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An American Opera Star Shines in Britain
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An American Opera Star Shines in Britain

LIANE HANSEN, host:

From NPR News in Washington, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Liane Hansen.

A young American opera singer has taken London by storm this past month. Joyce DiDonato, who hails from Kansas City, has been playing Rosina, in The Barber of Seville, by Rossini, at the Royal Opera House. To gauge by the reactions to her singing, not just in London but across Europe, critics are saying she seems to have the opera world at her feet.

NPR's Rob Gifford went to meet her.

ROB GIFFORD reporting:

Ask any opera buff in Europe, and they'll say, with great respect but maybe a touch of old-world arrogance, that American sopranos are superbly prepared and always technically perfect, but missing perhaps just a little ounce of passion. With her stirring performance as Rosina in The Barber of Seville this month, American mezzo Joyce DiDonato has blown those accusations out of the water.

(Soundbite of DiDonato singing as Rosina)

GIFFORD: DiDonato's performance as a feisty, sexy Rosina in a gorgeous green and pink dress and high heels has been hailed by the British Press. A mesmerizing performance, said the Times of London. Dazzlingly sassy, said the Daily Telegraph. The fire of Cecelia Bartoli allied to the charm and wit of Teresa Berganza, said the Sunday Times.

Mr. EDWARD SECKERSON (Opera Critic, The Independent): I thought she was an utterly knockout in The Barber of Seville, as Rosina.

GIFFORD: Edward Seckerson is Opera Critic for The Independent Newspaper.

Mr. SECKERSON: Singing is about mind, body and spirit. It's about engaging as a personality as a performer as well as a vocal artist, and she seemed to have it all to me; the looks, the attitude, certainly the technique, particular in her entrance aria. I mean she comes on stage with Una voce poco fa, and, there are all these tremendous vocal fireworks. And, they mean nothing unless there is a real kind of twinkle behind them. And that's what she had straight away, and so she engaged the audience and drew you in.

(Soundbite of DiDonato singing as Rosina)

GIFFORD: Despite all the buzz around her, DiDonato herself is a remarkably un-diva like diva, and that seems to have been part of the attraction. Audiences say she seems accessible and real, and not up on a pedestal. Still only in her mid-thirties, DiDonato grew up the sixth of seven children in a close-knit Irish-American family in Kansas City. She's a huge fan of the Kansas City Royals baseball team, and the musical influences of her childhood were most definitely not Verde and Rossini.

Ms. JOYCE DIDONATO (Opera Singer): I was always into music, and yes, it was Shaun Cassidy, and I still have very vivid memories of putting on old albums of my older sisters' of Jesus Christ Superstar and Barbara Streisand and these things. And I had locked myself in the room, and I had my hairbrush in the hand, and I was screaming with the window open, singing my heart out, hoping to get discovered. I'll never forget that. And had I been a backup singer to Billy Joel, I would've been the happiest person in the world.

I never liked opera. I never understood the sound that came out of people's mouths; I thought it was very manufactured and rather ugly, actually. But I got into high school musicals and I went to college and was into musicals, and slowly got into the opera, very much against my will. But the second that I did, and, it felt like the perfect place; it felt like home.

GIFFORD: Finding a home is one thing, though; making a career of it is another thing altogether. DiDonato says she waited a lot of tables as she tried to make it as a singer. She remembers attending a competition in London in the late 1990's when the head judge snapped shut his folder and said, Miss DiDonato, you have nothing to offer as an artist. She said it just made her more determined to succeed. Along the way she's become a passionate evangelist for modern opera and for the popularization of opera as a whole.

Ms DIDONATO: The sad thing is, is that opera was the popular art form of the day, and it was conceived as if it, we were making the next blockbuster movie today, or musical perhaps. That was the idea of opera then, and it makes me sad that it's been tied up in a platinum bow and put on a very high shelf, and you can only take it off with white gloves. Because that's not opera, opera's meant for every human being, because you can experience something slightly bigger than yourself and hopefully something of beauty and something that resonates.

GIFFORD: Finally, a few years ago, it suddenly all started to come together. She won the prestigious Richard Tucker award in the U.S. and again, quite suddenly, the European Opera houses especially, started to invite her. La Scala in Milan, Paris Opera in Geneva. Last November, she debuted at the Metropolitan Opera of New York in the Marriage of Figaro.

(Soundbite of Joyce DiDonato in an opera performance)

Ms. DIDONATO: I think the goal of an opera singer should be to have an absolutely flawless technique that you can have at your command anything, vocally that you want to do. Which is I think what the American system provides. It provides excellent training in language and style skills. But there's something that we miss in the training that, when it comes time, when the curtain goes up, you have to throw all of that away and be willing to have blood appear on the floor, the blood and guts of opera. It really is an emotional roller coaster. And I think, for me, my focus is to bring the best of both of these worlds, the American system of being incredibly well-trained but the European system of just rocking the house and raising the roof.

(Soundbite of Joyce DiDonato in an opera performance)

GIFFORD: Rob Gifford, NPR News, London.

(Soundbite of Joyce DiDonato in an opera performance)

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