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
By SINDYA N. BHANOO
NEW YORK TIMES
Published: November 11, 2013
Childhood music lessons can sometimes leave painful memories, but they seem to carry benefits into adulthood. A new study reports that older adults who took lessons at a young age can process the sounds of speech faster than those who did not.
“It didn’t matter what instrument you played, it just mattered that you played,” said Nina Kraus, a neuroscientist at Northwestern University and an author of the study, which appears in The Journal of Neuroscience.
She and her collaborators looked at 44 healthy adults ages 55 to 76, measuring electrical activity in a region of the brain that processes sound.
They found that participants who had four to 14 years of musical training had faster responses to speech sounds than participants without any training — even though no one in the first group had played an instrument for about 40 years.
Dr. Kraus said the study underscored the need for a good musical education. “Our general thinking about education is that it is for our children,” she said. “But in fact we are setting up our children for healthy aging based on what we are able to provide them with now.”
Other studies have suggested that lifelong musical training also has a positive effect on the brain, she added. Dr. Kraus herself plays the electric guitar, the piano and the drums — “not well but with great enthusiasm,” she said.
This is the official ADA reply to AGT’s email:
Dear AGT Producer,
Thank you for message. I have discussed it with my colleagues (fellow opera agents) and I understand that at least 3 of them have received the very same email you sent below.
I will be honest when I say that I do not believe we have the kind of talent you are looking for. AGT seems bent on finding raw, untrained talent with the potential to appeal to a mass audience that does not choose to understand the musical significance and connection that trained singers offer. It is not my intention to respond out of snobbery or disrespect, but instead from the standpoint of someone who is acutely aware of the kind of instruction, preparation and training our clients endure in order to make a living as professional opera singers. Being a professional, working opera singer requires the same kind of practice, polish, skill and dedication to the craft that an Olympian must dedicate to his or her sport.
We manage the careers of singers with the mindset of aiding them in building a LONG-term career. It is our goal that our singers perform worldwide and realize careers marked by longevity, the experience of being involved in new and innovative productions and the appreciation of both stalwart opera enthusiasts as well as the burgeoning new opera crowd. A true operatic career requires not only years of vocal training, but the in-depth study of languages, musical styles spanning over 400 years, acting, dance, and even stage combat. The people we have seen AGT put forward as “opera singers” wouldn’t be hired in the most humble of opera houses in the real world.
I understand you are doing your job and that the focus of that job is to uncover exciting acts that will then be “discovered” on national television.
I am quite happy to announce that our fine artists have already been discovered.
Best of luck in your search,
Ana De Archuleta and the team at ADA Artists
Original AGT Email:
My name is XXXX and I’m a Casting Producer for America’s Got Talent. I am currently looking for the latest and greatest acts, of all ages and group size. After browsing your website, I believe that the members of your talented network would be ideal candidates for our upcoming season and I would love for you to share my casting information with everyone amongst your database of TALENT! Also, I’d love to speak with you directly and ideally get your stars on board to audition for our 9th Season of America’s Got Talent! If you think your TALENTED CLIENTS and ARTISTS have what it takes to be on America’s Got Talent, then please contact me today!
If you, or any of your colleagues have any incredible referrals or recommendations, please email me directly at XXXX with:
NAME, AGE, DESIRED AUDITION CITY, BRIEF DESCRIPTION of their TALENT, GROUP SIZE, CONTACT INFO and any VIDEOS or WEBSITES they have to showcase their act! **The more the videos can showcase their INCREDIBLE TALENT, INTENSE PERSONALITY and ENTERTAINMENT VALUE, the easier it will be to move forward with our casting process.
PLEASE SUBJECT THE EMAIL WITH – DESIRED AUDITION CITY/NAME OF ACT. This is very important!
Example: ATLANTA AUDITIONS- Taiko Warriors
Example: NEW YORK AUDITIONS – Dance Dance Romance
You can also find more information on our website.
I hope to hear from you soon!
Have a wonderful day.
He curses like a sailor and sings like a virtuoso. He speaks with a slightly gruff timbre that disappears on stage. Michael Keaton is planning to make a movie about his life, but that’s hardly the most interesting thing about Carl Tanner.
That would be the story of how Mr. Tanner, 51, went from poor Virginia boy to truck driver and bounty hunter and, finally, Met-quality opera singer. Last month, he made his Pittsburgh Opera debut as Radames in “Aida.”
At times, his story sounds like a plotline from the television show “Glee.” When Mr. Tanner was attending Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, Va., he was a star wrestler and football player. Upon hearing him sing in the shower, a neighbor encouraged him to try out for the choir. At first, Mr. Tanner wasn’t interested — he said he thought guys in the chorus were “sissies” — until the friend told him how much Luciano Pavarotti made.
