No one can accuse Joyce DiDonato of doing the same old things.
It’s been a season of discovery for the great American mezzo-soprano, and she says that’s just how she likes it.
DiDonato, who earned international acclaim in opera roles such as Rosina in Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville” — a role she has sung many times, around the world, to perfection — has just finished singing the role of Virginia Woolf in “The Hours.” The new opera by composer Kevin Puts, which also featured singers Renee Fleming and Kelli O’Hara, made its staged world premiere to rave reviews in November at the Metropolitan Opera.
Now DiDonato’s returning to the Bay Area with a new program, “Eden,” a semi-staged concert focusing on climate, the natural world, and our place in it. Directed by Marie Lambert-Le Bihan and conducted by Zefira Valova, it features DiDonato and the Baroque ensemble Il Pomo d’Oro in a program spanning early music to a new work by English composer Rachel Portman. Performances are scheduled at Stanford University and UC Berkeley.
In a recent phone conversation, it was easy to hear DiDonato’s excitement about the project, which she said is both a reflection on the beauties of the natural world and a call to action to preserve them.
“We launched this work in the spring, in Brussels, and we did a handful of festival performances at the end of the summer,” she said. “It’s been the most special project of my career. It feels so timely to be talking about our connection to each other, and to the world around us.”
DiDonato says the project was inspired in part by an earlier program, “In War and Peace: Harmony through Music,” which she performed with Il Pomo d’Oro at Stanford in 2016.
This program is “an extension, if not quite a sequel” to “War and Peace,” she said. “But it’s certainly connected. There was a quote by Jonathan Larson that said ‘the opposite of war is not peace, it’s creation.’ I don’t think it was conscious, when I came up with the title ‘Eden.’ But it’s directly related — that this is about creation, about asking ‘What are we participating in, in the creation from day to day life that we’re living now?’”
The music for the program opens with Ives’s “The Unanswered Question” and closes with Mahler’s autumnal “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen.” In between are works by Cavalli, Handel, Copland and others — along with Portman’s newly composed “Eden.” DiDonato said she’s thrilled with the results.
“When we were setting up the repertoire for this concert, we all wanted to get outside of the Baroque world and go in whatever direction we felt the music would take us,” she said. “I don’t think anyone thought it would take us to Ives, but there we are.”
Portman’s new work, created specifically for this project, exceeded expectations, DiDonato added. “It’s been a joy to work with her,” she said.
“I wanted to commission a piece primarily because the idea of Eden is really all about creation, coming back to creative power in the natural world. And I really wanted to tap into the feminine power — again, Eden being very much about the garden, about Mother Nature, about that idea of nourishment and bringing new life into the world.”
“Rachel created this beautiful soundscape of something that is emerging,” DiDonato added. “We knew that we wanted it to follow the Ives, and she had that composition in mind as well. So we end up with this beautiful seamless start to the concert that really lets people know we’re going to take them on a kind of narrative journey. Every time the music starts, I get so excited, because I know the audience is going to be hearing something so nurturing and beautiful.”
As part of “Eden”’s development, DiDonato has been leading workshops with students — seeking to re-build connections to “nature in its extraordinary balance.”
“You know, I had intended to be a teacher, before I got sidetracked in opera,” she said. “So to have this opportunity to merge that idea of working with kids, elevating them in their lives, has been extraordinary. And to bring this project, which I think in terms of repertoire really shows where I am after twenty-some years in my career, spanning four centuries and loving all the nooks and crannies of this repertoire I’ve been able to do over my career, just feels like such a full-circle moment in every element of what I love about the possibilities of singing.”
Contact Georgia Rowe at email@example.com.
Featuring mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato
When & where: 7:30 p.m. Jan. 20 at Bing Concert Hall, Stanford University (presented by Stanford Live); $15-$48; livestanford.edu; 8 p.m. Jan. 21at Zellerbach Hall, UC Berkeley (presented by Cal Performances); $18-$86; calperformances.org.