Q & A: Joyce DiDonato On Her Work with Yannick Nézet-Séguin & Chausson’s Music

By Francisco Salazar

The name Joyce DiDonato is synonymous with great music making, diverse repertoire, arts education, and advocacy. The mezzo is also one of the greatest living artists in the world and one of the busiest performers around.

As she finishes her first staged production of “Les Troyens” at the Wiener Staatsoper, DiDonato is embarking on a tour with the Philadelphia Orchestra in which she will perform Chausson’s “Poème de l’Amour et de la Mer,” for voice and orchestra.

In a recent interview with OperaWire, DiDonato spoke about this epic concert piece and her collaboration with Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who will conduct the piece.

OperaWire: Tell me what attracts you to Chausson’s music and how does this piece compare to other French works, like “Les Troyens,” that you have done?

Joyce DiDonato: What I appreciate so much about this piece, in conjunction with the world of Berlioz, is that I find this music utterly unapologetic. It makes no pretense to be something it is not – which allows a kind of purity to come into the music making. It is lush, it is poetic, it is romantic, it is sensual. What a joy to get lost in it for 20 minutes of blissful, harmonic love and loss!

OW: What are the challenges of Chausson’s vocal writing and how does it fit with the orchestration given the piece’s scope?

JD: Essentially it is an extremely intimate piece, but as it confronts real loss and passionate longing and love, of course, it demands that the voice and the orchestra open up fully. The texture of the orchestra can be a bit thick at times, but Yannick is a master of balance and nuance. Of course, there is the beautiful element of the Philadelphia Orchestra playing alongside, and they are capable of absolutely any color or texture, so I’m thrilled to explore what we can create together!

OW: Of the three movements which is your favorite and do you have a favorite moment in the entire piece?

JD: Don’t make me choose! This is the kind of piece, that if you remove one word or phrase the structure collapses. It builds and links together so beautifully – so, in the end, I feel almost as if I’m immersed in one, unending phrase. So that one is my favorite!

OW: Is there a particular part in the text that is striking to sing and why?

JD: I do love the word “oblivion” that comes in. It’s a concept similar to infinity but whereas I see infinity as a very positive concept that propels forward, oblivion is equally endless, and yet suggest falling into an abyss. It is how we feel when we lose love.

OW: This concert will be performed in Philadelphia as well as Carnegie Hall. Tell me about your experiences at both halls and what is special about these music temples? Do you find one is easier to perform at? Are there differences in audience response?

JD: There is one kind of energy when you are playing in front of a hometown crowd that is infectiously wonderful. The orchestra is at home – with family, and in a hall that is their dominion. That has a wonderful sensation of playing for family.

But as we travel to Carnegie Hall there is an air of expectation, arrival, and tradition that melds with the history of Carnegie, which has a very different kind of energy. I’m sure both will be treasured experiences!

OW: You’ve worked with Yannick Nézet-Séguin over the years. How has the relationship evolved and what is it like to collaborate with him? What do you learn from him as you work in the concert space?

JD: I first sang with Yannick ages ago with his hometown symphony orchestra in Montreal. The world hadn’t yet gotten wind of the sensation that was about to be unleashed, and so the question was, “So, who is the conductor again?”

After the first bars of introduction, it was clear that this was a game-changing presence on the podium. In one way, nothing has changed since that first meeting: he is as open and inventive and enthusiastic as ever, still creating a beautifully safe space for great art to be born and to thrive, inspiring every musician he encounters to give their all. Rehearsals always involve diving into the text and the inner emotional life of the pieces we are performing. The performances always feel inspired and as if they are being created on the spot. This is why they are so ALIVE. The only difference from the start, I suppose, is that now the world knows and has fallen in love with him and his spirit, just as we all have!

OW: Tell me about your relationship with the Philadelphia Orchestra. What excites you about performing with this particular ensemble?

JD: It’s a short relationship, having only ever sung with them one time, with a program primarily of bel canto arias. While they were divine, I’m not entirely sure the repertoire of oom-pah-pah accompaniments gave them a chance to show their full genius in all its glory! I think my second experience with them – via Chausson – will be entirely different. I’m already imagining the sound rainbow of textures and colors they will create with this!

OW: What do you hope people take away from this incredible piece?

JD: I hope they will find a place to put their own memories of love and loss, expressed through this music. Even if it lasts only 20 minutes, sometimes that’s all it takes to find release.


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