Carl Tanner, a former bounty hunter and truck driver who now is an acclaimed opera singer, is shown here in performance with Pittsburgh Opera. (YouTube video; 11/13/2013)
For Mr. Tanner, money was an important consideration. His father left school in the sixth grade to work in a sawmill. He eventually became a painter for the government, retiring with an annual income of $23,000. His mother had been a detective for the Arlington County police. Mr. Tanner was the youngest of four boys.
After joining the chorus junior year, he took a few lessons from his choir teacher. Out of high school, he made plans to play right tackle at the University of Maryland. He attended for only a week, deciding he wasn’t college material.
So he drove a florist van instead, picking up and delivering flowers around Washington, D.C. He enjoyed the independence of the job, spending his days listening to the radio. But he was ashamed to tell his friends what he was doing, so after driving for a few more months, he decided to try singing again.
Mr. Tanner auditioned at Shenandoah Conservatory in Winchester, Va. He knew only a few songs — “O Holy Night,” “Amazing Grace” and “Arm, Arm, Ye Brave” from Handel’s “Judas Maccabaeus” — but won over the audition committee nonetheless. He became the first in his family to graduate from a four-year college. His mother asked him what he wanted to do with his new diploma.
“I said, ‘I think I’m gonna drive a truck’ … Even though I was a good singer, I didn’t want it bad enough.”
He got a commercial driver’s license and drove a truck for a picture frame company for four years. During that time, a friend told him about a bounty hunter, an aging ex-Green Beret, looking for a partner. So began Mr. Tanner’s two years both truck-driving and chasing people down, from Haitian drug kingpins to old ladies operating an illegal day care center to lawyers who wouldn’t pay child support. During his first year, he made $80,000. He had never seen so much money in his life.
“It wasn’t easy. I wrestled people to the ground. I got punched in the face,” he said.
His stories go on and on. Sometimes, his dates don’t quite make sense, but you don’t want to interrupt him.
In one job, he hunted down a 16-year-old delinquent hiding out in a West Virginia cabin. When he approached from the front, the teenager started firing at him with a rifle. He and his partner eventually hog-tied him in their truck.
On the ride home, Mr. Tanner lectured the teen. “You can start your life over every day when you’re 16,” he told him.
Years later, at a 7-Eleven, Mr. Tanner saw the young man. He thanked him for helping him get his life in order and said he was now working at a nearby Honda dealership. And Mr. Tanner?
“I said, ‘I’m an opera singer.’ He said, ‘You’re [kidding] me, right?’ ”
Mr. Tanner gave up his bounty-hunting and truck-driving career not long after a man he was chasing was electrocuted by a power line right in front of him. “I saw him light up like a Christmas tree. Slowly, my mind healed after that.
“I’ve seen much worse in opera.”
He moved to New York City to pursue a singing career, taking a job as a singing waiter. After singing an aria from Puccini’s “Tosca,” he was approached by Richard Gaddes of Santa Fe Opera, who recruited him to be an apprentice with the summer opera company.
The gig would launch his career. He was too old, and had too mature of a voice, to do traditional opera training programs. But the tenor signed with an agent, took the occasional gig and learned technique and repertoire. He earned roles on the regional circuit and then in larger companies, from New York City Opera to La Scala.
Before his in-house debut with the Metropolitan Opera in 2010, Mr. Keaton stumbled upon a New York Times article about Mr. Tanner. Mr. Keaton, a Pittsburgh native, contacted his agent and then Mr. Tanner to discuss the possibility of making a film based on the tenor’s life. Like all budding Hollywood movies, its fate is unclear, and it’s too soon to tell whether it will ever make it to theaters.
“I like Carl so much, and I thought his story was so great, and he’s such a decent dude,” said Mr. Keaton, who plans to direct and produce the film. “[The project] has already gone a little farther than a lot of other projects I’m working on.”
Stan Chervin, who wrote “Moneyball,” wrote the script for the latent movie, which Mr. Keaton said will be a comedy.
“It’s not a quiet study. He was a bounty hunter,” said Mr. Keaton.
“As long as it doesn’t make me look dumb,” said Mr. Tanner, a self-described “educated redneck.” He enjoyed his time in Pittsburgh and is even considering moving here with his partner and 5 year-old son.
Having numbers of Mr. Keaton and other famous Hollywood types in his phone is a little bizarre for Mr. Tanner. Then again, it’s just one in a long list of surprising things about him.
“At the end of the day, I’m a poor boy from Virginia, and I’m blessed. And that’s it.”
