Pathos and Passion: Joyce Didonato's Master Classes

Classic Arts Features   Pathos and Passion: Joyce Didonato's Master Classes
Mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonatoled a series of master classes for young artists in Carnegie Hall's Resnick Education Wing.

In February 2015, renowned mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato led a series of master classes for young artists in Carnegie Hall's Resnick Education Wing. The four singers selected to participate received coaching sessions over the course of three consecutive days that were open to the public and streamed online at, giving audience members around the world a rare opportunity to share in the insights of one of opera's greatest artists. Next month, four singers will again participate in a series of public master classes with Ms. DiDonato at Carnegie Hall. We recently caught up with the "Yankee Diva" to discuss her approach to these events and her work with young artists.

You're a passionate advocate for opera as an art form. How do your master classes serve this mission?

I hope the classes work to serve the art form on a few different levels, but admittedly, it is incredibly challenging to achieve. Obviously, there is a student on hand who is looking for specific guidance, and he or she is my starting point. But it's not a private coaching session: there are numerous people observing to learn more about singing, about performing. So my approach, while stemming entirely from the individual at hand, is to give concrete information that can help the student advance and grow as an individual, but to do it in a universal way so that other singers watching can also incorporate various techniques into their own preparation and performance. I find that this leads me to talk about the process quite a lot and in more sweeping terms.

But another thing I discovered with last year's Carnegie Hall master classes: completely unexpectedly: was the effect that following the development of a young singer over three days had on the general public. A wonderful elderly woman came up to me at the end of the third day and, with unmistakable New York directness, let me know that after the first session she was "shocked" that two of the four singers had been accepted and couldn't figure out why they were allowed to participate. But then, after three days, she had seen the growth and felt ashamed of herself for dismissing them so quickly. I loved this lady and her honesty because it proved a point I've been a bit outspoken about: Artists need time and space to develop and grow. I think that in these classes, opera lovers can see behind the gloss and the glamour to the profound amount of work it takes to give a polished performance: not to mention a performance that just might transcend. These young singers are so brave to open themselves up to this kind of adventure, and I love that the public can come along for the ride.

What qualities do you look for when selecting participants?

I'm not sure I can pinpoint exact qualities because each singer has such an individual story and comes with different strengths and weaknesses. But as I was choosing the final four, I kept asking myself, "Joyce, do you think you can help them?" There were many talented singers, but my final criterion was simply whether I felt I really had something to offer that individual at this point in time. Another factor, however, is the essay I ask them to write on the prompt "Why do you sing?" I think it's quite telling to read their stories (and everyone has one!), but there are some that stick out in a very special way, and you just sense that this person has a drive and a passion that set them apart.

When working with a singer in a master class, how do you decide what to focus on?

It's quite nerve-wracking as the teacher because you cannot determine anything until you hear them sing. In the case of the Carnegie Hall classes, I've seen their audition videos, but these are young artists, and if the video was recorded six months ago, they can arrive in New York a completely different singer because changes are happening so fast at that age. My job is to listen intently, watch rigorously, and observe all that they are showing me: and then, in a split second, try to pinpoint the most effective area on which to focus. Often: because opera is an immensely complicated combination of the physical, emotional, musical, psychological, and spiritual worlds: I am flooded with hundreds of things I want to address with them right on the spot. The role of the teacher is to identify what is most pressing, and what can perhaps bring the most growth and help the student most effectively.

How do you make master classes informative for both the singers and the audience?

I have utter confidence in the inherent interest of opera: the musical depth, the complexity of the poetry, and the vital psychological/ spiritual element. I'm never worried about it being interesting because how can it not be? My issue is that the audience can be too inundated with imagery and observation and pathos and passion! My biggest problem is filtering it down to something that can be addressed in a compact amount of time. I do make the assumption that most people attending have a general working knowledge of the terminology and structure of opera, so I make the leap to sophisticated interaction pretty quickly. I also try to remember to warn the students that I'll be talking very quickly: there is a lot of territory to explore: but with these classes being available on, they can revisit topics or ideas that interested them or that require more time.

What advice can you offer singers on how to get the most out of a master class?

I suppose it's the same advice I would offer anyone: Stay open to other ideas. I want them to arrive and be willing to take risks, to be vulnerable, to dare to fail, to stop doing everything "they've always done" in an effort to break through insecurities, arrogance, or emotional barriers. The tricky part, as with any short-term project, is that they will be flooded with ideas and inspiration, but it is absolutely, unmistakably up to them to take it back home, integrate it deeply, and use it to progress to the next level. They must forge their own path and steer their own development in the way they desire it to go.

January 8 _10 at 4 PM Resnick Education Wing Joyce DiDonato Master Classes

Workshops and master classes are made possible, in part, by Mr. and Mrs. Nicola Bulgari and The Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation.

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