In a series of concerts culminating in a performance at Carnegie Hall in December, American Mezzo-Soprano Joyce DiDonato is singing Schubert’s Winterreise with Yannick Nézet-Séguin at the piano. What's stunning about this performance is that DiDonato sings the cycle from the perspective of the protagonist’s lover. DiDonato has learned Winterreise using nkoda, a Spotify for sheet music app, and ended in offering a feminist and truly modern reinterpretation of the traditional work. How she was able to do that, is the main topic of the following interview.

Joyce DiDonato
©J osef Fischnaller

Is it true that, in 1983, you wrote a letter to President Reagan to stop him warring with Mikhail Gorbachev?
I did. How did you know that!? [Gasps] I was thirteen and, you know, it was at the height of the nuclear cold war, and it didn’t make sense to me at all. I sat down, and I typed out a letter and wrote, “Dear President Reagan, I just don’t understand the complexity of this situation” I was saying in (probably) simpler terms: “I’m sure if you and Gorbachev could sit down and talk it out, person to person, you could sort everything out. I’m sure of it”. And I got a response. “The President loves hearing from young people, and we appreciate your feedback” and all I’d say is that a few years later the wall fell – So, you know…

Do you often refer back to that mode of thinking, to dream big? Do you think it powered your career trajectory?
This is going to sound a little bit trite but I often, at times, for encores, perform ‘Somewhere over the Rainbow’ which I used not to like. I used to think it was very corny. However, there is this line, “The dreams that you dare to dream really do come true” and, I don’t know if they come true all of the time, but I like this idea of daring to dream and this idea of, “why not?”
If happy little bluebirds fly over the rainbow, then why can’t I? When I first heard this song, I thought, ‘Well, why can’t I do that? I’m just this girl from Kansas’. So, as I said, I know it sounds so trite, but I have made many strides in my life with this attitude, “Why not?”
“Why not ask? Why not try? Why not do this?” The earth is not going to spin off of its axis. The times where I have not succeeded have been where I’ve played it very conventionally, I’ve done what everybody else wanted and what I ‘should’ do, and that’s not where I’ve taken flight. So, yes, I do refer back to that a lot.

You once said that ‘Imagination can’t be taught, it has to be relearned’ – was this school of thought integral to your interpretation of Winterreise?
Yes. Did I really say that? [Laughs] It is, because when you witness kids – I mean their imagination is endless, and it is a little daunting, actually, to see a three or four-year-old child that hasn’t been taught to toe the line, to stay quiet or to be in order – and we lose that. I think this is a long conversation about the educational system today and the corporate world etc.
There are so many times where you aren’t allowed to think for yourself – the computer won’t let me! Everything we hear, we hear online.
To be an artist, to bring this music to life, it’s not enough to just sing exactly what’s on the page. That’s fine but, again, it doesn’t really take flight. Imagination has been a huge key for me because a lot of my repertoire is standard, Rosina in Il Barbiere di Siviglia, Cherubino in Le Nozze di Figaro and now, The Winterreise. Everyone knows how it should go. There are certain standards. If I start there, as an artist, I become an imitator. This doesn’t mean that I discount the tradition and the stylistic legacy nor the schools of Schubert and Lieder Of course, this has to be a part of my foundation and preparation, but I can’t start there. I have to know why I’m singing it. I have to reach a point for myself when I walk on stage and I dare to do something that is this iconic, it has to come from a really deep place of ownership. I have to feel as though I am creating this on the spot, and I don’t mean in any kind of arrogant or egotistical way, I mean that that is the kind of authority that I have to bring to stage. To get there I have to ask myself a lot of questions. I have to understand deeply why I’m singing. Why is this something that can’t simply be recited? Why does it need that emotional charge of harmony, structure, rhythm and tempo? It has to be imperative enough to actually sing it.