Elizabeth Bloom: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1750 or Twitter @BloomPG. Blog: Measured Words at www.post-gazette.com/measuredwords.
By Laura Thompson
7:30AM BST 02 Oct 2013
Downton Abbey is starting to resemble the heyday of The Morecambe and Wise Show. Stars queue up to be in it. Just as Glenda Jackson and Andre Previn seized the chance to cavort with Eric and Ernie, so a Hollywood name like Shirley Maclaine happily trades quips among the teacups with the Granthams. Now we are about to see one of the greatest opera sopranos of the past 40 years, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, in the role of Australian singer Nellie Melba, singing at a Downton soirée (and raising the incidental question of how the cash-strapped Earl could afford Melba’s famously enormous fees).
This is a particularly splendid feather in Downton Abbey’s cap. What is extraordinary, however, is that the legendary Dame Kiri is quite sincerely ecstatic to be part of the programme. Like 120 million others around the world, the New Zealand-born goddess of the opera house is a bona fide fan.
“I nearly choked when I saw the email that invited me,” she says, before describing how, during a stay in New York, she downloaded the previous series then watched it every night in her hotel room. “I rationed myself to an episode at a time. Once I did watch three at a sitting. They’re like chocolates. You try and just have one…”
Kiri Te Kanawa in Downton Abbey’s drawing room
We are talking in a suite at the Mayfair Hotel. Smart as paint in her black trousers and red high-collared jacket, Dame Kiri has the courteous, smiling regality of a true star, but also a down-to-earth Antipodean warmth. The writer and critic Bernard Levin, who was so besotted with her that he proclaimed “When I die they will find ‘Kiri’ written on my heart”, also said, more judiciously, that she “carries such conviction because [her performance] comes from a nature in which there is no falseness, no dissembling”. I have only seen her sing on film, in Joseph Losey’s marvellous 1979 Don Giovanni, and on television at the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer, but it is easy to recognise the truth of Levin’s perception.
By MICHAEL COOPER
April 26, 2014,
THE NEW YORK TIMES
There was a time, early in the 20th Century, when programs at the Metropolitan Opera warned fanatical opera buffs, in capital letters, “POSITIVELY NO ENCORES ALLOWED.”
The rule has since been relaxed only a handful of times in recent decades. But on Friday night the Mexican tenor Javier Camarena joined the small coterie of opera singers who have literally stopped the show at the Met when he got such a thunderous ovation in Rossini’s “La Cenerentola” that he was compelled to give an encore of his bravura aria “Si, ritrovarla io guiro.”
The only other two singers to have sung encores during Met performances in more than half a century, by the opera house’s count, were Luciano Pavarotti, who sang one during a performance of Puccini’s “Tosca” in 1994, and the man Mr. Camarena was filling in for on Friday night: the star bel canto tenor Juan Diego Flórez, who sang an encore in a 2008 performance of “La Fille du Régiment” and in a 2012 performance of “L’Elisir d’Amore.”
“My God, it’s so exciting,” a beaming Mr. Camerena said, slightly out of breath, in a brief interview backstage after the performance ended. “To feel this reaction from the public — it was like a big mountain of roars and bravos and applause. It’s really overwhelming. Fantastic.”
It was quite a feat for a stand-in. His role, playing the the prince opposite Joyce DiDonato’s star turn as Cinderella, was originally to have been sung by Mr. Flórez, who announced earlier this month that he would withdraw from the first few performances due to illness. Mr. Camarena, who had just had a triumph at the Met in Bellini’s “La Sonnambula,” agreed to step in.
He got rave reviews. Anthony Tommasini of The New York Times singled out his singing of the second act aria, writing that Mr. Camarena “dispatched the aria’s impetuous runs — capped by thrilling top notes, including an effortless high D — finally finishing with a glorious high C that he seemed almost reluctant to cut off.” He wrote that the opening night ovation lasted so long that he expected Mr. Camarena to return for a bow, but he did not.
On Friday night, the ovation was again tumultuous, with several members of the audience jumping to their feet – which is unusual, mid-performance.
Mr. Camarena, who had exited the stage as the ovation continued, said: “I was waiting, because last time, there was very long applause, and I was behind the stage and was trying to think, what do I do? Do I come back, or stay? What’s going to happen?”
This time, he came out again, and not only bowed but repeated the second part of the aria, hitting another high D.
Now, given Mr. Camarena’s reception, there may be suspense about whether Mr. Flórez will return, as scheduled, to sing the three final performances of the opera, including a May 10 matinee that will be transmitted to movie theaters around the world as part of the Met’s “Live in HD” series.
photo:Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera