Joyce DiDonato: : The Power in One Voice

Joyce DiDonato: : The Power in One Voice

Over the past several years, Joyce DiDonato has proven to be one of the most important voices in opera. But in addition to her glorious mezzo sound, she is developing a reputation for being outspoken on current events and encouraging authenticity in both life and music.

Winner of the 2012 Grammy Award for Best Classical Vocal Solo, she has appeared at many of the world’s most prestigious opera houses. She earned Gramophone Artist of the Year, a German Echo Klassik award as Female Singer of the Year, and an induction into the Gramophone Hall of Fame. Upcoming engagements will take her to Tokyo, New York City, Paris, Vienna, and London, to name only a few.

Though praised often for the strength and power of her voice along with the emotional impact of her artistry, she is also gaining a faithful following for more than her performing skills. Thanks to the wide reach of social media, her perspectives, sentiments, and reflections are being shared and admired among the public at large, almost at a level that rivals her opera fan base.

In 2013, DiDonato was invited to the Juilliard School to teach a masterclass. Once the question-and-answer portion of the event began, she engaged in what essentially became a heart-to-heart conversation with the young singers in attendance ( She encouraged them to silence the internal voice spouting self-demeaning criticism. In essence, stop berating themselves. “Ask yourself,” she said, “would I ever, ever speak to another human being the way I speak to myself?”

Striking a chord of familiarity with singers—and non-singers, too, for that matter—the comments quickly went viral.

Invited to give the commencement address at the same school in 2014, she used that platform to remind musicians how important and necessary their chosen career paths are to society: “The world needs you. Now, the world may not exactly realize it but, wow, does it need you! It is yearning, starving, dying for you and your healing offer of service through your art.” (

Once again, the video was widely shared on Facebook and Twitter.

But her advocacy does not end with championing young singers. Through the blog on her website
(, DiDonato frequently steps outside the operatic realm to address societal issues. She lends her voice to everything from confronting racism to lobbying for arts education and even petitioning for changes to U.S. gun laws.

Speaking to her from Zürich via Skype, our conversation coincidentally occurred on the day the U.S. Supreme Court declared bans on same-sex marriage unconstitutional, effectively legalizing same-sex marriage in all 50 states. Having previously written about her support for equality , DiDonato admitted to having difficulty pulling herself away from the TV for our scheduled interview.

“Ah! My gosh!” she exclaimed, barely restraining her excitement. “It’s amazing!”

Much of what she shares in these nonmusical outlets are aspects of her most fundamental philosophies, which strongly influence the way she approaches both her life and career. For instance, she readily advocates viewing performance as an act of service. As such, she insists that building careers in music can be accomplished collaboratively—that one person’s success is not dependent on another person’s failure. Along the journey, she encourages singers to strive for a balanced life, full of experiences that promote informed citizenry and compassionate interaction with others alongside musical artistry.

She recognizes that this approach, though the foundation of her own career, is not the only path to success in the industry. But she hopes more singers will consider it an equally viable option. “I wouldn’t ever expect that every artist has to follow the same mantra or the same path,” she says. “That’s part of the arts—each artist has to really find their own purpose for doing it.”

The roots of DiDonato’s approach began at an early age. The Midwestern, Catholic household in which she was raised placed particular emphasis on the traditional values of vocation and hard work. “We had conversations around the dinner table all the time: you could choose the single life, you could choose married life, or you could choose religious vocation, but it was all to be in service of this thing,” she says. “I think you combine those two things: the work ethic and the idea of trying not to ‘make it about myself.’ It’s definitely an environmental and cultural thing.”

As she has gotten older, she has regularly returned to these core values to help guide the direction of her life while still being open to the new ideas that inevitably come with maturity. “Even though my whole life has changed very much since growing up there, these are concepts that I’ve evaluated and taken on as my own,” she says. “I’m really clear that it’s like, ‘OK, this is how I was raised, this is what’s expected. What do I think?’”

These principles have proven especially helpful as she has weighed the expectations of the opera business against her own assessments of her abilities, goals, and ambitions. She believes there are outside expectations at practically every level of a singer’s progression. “It’s at the jury level. What does the jury expect of me? It’s at the competition level. I’m going to NATS or I’m going to the Met Council or I’m going to Operalia. What do they expect?” she says. It can even carry over into the career. “I’m singing in Italy. What do the Italians expect?”

