Last Saturday, I went to the Metropolitan Opera for the first time this year to see the final performance of Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking, which over the past 23 years has become the most widely performed opera of the new century. The performance, which was broadcast to movie theaters around the globe, was simultaneously brilliant, moving, and deeply disturbing. Led by the Met's music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the cast was anchored by mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato as Sister Helen Prejean, the Louisiana nun who ministers to a man on death row and finds herself caught between the parents of victims demanding justice and a murderer seeking forgiveness. DiDonato gave a commanding, viscerally emotional performance, as one might expect given that she's owned the role of Sister Helen for more than two decades. (If you missed Dead Man Walking, watch this.)
With no rest for the weary, the following morning DiDonato began her annual master class at Carnegie Hall's Resnick Education Wing. Carnegie has invested heavily in education through its Weill Music Institute, which offers numerous opportunities for young musicians to learn from some of today's greatest artists, including master classes, youth orchestras, and outreach initiatives. In addition to DiDonato's master class - which she's been teaching since 2015 - soprano Renée Fleming oversees the week-long SongStudio (January 22-27) alongside soprano Angel Blue and tenor Nicholas Phan, ending with a recital in Zankel Hall.
Over the next three days - with two sessions per day - four up and coming opera singers would be mentored by DiDonato on everything from breathing technique and diction, to movement and stagecraft. While the morning sessions were private, the afternoon sessions were open to the public and live streamed on YouTube and Medici.TV. After watching the first two sessions online, I went to the final (10/24) session in person, and can testify that as amazing as DiDonato is as a performer, she is an even better teacher, with a charismatic zeal that borders on evangelical. Beyond just teaching the next generation of singers, DiDonato is on a quest to save music - or at the very least remind us of its transformative power.
Right off the bat, DiDonato set the ground rules for those of us lucky enough to be in the packed room. "This is a safe space," she said. "We’re going to hold this space for them to take risks, to jump into the process, not just the end result...As I've gotten older," (DiDonato is 54) "what I've found is that the greatest progress happens when we're the freest."
It goes without saying that the four young participants - soprano Jazmine Saunders (Rochester, NY), mezzo-soprano Karen Mathilde Heier Hovd (Oslo, Norway), countertenor Agustin Pennino (Montevideo, Uruguay) and tenor Travon D. Walker (Hinesville, GA) - are already talented, accomplished singers. As a result, DiDonato focused less on the technical aspects of singing and more on trying to make them think about character, to fully inhabit their roles so they can convey the words they're singing with meaning.
"You have the notes," she told Walker after singing an aria from Handel's Ariodante, "now find the colors. It's like finger painting: use your imagination to fill in the blanks Handel leaves you."
"When you're present, we see Violetta" she said to Saunders after she impressively belted an aria from Verdi's Rigoletto. "But, when you go into protective, perfectionist mode, we see 23 year old Jazmine. Who has a lot of talent, and we love your sound. But we don't cry."
With a disarming blend of warmth, encouragement and humor, DiDonato employed all sorts of methods to get the singers out of their heads and stop trying to be technically perfect. While Pennino sang an aria from Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice, she led him around the room, turning him around and around. She even had him kneel on the ground and do lip trills to help bring out his vowel sounds and avoid straining.
But of all the singers, the most remarkable transformation I witnessed was Hovd's, who sang the role of a maid in love in Haydn's relatively obscure opera Il Mondo Della Luna. DiDonato encouraged her to play it up for laughs, and her face immediately brightened as she danced around the stage. Without knowing a word of Italian, I felt I understood her plight, just from her expressions.
"Imagination is your greatest tool as an artist," DiDonato told her. "If you see it, feel it, if you’re clear on it and you can sell it, we’ll go anywhere with you. You could have kept going and we wouldn’t have even noticed."
As I sat watching DiDonato work with these singers, it dawned on me that she brings to this a sense of purpose that goes way beyond teaching vocal technique. "If something clicks in somebody," she said in response to an audience question, "regardless of whether you’re a singer or an engineer, there’s an empowerment that happens. It opens something in them that will allow other people (listeners) to open something in themselves. And that changes their lives, and it changes the world."
DiDonato ended by talking about another initiative of the Weill Music Institute, which for the past decade has worked with the inmates of Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, NY to create and perform music. Last month, she brought the entire cast of Dead Man Walking up with her, where they performed selections from the opera alongside a chorus made up of fourteen actual prisoners. Another 150 inmates sat in the audience, along with the real Sister Helen Prejean.
"The energy in that hall, I’ll never forget it," DiDonato said, her voice cracking. "It was the full realization of how powerful art is to crack open spaces that we keep closed...How dare any of us doubt the power of this art form, because I have seen it in real time, with an audience that shouldn’t get it."
"I don’t believe for one second," she continued, "the people who say classical music is dead. We have an art form that not very many people are being exposed to. But wow, do I believe in it. And the more we lean into what we are - which is medicine for the heart, something that challenges us to go from the surface into the marrow of our own lives - we're good. I have no worries about us."