Meeting Joyce DiDonato in the green room at the Wigmore Hall, I have to resist an impulse to fall to my knees in reverence. A few days earlier I had heard her at Covent Garden singing Elena’s rondo “Tanti Affetti” in Rossini’s La Donna del largo, and I can only say that the sound she made was so perfectly beautiful – so purely projected, so elegantly shaped, so intensely felt and delicately coloured – that adjectives such as angelic and sublime floated to mind.
Fortunately, the delightfully warm and upbeat Miss DiDonato – born Flaherty (DiDonato is the legacy of a now terminated marriage) in 1969 – emerges as a straightforward Kansas gal, and I manage to remain respectably upright in her presence.
But I do find it hard to think of any other female singer of today so gloriously in her prime, commanding not only a stupendous technique, exquisite musicality and the ability to light up a stage, but also a rigorously professional commitment to her status and its responsibilities.
London has been good to her over the years, and she will be back at Covent Garden next season to sing the title role in Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda. Meanwhile, there’s some fun stuff to get through – she’s booked to be this year’s vocal soloist at the Last Night of the Proms.
She’s sung at the Proms before and often catches up with concerts on her laptop, so she knows roughly what to expect: it’s an extra thrill for her that this year’s concert will be streamed to the US, so her extended family in Kansas can get a taste of the party.
Fashion mavens will be tantalised to learn that she teasingly denies me a sneak preview of the wardrobe she proposes for the occasion. “Just let me reassure everyone that I shall do my damnedest to uphold the grand tradition. And that sparkle will feature somewhere.”
Arias by Handel, Rossini and Mozart make up the first half of her programme, with Over the Rainbow, Danny Boy and You’ll Never Walk Alone for dessert, before the inevitable Rule, Britannia, into which she may introduce some spectacular baroque flourishes.
The inclusion of Over the Rainbow was non-negotiable. It’s a song with a message that she feels encapsulates the way she’s lived her life, and it was the last thing that her late beloved father ever heard her sing. “He was a choral director, a Bruckner man, who always hated Judy Garland. But on his deathbed, he told me that I’d finally made him realise what a beautiful song it was.”
There’s also going to be a special hug on the night for her manager, the London-based Simon Goldstone. “He’s the only manager I’ve ever had, and our relationship goes back 15 years, to a time when I was starting off. Agents kept turning me down and I was very disheartened. When Simon called and told me that he thought he could make me a star, I told him he was crazy, but I went with him anyway – and one of the first things he said was that he just couldn’t wait to hear me sing at the Last Night of the Proms. So this is one for you, Simon.”
It may all sound too cute for words, but it isn’t. Along the way DiDonato has had plenty of struggle and heartbreak, both personal and professional. “I’ve developed a thick skin,” she says, and behind her bubbling charm and impressive range of extra-musical enthusiasms (including baking, wine, photography, yoga and tennis) she is remarkably focused and canny, as well as being a sterling trouper of the old school.
The conductor Antonio Pappano’s recent attack on flakey singers could not apply to her: she has only cancelled two performances in her entire career, “when my father was dying”, and has even struggled through recitals “relying on a box of Kleenex on the top of the piano”.
Perhaps the most impressive instance of her show-must-go-on attitude was the now legendary occasion at Covent Garden in 2009, when she slipped on stage and broke her fibula during the first act of Il barbiere di Siviglia but chose to finish the show on crutches, with absolutely no loss of verve or style.
Yet she doesn’t pass snap judgment on people who are less spunky than she is. “The pressures are intense, and it’s not surprising that some singers get a bit flighty. To them I would say: don’t forget that you have a job to do, and learn how to say no when you map out your advance schedule. But managements are often at fault, too. They continue to hire people who are unreliable, and that makes them feel that bad behaviour is permissible.”
DiDonato tries to find time to mentor young singers and inculcate them with good habits. “I don’t do formal teaching, but I like to pass on whatever experience I have – I think it’s important for students to have contact with people who are in the thick of it, not just those who have retired.”
What does she tell them? “It’s difficult. I’m painfully aware that even in the most prestigious conservatories like Juilliard only 10, 15 per cent of students will go on to make a career in opera, but they’re all looking at me and thinking – up there is someone living my dream.”
“So I tell them that it’s not about us, the singers, it’s about the music. We’re just the messengers, the vessels, and the freer we can be from our own egos the more of Mozart or Handel than can come through.”
“I advise them not to attempt to turn the sound they make into something it isn’t – don’t try to be Bartoli or Pavarotti. I did that when I was 25 and it got me into trouble. Have the confidence to be yourself and shed the pretence: that’s something I feel I’ve only learnt recently myself.”
She has trenchant things to say to the people who run the business too, and has a blast at certain operatic marketing campaigns that she believes are misleading and unhelpful. “Stop apologising, stop trying to sell our music by dumbing it down. Sell opera on the basis that it is like nothing else on the planet, not on the basis that it’s superficially cool and hip – that is so phoney.”
“Recently I performed at the Grammy awards. I felt like a fish out of water surrounded by all these rock and jazz musicians in a huge conference hall environment. But I sang the second half of Cenerentola’s rondo, and it seemed to go down very well.”
“What really moved me was an African-American girl who might have been 15. She came running up to find me afterwards and said ‘I don’t know what you call that sort of singing, but it was the most wonderful thing I have ever heard. Where can I find more of it?’ If we do our job properly, people will listen and get it. You see, great music just works.”
By Rupert Christiansen, Opera critic
7:00AM BST 05 Sep 2013