Attempting to meet all these expectations can interfere with finding the path best suited to each individual. “You’re chasing, really, the unattainable,” she says. “If you’re always playing to people’s expectation, your voice will never be heard. There will never be a real sense of authenticity.”

Of course, she adds, one must be savvy enough to “know your audience” and understand what may or may not play with a certain crowd. “But it’s that old expression—every great singer has said it—you sing to express, not to impress. You don’t play to the expectation.”

For this reason, DiDonato likes to remind singers that they always have choices in these situations. Though difficult, they can still choose to honor themselves and their own goals instead of yielding to someone else’s vision of what they should be doing.

Drawing on her own experience, she recalls being onstage in casts where “it was every man for himself or every woman for herself” and she had to decide whether to change her approach—to engage with the hyper-competitive mentality—or remain true to her ideals.

In choosing integrity and her own path, she has found a way to motivate herself even when surrounded by negativity. “I get very motivated when I have an obstacle in front of me,” she says. “If I have a colleague that is elbowing their way in front of me, that motivates me greatly, and those are sometimes my best performances. But I’m doing it in the way that I do it, which means I try to get more authentic and take bigger risks vocally and I just go for it. So I use it in what I hope is a very productive way.”

This option acknowledges the competitive nature of the business of professional singing but, rather than responding in kind, allows singers to continue playing to their own strengths.

Avoiding negativity is just as important in the frequent self-evaluations DiDonato finds a crucial part of a singer’s career. While harshly judging ourselves, or others, is flatly unproductive, she believes in honestly evaluating where singers are in comparison to their peers. “If you’re singing at C-level houses in America, you have to know where those peers are,” she says. “And then also, in the same Fach, where those A-level house singers are, and analyze very objectively without judgment. What do they have? What am I missing? What are my strengths and what are my weaknesses? Do I need to improve my weaknesses or can I just amplify my strengths?”

She compares this approach to that of the business world. “It’s what Microsoft does with Apple, probably, every day of the week,” she says. “Or Spotify vs. Apple Music. Coming in, they’re all, of course, competitive. But I think, almost without exception, what sets people apart is when they find out who they are and what their strength is—and that has nothing to do with competition. Competition can force you to analyze that and look at it and compare it. But at the end of the day, you can’t manufacture something that you don’t have. At the end of the day, if you spend your time imitating or competing with people, you are not actually present in what is your own strength and power.”

In fact, in more than 20 years of seriously pursuing and building a career in opera, one of the more important lessons DiDonato has learned is to not give away her power. “That’s a big thing, I think, for young people,” she says, “because they’re giving their power to their teacher primarily, to their coach, to their competition, to the imaginary manager they’re trying to get, to the imaginary Young Artist Program they’re trying to get. They have all this power and they give it away.”

This becomes particularly important as singers learn to deal with the inevitable obstacles that impede progress. “The only place a young singer can possibly be in order to move ahead is fully in their power and in their voice and in their heart and what they’re conveying,” she says.

To illustrate this point, she constructs the scenario of a cattle-call audition in the middle of December. A singer attends the audition because it is a job she desperately wants to land, even though she has been financially struggling to make ends meet. To make matters worse, she feels a cold coming on and doesn’t have any inside contacts pulling for her within the company. Given the circumstances, she could justifiably feel powerless and, as a result, give a less than compelling audition.

DiDonato says, however, that “if she puts herself in a place of real, centered power and she walks into that audition not worried about whether she’s going to get the job or not—but owning those four minutes of her first aria and being that character and crafting exquisite vocal lines and taking the judges into that magical place of make-believe, of pretend—she may or may not get the job, but she will always get an invitation back.”

She reminds singers that, for whatever reason, that particular job may not be possible at that time. But staying in command of their own power will win over the admiration of the panel and provide something positive to build upon. Therefore, focusing on the process rather than the results can mean a more engaging experience while also helping singers identify their unique place—the place where their attributes are the best fit, even if that is not as professional singers.

DiDonato acknowledges that a mere fraction of the singers who graduate from even the top conservatory programs will build successful careers as performers, at least in the way success has come to be defined.

