I had the distinct pleasure of being able to ask Joyce DiDonato a few questions via email on a variety of topics – it’s not a long interview, but as always, her answers are concise, articulate, and very thought-provoking.
What kind of arts education did you receive when you were young, and what influence has this had on your professional and personal life?
The biggest influence was the music that was in my home and with my family. My father was the volunteer church choir director for nearly 40 years, and so choral music played an enormous part on my formation as a musician. But we also had rock and roll and big band and jazz playing all through the house, so I always had a large musical appetite. Grade school we had music class usually twice a week, and in high school I was a member of the choir for all 4 years, so I was singing every single day.
Critics of increasing arts funding often comment that the arts don’t ‘help’ society as much as science or engineering, for example. What role do you think the arts play in society, particularly for youth?
I think this is an enormous fallacy that has been disproven time and time again. The arts have an immensely significant impact on the cognitive function of young people (not to mention those with dementia in the later years!) Look at the studies coming out about the educations of Finland and Sweden and Switzerland, where there is a highly concerted effort to include arts for ALL students. Those countries are outperforming the US by MILES in all academic areas. I am convinced it is directly related. But more importantly than merely scholastic gain, it gives children the emotional and expressive outlet they are starving for. The problems our society faces now require thinkers who can expand horizons and think outside of the very small box we have put ourselves into. The arts open those cognitive ways of thinking and are, to my mind, the imperative way forward.
The arts play a much larger role in education in Europe than it does in North America. Having spent time in both, what differences do you notice, and how might arts education be related to this?
It is directly related, no question. Although I truly hate to generalize, it is impossible not to notice that overall, children in Europe can hold discussions about history, politics, arts, literature (often in multiple languages) in an intelligent, contextual way that brings them right into this current world, able to offer solutions and to contribute to progress. It’s incredibly encouraging to see children whose worlds (and minds) are WIDE OPEN. I actually think it’s criminal that this is being systematically withdrawn in the United States. We will, no question, pay a deep price for this going forward.
The Met Live in HD and similar broadcasts have played an instrumental role in bringing performances to wider audiences for a cheaper price. Would you recommend these broadcasts as an introduction to opera? More broadly, in what was can technology be used to increase the quality of arts education?
I do think it is a wonderful, but in some ways limited mode to experience opera. Ultimately, opera is a LIVE beast and I think be experienced in a theater where you can actually FEEL the unamplified sound pulsing through your body. I want to be sure that the message continues to get out that – “We know this is grew to watch this in the cinema, but you can’t possibly experience it FULLY until you enter the magic of the theater.” I’m a big believer in its impact, because I’m seeing it worldwide, and seeing how it is effecting people’s lives. But I never want it to be a replacement vehicle. I think technology already IS increasing exposure to the arts – we as a community just need to get very smart with regards to how we use it to our best advantage. I only ever want to highlight the sheer EXCELLENCE of what it is we are attempting to do, never, EVER to dumb it down.
A large part of your career is dedicated to contemporary works, notably through the music of Jake Heggie. Do you think these new works resonate with audiences differently, though the musical style may be less familiar?
I do, in that they are completely current. We don’t have to suspend or search for any other meaning. We know what the death penalty is. We understand the vernacular of the language. It belongs solely to US, and not to 18th Century Versailles. It can resonate immediately and profoundly for an audience to see “their” story being told.
Classical music, and opera in particular, are often referred to as being outdated or irrelevant. How do you think we can attract, and more importantly, keep new audiences?
It’s funny – that word irrelevant keeps getting batted around, and I think it MOSTLY comes from people that don’t attend the opera that often. I think it’s a tricky stereotype (ala the Fat Lady) that just isn’t entirely true – but if we (and the media) continue to SAY it enough, then it becomes “true”. I believe so much in our art form, but I’m aware that the mode of sharing it is perhaps based on an outdated model. NOT the content – quite the opposite – but the method, perhaps. I think we need to continue to spread the word and invite people into this fascinating, magical, life-changing world. And then those of us involved in the actual “product” need to be SURE that we are offering an art form at the very highest level (beautiful singing, musical excellence, true story telling, vivid theatrics, etc) and then I’m sure they will be hooked. I have an 8-year old step-niece who was taken to the movie theater to see “Maria Stuarda”. She didn’t have a CLUE as to what an opera was. She was mesmerized. The next opera she saw? PARSIFAL. An 8 year old with NO musical training, sat through the entire piece and LOVED IT. “Why?”, I asked her. “It takes me to another world, and it’s so beautiful.” THAT is the message we need to be singing from the rooftops.