And what about Winterreise?
One of the first things that Yanick [Nézet-Séguin] said to me was that he was proposing this and I thought he was crazy. He told me that I had to really feel it, deeply. I tried to feel it deeply, going into rehearsals, from the conventional standpoint and it seemed distant to me. It seemed to be outside – I couldn’t enter it.  It wasn’t a question of the gender – I do pants roles, I love singing pants roles-, it wasn’t even the austerity of it, I just couldn’t find my way in.
The question that kept coming up for me was, “Well what about the girl? What is her story?” I’ve only sung the role of Charlotte one time in Werther but oh, I felt it very deeply – I had a real identification with her. So, I had a feeling that this girl was a lot like Charlotte.
Somebody who didn’t have the luxury that men have of fleeing the town or even of committing suicide. I mean, in those days, the woman had to do what she was told. She had to fit into the convention of the world. I think that this, again, is in my imagination, the story I have created for her. I think this is her case. Her parents said, “No, you have to marry this man and you’re going to have children and you’re going to make a beautiful home.” I think she was in love with the Wanderer. When he left, she probably didn’t have the liberty to grieve him. It’s probably clear what happened to him though, whether she knows if he had committed suicide or left town, he was still gone. Her life was moving on and she probably wouldn’t have been able to have shown anything. For instance, in Werther, when the curtain comes down, what does Charlotte do? The story doesn’t end only because the tenor’s life has ended. We still have this life of Charlotte. Does she pick up the gun and follow suit? Does she go back to Albert and continue to do her wifely duty? She ran to his side so her life is going to be so different. What does it look like? That is what has really captivated me and drawn me into this cycle. If we presume that he sent his journal to her (which is how I am approaching it) his journey is unpolluted, and yet, all of the words and experiences are still there. It can be interpreted in many different ways just as if I were singing it raw, as him. This way, we have a parallel journey. I’m assuming that this is not the first time she has read the journal. She is probably obsessed about it. It calls her back all the time, so in this case, with the piano, it’s that memory and spirit that pulls her in, even though she knows the journey is so hard to take. She relives it, she goes there over and over again. This parallel journey becomes really haunting. It’s not that the Winterreise needs it – it doesn’t. It stands alone so completely on its own but I think it’s really interesting to give the audience a chance to have a different filter, a different lens to look through.
I proposed this to Yanick and I think he was intrigued but he wasn’t sold on the idea immediately. So, I said, “let’s go through song by song and make sure we’re not imposing anything on it”, because the minute one has to force it, it’s not right. As we worked through it, all of a sudden, all of these other layers came about like, what repetitions mean and her journey alongside.

Looking at some of the songs do you think, for example, in Die Post, when he hears the bugle, he wonders if she had written to him? Do you think he is showing remorse?
I think it’s the last bastion of hope – I don’t think there’s remorse yet. I think there is an element of hope. It’s in a major key (until it’s not) and then, of course, the next piece is the leaves falling from the tree, “My hope is falling”. I think it’s the last moment of possible escape for him and there is the question of “do I turn around; do I go back?” and, though he doesn’t, it could happen in that piece.
If we take the song from her point of view, she didn’t write him. So, she is the reason there was nothing in the post. His journal came to her in the post so she has this confliction whereby it’s the one connection she still has to him but, also, she can’t escape him nor his fate now.
If she had known where he was or that he was leaving, maybe she would have written to him? There are questions surrounding people that die, people who get sick or people who commit suicide: “If I had only written to him, I could have saved him”… probably not, though there is that journey. In Die Post, for example, there are all these exclamations of “Mein Herz! Mein Herz!” and some of them are his and, I think, some of them are hers. I feel different things each time I perform it. However, for me, it is becoming more concrete that she really did love him. “Mein Herz!” You know, she’s reaching out for him and he’s not there.