“My approach to it,” she says, “is if the idea of success is put on process and progress and the things that you’re learning along the way—the self-examination that has to happen along the way—how can it not be successful if you’re really courageous enough to do that kind of self-examination?”

And if traditional success as a singer does not come, or does not come as quickly as anticipated, honest self-examination will help individuals understand the reasons the career may not have taken off. “It may be you really didn’t have the voice, you didn’t really have the nerve, or the world didn’t want what you have to offer in this arena—which is probably the most devastating of all of those options,” she says. “But it’s also the way life works.”

She even ties this into her own experience. “I have very few colleagues and friends that fell off the stardom path that did not find the exact right place for them to be.” While those colleagues, even singers she predicted would have big careers, may have “stepped off the path”—some sooner, some later, some voluntarily, some begrudgingly—they have overwhelmingly found the career that was the right fit. “I am a real believer that even if what you designated as your path didn’t work, if you’re open to that kind of self-examination, you’ll find the place you need to be or the lessons that you need to learn along the way,” she says.

As proof of this self-evaluation, DiDonato has openly discussed her own struggles and challenges when it comes to building vocal technique. In the 2007 publication The Naked Voice: A Wholistic Approach to Singing by W. Stephen Smith and Michael Chipman, she discusses her fear of slipping back into old habits like “cracking wildly on any note in my upper passaggio.” In one section, she says, “I didn’t know how to sing without the tongue muscle forcing the tone out. I could not manage the most simple of [ɑ] vowels without this crutch.”

Similarly, in the new book Master Singers: Advice from the Stage by Donald George and Lucy Mauro, she admits to fighting poor posture and even discovering tension in her right elbow.

“There’s still some things about my voice that I really don’t like, that I would love to keep improving,” she says. Recognizing the impossible pressure for singers to be perfect in the public eye, always delivering flawless performances, it often seems to her that any hint of struggle—or even simply acknowledging the effort required to build and maintain technique—can give the impression that a career is winding down. History has demonstrated how fickle the opera business can be in its willingness to dismiss singers from high-profile careers when trouble arises.

But in publicly owning up to her own imperfections, DiDonato wants young singers to get the message that everybody hits roadblocks and that they are not the only ones to experience difficulties. “I just think it’s important for people to know that they can get through it, that they are not an isolated case,” she says. Knowing that life in the practice room can be a lonely existence, she says, “I’m just happy to sort of break down those barriers and let people know that we all struggle.”

Reaching out to those who struggle in other areas of life has been a focus frequently addressed on her blog. Writing on a myriad of subjects, she has not tiptoed around controversial topics.

“I’m very opinionated on a lot of issues and I’m also very open to learning about a lot of issues,” she says, “but there are these things that strike very close to my heart and home that I think a lot about.”

One issue in 2011 quite literally struck close to home, when Republican Governor Sam Brownback of Kansas (her home state) eliminated all state funding for arts programs. In response, she blogged a stern, yet personal, defense of arts education: “My imagination rivals a good ol’ Kansas Category 5 tornado’s destructive force when I begin to think of where I’d be without an education fueled by the arts that informed my way of thinking outside the box, without a community theater or choir or art exhibit that gave me true solace and an emergency exit from some of the great crises in my life, not to mention the outlet of participating in an expressive activity which helped me understand myself and the mystery of life a little better.” (

More recently, in response to the racially motivated murder of nine people at a Charleston, South Carolina, church, DiDonato wrote of the personal soul searching the tragedy invoked. She considered her own culpability, born into a white, middle-class society with little understanding of what it might be like to grow up African American “underneath a waving Confederate flag.” In the blog, she commits to “speaking the truth” and to petitioning for radical gun law changes in the United States.

While much of the response to her blog is positive (“I’m already sort of preaching to my people”), she also receives her share of negative comments. Since she does not identify as a politician or even a political activist, DiDonato carefully considers which issues to comment on, knowing she may be crossing a line in the minds of some. “What I do struggle with,” she says, “is I never want to put the audience in a place where it’s never about the music, where it’s about me or a topic or something bigger.” However, she admits, “That’s a balance I don’t know if I find or strike every time.”

