Joyce DiDonato will sing the title role in Maria Stuarda, Gaetano Donizetti's opera about the battle of wills between Queen Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots. DiDonato is coming back to Houston after an amazing year in which she won a Grammy for Diva Divo and performed at the Grammys, the first classical singer to do so.
"It was one of the greatest days of my life. Grammy.com actually asked me to write about it, and maybe this will help capture what the day was like! HARD to describe!!!" she wrote in an e-mail to Art Attack in between rehearsals for the performance, which starts later this month.
In the 2004/2005 season, DiDonato made her debut with the Grand Théâtre de Genève as Elisabetta in Maria Stuarda. (Soprano Katie Van Kooten will sing the Elisabetta role in the HGO production.) Asked how she compares the two roles, the mezzo soprano says: "What I LOVE about this piece is that under different circumstances, it's quite plausible that these two Queens could have been the best of friends. There was not another person on the planet who could understand what it was like to be a Tudor Queen in this man's world of intrigue, plotting, politicking, etc. I think IF they could have truly had a meeting (under different circumstances, obviously), they could have actually connected and aided each other through very trying times. However, this never happened. They were each too much of a threat to the other. Seeing this confrontation from both sides is one of the most fascinating artistic journeys I have taken."
Other responses from DiDonato:
AA: Mary Stuart has been described many different ways by many different writers, from the unwitting, somewhat dull-witted pawn of the Scotts to a ruthless power broker in her own right who gave her cousin no other option but to have her killed. What is your interpretation of her character in this role?
DiDonato: My preparation for this role is very tricky, because she is such an infamous, misunderstood, misrepresented, iconic figure with so many possible interpretations. The key for me must be to sing Donizetti's version and interpretation of her. He approaches her very sympathetically and very humanely. I am trying to make her a flesh-and-blood woman who happens to be a queen. I think this will help me make her human from the inside out, and not make her a monarch from the outside in. I think Donizetti asks that of her through her fragility, limpid vocal lines and heroic ending.
AA: How difficult are your arias in Act Two? How did you prepare for them?
DiDonato: This may be the most challenging role I've ever sung. The stamina required is immense. Being a Bel Canto "Queen," she will require every vocal "trick" in the book to make her shine. It is daunting, overwhelming and huge in its scope, but a challenge I am loving!
AA: This opera wasn't successful at first, was put away for years, well, actually, for almost a century. Why do you think that was? Why should people come to see Maria Stuarda?
DiDonato: Part of the issue was the censors who shut it down, because the lead, Maria Malibran, refused to NOT sing the damning line "Vil Bastarda" (vile bastard), which in that day was THE most shocking thing one could have said about the Queen. It shook the opera world, and she refused to do the role WITHOUT the line. The censors quickly shut down the opera and I think this was a hard thing to recover from. It is also a very difficult opera to cast, requiring singing of the highest caliber, and I think that has been a challenge over the years.
AA: You've become known worldwide and are in high demand at the best opera houses. You're going to open the Dallas opera season in 2015. Why do you keep returning to the Houston Grand Opera?
DiDonato: This is where I was "born" as a singer. I trained here for two years and was given some of my very first big opportunities here, and so it's important for me to return to my roots, return to the many wonderful supporters who have been with me from the beginning, and to share the growth of my career with so many friends.
AA: Was there a point in your life that you feel you became appreciably better as an opera singer, breaking into that upper realm of singers? Was there a certain role that did that for you? Do you feel you are still growing, still learning new things?
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DiDonato: No, there has not been a singular moment that tipped me over into a certain realm. My career has definitely been built slowly, methodically, systematically with one experience teaching me, helping me to grow and leading me to the next moment. I think if you remove any of the experiences I have had along the way, I would definitely be a lesser singer. I've needed the time, the space and the many opportunities to grow along the way. And ABSOLUTELY, I know that I will grow and learn until the last note I ever sing (and hopefully, through the last breath I ever take!). It excites me and challenges me, and I LOVE that.
AA: Is there an opera part you haven't had a chance to sing yet that you would really like to do? Where do you see yourself going next in your career?
DiDonato: There are a number of roles I am beginning to plan for, and many more I know I'll not have the time to do, unfortunately. (I have a huge musical appetite!) As far as my career goes, I see myself keeping the bel canto repertoire at the center of my schedule, but pushing the boundaries in terms of commissions and lesser-known works, and continuing to try and bring the joy, exuberance and emotional depth of my musical world to as many people as possible!
Performances of Maria Stuarda are scheduled for 7:30 p.m. on April 21 and 27, May 2 and 4, and 2 p.m. April 29 at the Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas. For ticket information, go to the opera's Web site or call 713- 228-6737.