And the last song, Der Leiermann?
Well, this was really interesting. The first time that Yannick and I worked the whole way through, Der Leiermann was the one that didn’t quite gel. I didn’t want to scrap the whole idea because the last song didn’t work but, just like the idea for the Winterreise came to me very quickly, I soon realized what it was going to be. What I have imagined, is that his journal actually ends with number 23, The Three Suns [Die Nebensonnen] – those were his last words. She reads his last words and closes the journal. The music then starts and Der Leiermann is hers.
It’s mysterious, just as if it had been done in a traditional way. Is she really seeing this? Is it a figment of her imagination? Has she gone so far down the hole with him and is she looking for a way out just as he has been? Does she end her life as well or is this just a question she is asking herself? What is extraordinary about it is, you don’t know whether it’s real or not. It becomes very concrete at the very end when she addresses him directly. She says: “You weird and strange man, do you want me to come with you? Will you play my songs?” The first time it hit me I had goosebumps go everywhere because she has been obsessed with his words, his music and his songs and yet she has not had a voice through any of this. So, before she knows whether she can go with him or not, the last thing that she asks is, “Will you play my songs?”
I’ve never understood in the music when there is this big crescendo and this insistence at the end – the question is very real, yet there is no real answer that ever comes. Giving Der Leiermann to her at the end, I think is very bold. Some may find it controversial but it feels so organic and so right.

How has nkoda enabled the fulfillment of your vision for The Winterreise?
I have had so much fun with this because I’m a score geek. We just did this War and Peace concert with Maxim Emelyanychev – he is a wonderful and fantastic conductor with Il Pomo d’Oro – and we were talking, and he gave me his scores to look at. He didn’t have anything written down but he told me: “No, it’s all there, in the music”, which is one way of looking at it… I’m the opposite. I mark up my scores, inside and out. I think that part of the process of marking it up is where I learn. It starts to integrate into my mind and my thoughts. When I mark punctuation things, for example, that makes me think to myself, “Why is she asking this question?” In Die Post, some of the “Mein Herz” are followed with a question mark and some, an exclamation mark – some are outcries and others are her searching for him.
When I really go into the score, that’s where it starts to become three-dimensional for me. With nkoda, I’ve had the chance to layer (with all the colors), going through one with just text, just translation, one with phonetics (because I don’t speak German fluently, so I have to be prepared phonetically), I have a layer of notes and suggestions from my Coach in Vienna, Jendrik Springer, and I can give Yanick a layer of notes, now that we are rehearsing and preparing together. I can create a roadmap and outline where “her thoughts” and “his thoughts” are (and I can turn all of those off and on and start with a clean slate if I want to). It’s really helped me, in a three-dimensional way, to bring that score to life.

It’s so amazing that you’re using an app like nkoda. How did you feel when you first saw nkoda?
It felt like a new toy. Lorenzo [Brewer] came and gave me the presentation and I thought, “Ah, okay. It’s one thing to look at it and sort of be amazed, it’s another to get your hands on it”. The first piece that I’ve gone into, using nkoda, is Winterreise. I think what has been pretty powerful is how nkoda has helped to demystify this piece for me. When Yannick first asked me to do it, I thought, “No, no, no – I don’t do Lieder. I’m not going to touch that one”. I’ve been listening to a lot of Gerald Finley and Alice Coote, and these are singers who have such mastery of it that it’s daunting to go in and say, “Okay, what do I do with this? How do I begin with this?” Really, the process of going in with various layers and really dissecting and diagramming the score, physically, has been so helpful to take it off of that gilded shelf and helped to flesh it out, giving myself permission to really just, make it real – to get away from the idea of how it is supposed to go and to keep it precious but distant. I really felt as though I could get my hands, in it, and begin to carve it into life.
This is a piece that I hope to live with for a very long time. You have to start somewhere but I’m sure that, where it will be in a few years’ time compared to where I was with it in my first performance of it, will flesh out in a very different way.

