and clear. It would be a shame if we never got to hear her do some oratorio work.
Her bio indicates a recording of Vivaldi sacred music - how about that, WQXR?

Feb. 03 2011 11:05 AM

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