DiDonato Elopes to Vegas, Rages Against Arts Cuts: Interview

Alice Coote and Joyce DiDonato in "Cendrillon" by Massenet at the Royal Opera House in London. The opera is first in which DiDonato gets to sing the female role in the mezzo-meets-mezzo love duets. Photographer: Bill Cooper/Royal Opera via Bloomberg

Although mezzo Joyce DiDonato swings both ways, operatically speaking, now even she has a juicy new opportunity for gender bending.

“This is the first opera I’ve sung where I play the girl instead of the guy in the all-female love duets,” she says. “It’s really sweet.”

London’s Royal Opera House is staging Massenet’s 1899 opera “Cendrillon,” based on the story of Cinderella, as a star vehicle for the Kansas-born singer. The title role needs a mezzo with a rich middle register, soaring high notes and great acting skills, all of which she has in spades.

When I catch up with DiDonato, 42, at Covent Garden, my first question is not about fairy tales. It’s about her leg. She last appeared at the Royal Opera as Rosina in Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville,” and broke her shin on opening night. Hardy trooper that she is, she finished the run in a wheelchair. Is she fully recovered now?

“Yes, everything’s fine,” she says, twirling her toes to prove it. “Though you know what? About eight months after that first accident, I tripped on stage again and tore all the ligaments in the same foot. The expletives were pouring out of my mouth then, I can tell you.”

A date with the surgeon’s knife in Geneva sorted her out. “I didn’t make a big deal of it at the time. I felt, ‘Enough with the foot story already.’ And now everything’s fine.”

Superb Prince

There are happier memories attached to “Cendrillon.” She first sang the role when Laurent Pelly’s staging premiered in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 2006. “That was one of my top two or three favorite productions of all time,” DiDonato says. “When the Royal Opera asked me if there was anything I’d like to sing, I suggested this.”

It was a good choice. Pelly’s charming staging has some amusing costumes and a sprinkle of fairy-tale magic about it. DiDonato is terrific in the title role, and she has a superb Prince Charming in Alice Coote. There are other reasons why she recalls it fondly.

“I married my husband during that run in 2006,” DiDonato says. “We took off to Las Vegas one weekend without telling anybody, and came back married. You could say we eloped.” Her husband Leonardo Vordoni is an Italian musician who, in a twist of fate, is now in Santa Fe himself conducting a production of Puccini’s “La Boheme.” “So Santa Fe is a lot in my thoughts at the moment,” she says.

Has marriage changed her? “It’s wonderful to be with someone in the business, who understands the pressures of performing,” she says. “We coordinate our schedules to be able to spend as much time as possible together.”

Kansas Cuts

Kansas is as much on her mind as New Mexico. Sam Brownback, the Republican governor of DiDonato’s home state, recently erased all state arts funding. The matching federal arts funding was thus withdrawn too. DiDonato wrote an angry blog about it in which she argued what a positive cultural and financial impact the arts have on life. It was picked up and printed by two newspapers, and cause much comment.

Has it made a difference, I ask her? “I haven’t a clue,” she says. “I’m just happy I spoke my mind. I understand that cuts are necessary across the board, but he singlehandedly eliminated every single penny for the arts. It’s so misguided, so shortsighted. Staying silent wasn’t an option for me.”

DiDonato’s keen to use her high profile to highlight issues she cares about. She also uses her privileged access to the great and good of opera in other ways. Her hobby is photography, and she often takes shots of her colleagues during rehearsals. Her pictures of soprano Diana Damrau rehearsing in “Le Comte Ory” at the Met, taken from the wings, have snap and crackle.

On her Flickr photosharing page (details below), there are lively rehearsal shots of “Cendrillon.”

Dior Bag

At the moment, it’s opera -- not photography -- that brings in her A-list earnings. What does she do with her fees?

“I splurge on holidays, and the rest of the time I save,” says DiDonato. No diva-like impulse buying of glamorous frocks? “I had a busy season a while ago in Milan, and picked up a few extra fees,” she says. “So I decided to be a diva for a change. I’ve never paid more than about $40 for a handbag, so I thought I’d treat myself to something fashionable in Milan.”

DiDonato went to the Dior shop, and found a gorgeous purse. “When the assistant told me it was 2,600 euros ($3,647), I froze. ‘I could send someone to college for that,’ I gasped. I just couldn’t buy it.”

She hoots with laughter, “Honey, I am so from Kansas!”

Joyce DiDonato performs in “Cendrillon” in repertory through July 16 at the Royal Opera. Information: http://www.roh.org.uk or +44-20-7304-4000. The production will be broadcast around the U.K. as part of the BP Summer Big Screen project on July 13, http://www.roh.org.uk/bpbigscreens.

Her photosharing page can be found at http://www.flickr.com/photos/yankeediva.

(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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