Joyce DiDonato breaks the opera diva mold

For young opera singers, lucky breaks don't come easy -- and for mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato they tend to be incredibly painful.

This summer, DiDonato was in London performing in Rossini's "The Barber of Seville" (a role she reprises today in her LA Opera debut). She was well on her way to a successful opening night at the Royal Opera House, finishing the famous aria "Una voce poco fa." Then suddenly, DiDonato tripped on a metal flap track onstage and fractured her fibula.

Most singers would (and probably should) have called for an understudy immediately, but DiDonato insisted on hobbling though Act 1. At intermission, she swore off the doctors and went out for Act 2 using a crutch. She received rapturous applause at the curtain call and soon became a darling of the European press when she finished the entire run -- not missing a single show -- with her leg in a cast, singing Rossini's ingénue from a wheelchair.

Speaking last month during a run of "Barber" at the Metropolitan Opera, DiDonato, 40, says she never considered not going back on stage: "That wasn't an option for me. I just kept thinking, 'I just sprained it. If I can put ice on it and keep it elevated when I'm offstage, then I'll get through this OK.' That was my thinking, it wasn't at all that I can't go on."

In many ways DiDonato represents a new wave of American opera singer -- and not just because of her toughness. The stereotype of opera divas has long been women who are serious, stout and secretive -- who like to be adored only from afar. DiDonato could not be more different. She's svelte, as cheery in person as she is as Rosina, and has no interest living her life behind a veil of PR, spin and celebrity hauteur.

This persona was formed in Kansas City, Mo., where DiDonato was born and raised. Her father was a church choir director and, she says, "when I entered college I was 100% sure that I would be a music teacher." Toward the end of her time at Wichita State she became interested in opera -- partly because "I got more scholarship money by singing in the opera chorus." But the art form clearly appealed to her: "Intellectually, musically, emotionally, physiologically . . . I started really getting seduced by it."

But her desire to teach hadn't diminished when as a student teacher she was assigned to two low-income schools. "I saw such an immense need for good teachers. And I was really pulled because that felt like the place I should be."

Some advice from her father ("There's more than one way to educate and touch people and make a difference in their lives") helped DiDonato decide what to pursue. But the long odds of becoming a professional opera singer -- let alone a star -- were not lost on her. "At that point when I was being pulled by opera, I'd stop and think, 'I'm in Kansas? I really can't be a performer, I mean that's crazy.' "

And yet DiDonato not only was accepted into a competitive graduate program at the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia, but three years later she landed a coveted spot in Houston Grand Opera's young artist program. It was there, as she was flush with anticipation, that it suddenly all appeared to be over.

"I was 26 when I got into the program and my teacher . . . in my first lesson said, 'Joyce, you're musical, you're talented, you're obviously intelligent; but there's no future in the way you're singing."

Rather than quitting or seeking out a different teacher, DiDonato dug in and found a way to persevere with her instructor, Steve Smith: "Here I thought I had made the big time, you know, the Houston Opera Studio, one of the top programs in the country. And yet I was just old enough and just scared enough, that I think I trusted him. And he said, 'You're singing on youth and muscle, and that's going to last about three years.' And he was right."

She wasn't supporting her singing with proper breathing technique: "I would often cross my fingers behind my back going 'I hope I get the high note.' " Her charismatic stage presence helped hide this from previous voice teachers. "Also I fooled people and fooled myself because I could produce a pretty substantial sound. I had a lot more expression in me than I was able to produce -- I wanted to do a lot of musical things, but I didn't know how."

For the next three years, DiDonato went through a struggle that makes her adrenaline-fueled run this summer in London seem like a cakewalk. DiDonato says she started from scratch: "With singing there's lot of comparisons to sports things. If you're a golfer, the first thing you have to do before you learn the proper grip is learn how to let go."

It wasn't easy to let go. "There was years of built up muscle memory," she says, " . . . after the first lesson, I said, 'Steve, I feel completely naked,' and he said, 'Yeah, now we can start.' "

Three years later, DiDonato had rebuilt her voice and technique, and she felt confident. Despite not having a manager, she got offers to perform at opera houses -- in Kentucky, Oklahoma and Arizona. DiDonato was thrilled: "I thought, 'I'm going to have a career as a regional singer. This is great.' "

The singer says that level of career was more than she ever expected, but the following year she went to Hamburg, Germany, for an opera competition that had been recently started by a well-known tenor: Plácido Domingo's Operalia.

"I did the Domingo competition in 1998," she recalls. "I sang in the final round one aria [Rossini's "Non più mesta"] and got a call the next day. He said, 'You don't know me, but my name is Simon Goldstone, I think you're going to be a superstar, and I want to manage you worldwide.' It was the first time anybody had said anything remotely that daunting."

Goldstone, a manager at IMG Artists, set up auditions all over Europe, and after 12 straight rejections one company, Paris Opera, hired DiDonato to be the Rosina in a new production of "The Barber of Seville." "It kind of blew my mind," she says, "then immediately the other houses started calling and saying, 'Who is this new Rosina?' And now all of a sudden I'm an A-level singer."

Reviews from that first Paris "Barber" described her as "an audience favorite" and called it "an impressive debut." Seven years later, DiDonato is in her prime. The Times of London called her "the best Rosina around," and last week in a review of DiDonato's new album of Rossini arias, "Colbran, the Muse," the Independent proclaimed her this era's preeminent Rossini interpreter.

When asked to comment on this singer whom he heard early on at his competition, Domingo goes further: "Joyce is one of the greatest opera singers of her generation."

This Los Angeles run of "Barber" is only DiDonato's second time performing here. (She sang the small mezzo part in Beethoven's Ninth Symphony at the Hollywood Bowl in 2003.) Though she has performed in countless stagings of "Barber," this is her first time in this production from Madrid by Emilio Sagi, which she calls "zany" and says reminds her of the movie "Pleasantville." "The idea is that everyone is in a black and white world and Rosina is dying to bring color into it, and I really like that idea," she said during a follow-up phone conversation. " 'Barber' is a clash of generations. You have the old school versus the new school."

DiDonato is certainly part of the operatic new school. She is the rare singer who encourages a dialogue with operagoers on her blog -- one she personally writes at yankeediva.blogspot.com. (Within hours of getting out of the emergency room after the London opening night, she was posting photos and making "break a leg" jokes.)

"I've always enjoyed writing," she says, and insists her blog exists because "I want people to know I'm not just sort of a glamour diva empty puppet. I want people to know what it is that I do and why . . . . I realize some people don't want that -- they just want the finished product, you know, like 'Let's keep them untouchable,' I hope they don't come and read the blog. But I want it there."

As for the name "Yankee Diva"? DiDonato says it was her first e-mail address. "In Europe they would call me 'the Yankee' or 'the American,' and I thought, 'Yeah, I'm American and I'm proud of it," she says, "and it just sort of stuck. I don't know if I've grown into the name -- or if the name has really defined who I am -- but it feels kind of right."

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