Is this something that you’d like to do again; to change the nature of the way in which a work is interpreted and performed? Do you think nkoda is the tool to help you achieve this?
That’s a good question. You know, I never start off to say to myself, “How can I do something different with this?” – that is never my starting point – because then, I think, you’re working to find something different, and that requires a different priority. My thing with this Winterreise was, “How can I make it personal?”, because that is my priority for everything that I sing. It’s not to insert myself into the music, but I have to, as I said, arrive at a point of ownership and I have to find my way through all the intention of the composer and the poet. I have to find a way that makes sense for me to open up my mouth and sing. So, it’s always, “How do I navigate this, with my experience and with my vision?” – under the umbrella of it being Schubertian – whilst being true to the piece itself.
What I love about nkoda, for example, is that I would have the opportunity to compare scores. I would have the opportunity, maybe if somebody had shared their markings, and understand how, say, Gerald Finley had approached this. I would love to see an accompanist’s – say, Julius Drake – nkoda markings. I think about this as a pianist, having all the markings for Gerald Finley, Alice Coote, Joyce DiDonato and, if they had one accompanist the might say, “Ah, so this is how Joyce does it.” If I were a pianist, that would be a brilliant way to do it.
I think the idea of comparing scores – if I’d had the chance to compare the markings of Christa Ludwig – would be so useful for me. I’d eat that up. I wouldn’t necessarily use her markings, but it would inform me of how a great artist goes from point A to the final product.
For something like this, the more you can study it and the more information you can gather, the more tools that you have to present something.

Dame Janet Baker has often used her analogy of ‘The Glass’ to best describe the measures one must take to become a singing artist. If you were to use your interaction with nkoda and your approach to the Winterreise, how would you explain to a young singing artist, what must be done to achieve success?
Well with my scores, for example, I have all of the phonetics written out (even the ones that I don’t need). Every marking that I do connects to my brain and drills it in, so to speak, even if I know already how it should sound. The better memorized I have those phonetics, the more authority I have. I consider the text to be my instrument, not my vocal cords. The more I can write in, every word-for-word translation, the better. Each time I do that and the more often that I do that, the deeper it goes – becoming more and more like my native language. Some people would say it is even more important in lead up because everything that we sing has to be second nature to us.
I love to spend time marking up the piano score as well (I play a little bit) and it helps me go into the piano part which is such an integral partner in this piece – I need to know it. Do I give it to the piano? Does the piano give it to me? What is that pulse that is going under this constant restless journey that is refusing to stop until the end? So, in terms of going through that with a young singer, I think they need to understand the score as though they themselves had written it as if they were Schubert himself. That is why I spend so much time with the partition – the score. It just gives me a sense of ownership. I will probably go back, erase my markings and start from scratch, were I to do it again. This is how my brain works! Someone like Maxim, however, he looks at it, his brain processes it and so he doesn’t have to do what I do.
It’s very important for artists to understand how they learn. I’m a very visual person and so, doing it my way helps me. Other people may not do that and they can find different tools in nkoda that can facilitate the way they learn.
I think there is room in this application for people that learn in different ways.

Throughout your career, have you had to compromise the integrity and purity of your gift as an opera singer, at the expense of following the traditions of the industry? What might you say to a younger generation who might be struggling with this?
I have to think about that. There have been (early on) maybe a few instances where there have been conductors that you don’t agree with or singing partners you may need to accommodate. I got wonderful advice from Christopher Larkin who was conducting in the studio in Houston Grand Opera, I think he was either conducting a second-cast performance of Figaro or it was Little Women when we were preparing the premiere. I remember when we sat down, he said, « One of the first things is; when you walk into that rehearsal, know that score better than the conductor because if you do, you have all the freedom in the world » and, for some reason, that really stuck with me. I can’t say that I’ve been able to do this for every new piece that I’ve done but that is my goal, that is my standard.
I remember talking with Sir Charles Mackerras (bless him). We did Donna Elvira and Don Giovanni with him and it was his billionth production and he had done it with all the great singers of the last fifty years. It was so intimidating but when I came in, I was able to defend some choices – we had disagreed on a couple of them. I managed to get a couple of them and he managed to get a couple of them, but we were on the same page by the end of that discussion. Now, I was coming from a place of strength because I was talking about the score and the subtext of the character, etc.
Early on, I can remember doing a masterclass in Sante Fe, in 1995 (my apprentice Summer), with a very famous mezzo-soprano and I was doing Una voce poco fa. I hadn’t been doing it for a long time but I was beginning to get confidence with it. I had never heard this in the traditional scores, but it made so much sense to me because when she starts to sing, [sings] some people [sings] but I love to come from underneath and straight-tone it and really make it quite dissonant to show that I’m very obeeeeediant. You know? With a smile on my face. It made so much sense to me. I’d never heard it before on records (at least that I knew of) and she looked at me and she stopped and said, “Well you’re not really going to do it that way, are you?” I looked around the room and was like, “Yeah, I think I will”. Let me tell you, every time I performed that in Paris, at La Scala, in London and New York and I would always dig in a little bit more, every time I came to that line. I would always think of that, “Well you’re not really going to do it that way, are you?” I know it had been a strong choice and that not everybody would agree with it – I never had a conductor tell me not to do it – but she was of the very polished, demure Rosina school and she didn’t like it. At that point, I had a very strong reason, it was important to the character, it was the only time I did that in the Opera but I wanted to do it (it was a very strong color) and so, I was able to say to her, “Yes, actually, I will”.
Young singers, if you’re doing it because you’re imitating somebody and you have no idea why, and Sir Simon Rattle says, “Are you really going to do it that way?” (I’m sure he’d be nicer about it than she would), if you don’t have a reason then it is an empty gesture and therefore will never be believable. So, go back to your score, mark up on your nkoda app and figure out why you’re singing a sharp, or a flat, or an eighth note, or a quarter note – everything needs to have a reason.

