The Irrepressible Joyce DiDonato

As opera star Joyce DiDonato has proven, the road to success is a winding one.

Joyce DiDonato is one of opera's biggest stars, but she doesn't love the form unconditionally.

Joyce DiDonato: I think opera is the stupidest art form, if it's not utterly committed and about storytelling. The only way I can justify what opera is, is that we're dealing with human emotions that are so vast and profound that they have to be sung. Speaking it simply isn't enough. That it has to come from the deepest part of you—anything less than that, for me, I just think it's ridiculous.

DiDonato's own story would itself make for a very compelling opera. She grew up in a Midwestern Irish Catholic family. Her late father, Donald Flaherty, was an architect whose own father had disparaged his singing ambitions. But though he encouraged his daughter to make a go of her dreams, she was told by seasoned instructors in Houston, Philadelphia, and Santa Fe that she had little talent and would never make it. Nevertheless, she persisted and eventually proved them all wrong.

AJC: Let me say something that is well observed about people who are successful. They have enormous self-belief and huge self-doubt—a weird mixture of the two. And you have that. Or you had it.

DiDonato: No, I still have it in a different capacity, I think, in that I'm almost 20 years in career, I suppose—plus 10 years of training before that—and there's a confidence that comes, and there's a self-belief that comes just from looking back and saying, “Okay, I've not imploded yet. And I stand on the stage, and so I must have something.” Self-doubt, certainly in the beginning for me, was, “I don't know if I belong here. I don't know if I have it.” It was more insecurity on that level.

AJC: Not helped by the fact that, along the way, there were a lot of people who weren't very encouraging.

DiDonato: I wasn't an obvious star.

AJC: No?

DiDonato: And I wasn't the one going, “Oh, we've got to get her.” No, I was a slow burn. I think maybe that's where some of my confidence came from, because I had to find it within myself. It wasn't coming externally to any large degree. And so I had to say, “Okay, if I want to go on this, do I really have something to say? And do I have it within me to produce this?” And happily, I found a way to make that happen—to find that within myself.

AJC: Why didn't you stop?

DiDonato: It was bigger than me. I mean, this desire and the need to communicate, I think, was bigger than “little old me.” And that questioning idea of if I can make it. And also, if I'm honest, there's a streak inside of me going, “Oh yeah? Okay, I'll show you.” There's a defiance in me, that I don't like being told I can't do something. That's true, too.

That Joyce DiDonato has made it from her hometown of Prairie Village, Kansas to the stages of the world's great opera houses, marks a level of success way beyond anything she or her dad could have dreamed of.

DiDonato: I'm at the Met, I'm at La Scala, I'm at the Royal Opera House, and he would say, “You're really doing this!” There was a kind of incomprehension on his part, and there was, I think, always a cautious part—“I hope it's going to be okay.” I was like, “Dad, Dad, no I'm loving… It's good, it's good!” Sharing that with him was one of the greatest joys of my life and I miss that deeply. I've—in all humility—I've gone legions farther than I ever dared dream or possibly could have imagined. And I just think he would have gotten the biggest kick out of it. And I think he would have been very proud to see how I'm using it kind of as a vocation. I grew up Catholic and “vocation” was the big word around the dinner table and going onto stage felt very selfish to me. I said, “I like it too much, it's too fun. It's not service, it's not vocational.” And he really was a guiding factor for me, in how I use my music in this incredible gift of a career. I don't want it just to be about center stage and applause. I want to change people's worlds with it, and that comes from him.

AJC: But that's everything, right? Because the money, and the fame, and whatever it is the people are giving to you, and how people react to you in the moment…

DiDonato: It's all temporary. It's fantastic, and it's a wonderful moment to live, and I give myself full permission to breathe it in and say, “Great.” And then, the next morning, you have to wake up, and life goes on. There's going to be another Joyce DiDonato coming, and another recording, and another Rosina. Okay, great, fantastic.

Right now, DiDonato is unparalleled as a singing actor. And though much of her great prowess on stage is founded on years of study and practice, she says there's no teacher quite like life experience.

DiDonato: When I was young—younger—people used to say, “You have to suffer to be an artist.” I went, “No, no, no you don't! You don't have to suffer.” I would never make an all-inclusive, universal truth for all artists because, hopefully, each one is unique. I am, I think, a richer singer for having lived through some of the big experiences I've lived through. You know, I was on stage at the Paris Opera a few weeks after I lost my father, who was a soul mate of mine, actually—I guess, how I would describe him. And it was… My world has not been the same since he left. The earth shifts under you. And I was on stage just two weeks later, singing the role of Idamante, who is a boy, and has not known his father his whole life, and only yearned to meet him—and when he meets him, loses him immediately. I had to recoil like a child in a fetal position singing this aria: “I've lost my father.” And I did the role before, when my dad was still here. I sang it really well. It was heartfelt, it was moving. But it goes to a different place when you have a reservoir of pain and experience, because it also connects you to other human beings, in a way. When I hear now, somebody says they've lost their dad, I go, “I'm sorry.”

But while hardship has helped her grow, Joyce DiDonato has learned to stop making things more difficult for herself than they need to be.

AJC: We all have a very unpleasant inner monologue, unless we're really good at controlling it. And if anyone ever works it out, I'd love to meet them. How cruel is your inner critic now, versus how he or she was 20 years ago?

DiDonato: Oh, so much nicer. I was horrified, and I really choose that word carefully. I was horrified when I first tuned into it—because for most people, it's happening, and we're not even aware. It's just constant. “Well, that's not fat. Well, they're not listening to you. Well, they don't like you. Well, you look terrible. What are you thinking?”

AJC: You'd never be friends with that person, right?

DiDonato: You would never speak to a stranger... I mean, some people would post it on the internet, as a comment or whatever, but most human beings would never speak to strangers the way this inner voice. And it horrified me. But also, there was this part of me thinking, “Oh no, no, no, but that's making me a better person because it's keeping me on track. And it's not letting me get a big head. And it's keeping me humble.” Such bull. It's a cancer. It's actually, I realized, it was keeping me from being what I am. And presenting that to the world, without apology, and without disclaimer. And some days it's a good day, and some days it's a bad day, but it's me.

For the full experience, watch the video at the top of the page.