Still, she has found that speaking her mind is worth the potential risk when it comes to certain matters. “These issues that hit so close to home,” she says, “when I go to bed at night, I want to know that I did the right thing for myself, and staying silent when I have a chance, I have a platform to speak up—I’m not comfortable with staying silent.”

Ultimately, she hopes her words will draw awareness to the issues while also helping others to feel less isolated, perhaps even empowering them to speak up themselves. “I do get a lot of feedback from, in particular, young LGBT people who say, ‘Thank you for standing with us. I never thought somebody like you would side with somebody like me,’” she says.

Comments like these help DiDonato see the value in speaking out the way she does, and she stands behind the impact it can have. “I don’t think I’m changing the world, but I think I’m changing the world for some people,” she says. “And I would rather do that, even if I’m to come under closer scrutiny or if it means people don’t want to listen to my records because they don’t want to hear me talking about gay rights or gun rights or something. I’m OK with that. And I know that that’s a risk that I take.”

One could easily conclude that honoring her personal integrity and speaking out in this way would feed her life as a singer, bringing an element of authenticity to her performances. But DiDonato believes the opposite.

“I think that the stage has been my best teacher, and music has been my best teacher,” she says. “So, in order to be a better singer, I’ve tried to be more authentic. In order to be a more impactful performer, I’ve had to find more authenticity on the stage. . . . I think this kind of confidence to speak my mind has actually come from learning that on the stage.”

This is a message she hopes the upcoming generation of singers can internalize as well—to act on their integrity, especially as they encounter their first failures as they transition from high school to college to graduate studies and the professional world. “Those things that they have to face and learn in those moments, it’s teaching them about life. It’s teaching them about themselves and it is empowering if they use it in that way.”

She believes that as they learn these crucial lessons, it becomes even easier to view music as a medium that benefits the greater community. Seeing the good that it does and being part of that effort can become a higher goal for performers than personal success.

“That comes back to the idea of service,” she says. “Using music and using this world to look at society, . . . look at each other—look at, ultimately, ourselves, and how we fit into that.”

The potential for a positive effect, then, is limitless. “This is how we advance,” she says. “I’m sure of it.”

In fact, music may just be the perfect vehicle for such efforts given what she calls the “mystical” impact it has on lives, sometimes in ways beyond our understanding. “We’re working in a very, very powerful medium. Anytime that you have something that contains power in it, if it’s of service, I think it’s ultimately much more effective. If it’s about taking from it, that can be a kind of abuse, in a way.”

This is one of the driving forces behind her advocacy for music education. “It’s not the only way forward,” she says, “but it is the prime, most perfect example of how to get through those moments of division.”

While working in the music industry has its frustrating times (“ . . . it’s not all lollipops and roses and unicorns
. . . ”), DiDonato has made it her mission to be present and enjoy each moment in her career while still looking with enthusiasm toward future projects and possibilities.

“Repertoire-wise, it’s endless,” she says. “Collaborators? Endless. And mixing different repertoire with different collaborators? Endless.”

She also feels that the industry is currently in an exciting place. As it continues to embrace innovation, she feels there are opinions she can contribute to influence its direction. “I have ideas and I don’t think I’m afraid to shake up status quo a little bit,” she says.

Despite the need to be adaptable to the changes in the business, she still believes that sticking to her core principles will continue to serve her well in the future. “I’ve learned to just keep my head down, keep doing the work, say ‘yes’ to the exciting things, and not be too afraid to take the risks. And then,” she says, “see where I end up.”

Of course, keeping her head down does not mean avoiding the opportunity to speak up when she feels it is necessary. Recognizing how fortunate she is to be in a career that has reached the highest professional levels, she remains committed to using her influence to encourage upcoming singers, lobby for music and the arts in our culture, and promote attitudes and behaviors that build communities of acceptance.

For evidence, one needs only to consult her blog, where she confesses to sometimes being long winded, emotionally charged, or even occasionally in over her head.

“But not silent,” she says. “Nope, not that.”

Brian Manternach

Brian Manternach, DM (he/him), is an associate professor at the University of Utah Department of Theatre and a research associate at the Utah Center for Vocology, where he is on the faculty of the Summer Vocology Institute. He is an associate editor of the Journal of Singing, and his research, reviews, articles, and essays have appeared in numerous voice-related publications. /