Do you feel a responsibility to have to pass the torch? How can we help you?
That is such a philosophical question. I am completely in a moment where I say to myself, “What is my responsibility?”, but at the end of the day, I don’t have any responsibility other than myself. I have the responsibility to fulfill myself as best I can with everything I’ve been given. I don’t actually have a responsibility to pass anything on, but it is something I want to do. If you ask me in another few years, I may feel very differently because, you know, when you get to the top you’re supposed to reach down and help up the next person – I don’t think that it is a requirement, but it is how I’d like to live my life. I’d like other people to live their lives that way. If more people did that, wow the world would look a little differently to how it does now. I can’t be everywhere at one time – I get a lot of requests from people to teach but I can’t physically do it. So, something like nkoda is a chance for me to share some of the steps that I take in preparation.
One of the things that I loved about being in the studio in Houston and an apprentice in Santa Fe wasn’t that I got to watch performances of great singers, but instead that I was able to see their process – how they got from the first day of rehearsal to the end. That is where the gold lies for me. It’s great to go and see a brilliant performance but I want to know how they got there. By being able to look at how somebody dissects a score and how deeply they go into it, I think is really invaluable. There is one risk that I worry about a little bit, though, with something like this, and that is that I don’t want people to copy it and not going through the process themselves.
You could copy but you will never be a real artist that way and you will never give a performance that captures the audience because it is an imitation. What I’m really sure of is that the really great artists are the ones who have found it within the score themselves (or side-by-side with the conductor or director) where you explore and you question and you do the work of going in deeply and finding it. When you do the work and go in, inherently your infusing your own soul, the blueprint of your own artistic soul, on that score. No amount of copying or study will replicate you finding it on your own. When I say it will sort itself out, the true artist will not be satisfied to just copy somebody’s markings – there is no way that they would allow that for themselves. The inferior ones will copy, get passed onto the next round, they may even win the competition but there is no way that they will win the hearts of an audience. That is what I’ve seen with the great artists – of the past and those around me – they are the ones who ignite the imagination. They question and they do the work themselves.
So, I love that my markings of Winterreise, somebody in India, China or Iran could look at this and say, “Oh I didn’t think that was what’s involved, wow, she marked everything. Okay, I’m going to do that work”. Rather than copy, they take the example and go through the steps themselves.

It’s 1983, and the world is under siege and on the brink of nuclear annihilation. You, as the principal guardian of planet earth, can send one piece of sheet music to Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev using a future design called nkoda. Which piece of music do you send to them (via the sharing function)?
My God, I feel so much pressure. Wow! Oh, I have so many different options popping into my head. It’s going to have to… no. My god, what do you choose? I mean, I’m thinking Beethoven 9, right? I’m thinking Lascia ch’io pianga. But, I think it’s got to be Mozart’s Requiem – Dies irae, Libera me or Verdi. I think it has to be a Requiem and I think it has to be one of those two. That’s such a good question but the truth is, in 1983, it probably would have been something by the Go-Gos.

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