Great Scots

October 09th, 2015

This month’s revival of La Donna del Lago reunites Joyce DiDonato—who won raves for her portrayal of the title role last season—with Lawrence Brownlee, her original co-star when Paul Curran’s staging was first
 seen in Santa Fe in 2013. The two talk about delivering the high-flying vocal fireworks in Rossini’s Scotland-set drama.

You both sang in this production in Santa Fe two seasons ago, but this is your first time together at the Met since The Barber of Seville in 2007. What excites you most about this reunion?
Lawrence Brownlee Joyce and I first met about 20 years ago at a competition, and over the years we’ve become very close friends. We share many passions, a great love for travel, a great love for food. To
 be onstage with someone who inspires you, who’s just really knocking your socks off, and who you care about so much as a person—that’s one of the things I’m looking forward to. I want to bring my A-game, because Joyce brings her A-plus-game every time, and then you feed off of each other and have those magic moments onstage that don’t happen every day.
Joyce DiDonato Larry is one of the most soulful singers I have ever heard, not to mention that he possesses one of the most beautiful voices on the planet! To witness that up close and personal is a total pleasure—and ultimately makes me a better singer.
LB The thing is, I take what she gives me, and I’m like, “You’re not going to leave me in the dust, Joyce!”

You’ve made a specialty of the bel canto repertoire. Did that always seem like the natural career path for you when you started out?
JD I can’t say that anything felt natural at the beginning because I had to fight for work and for a secure technique. But happily, my first jobs gravitated towards Rossini and Handel, in particular, and so once the dominos began to tumble, it was clear that this would become the spinal column of my work.
LB You know, I wanted to start out with Verdi, Puccini, and those things. I was heavily influenced by the Three Tenors and I wanted to sing that music! But it wasn’t available to me based on the type of voice that I have. So my teacher directed me towards bel canto, and that’s where I’ve lived since the beginning of my career.

Joyce, you’ve said that while the stories of many bel canto operas may seem improbable to a modern audience, the music always provides the emotional truth. What do you mean by that?
JD These works came into being before Freud. That’s quite a staggering thing for 21st-century minds to comprehend—a world before psychology! So we can look at some of these plots and easily roll eyes. [In La Donna del Lago,] there are three lovers vying for Elena’s hand! But I have never found an untrue emotional storyline in these operas. Elena is torn between duty to her family and what she feels in her heart. Tell me of a more timeless battle than that! I can always find the emotional reason for all those notes. Actually I consider it part of my job description.
LB I am in complete agreement with that. The music is the structure for what happens on the stage, and it’ll transport you to that place, to live in that moment.

What are some of the specific vocal challenges in this opera?
JD Elena is a marathon sing, and it’s dramatic Rossini, meaning it’s quickly approaching Verdi, so it requires quite a lot of vocal chops on my part. Particularly the finale—it’s entirely on her shoulders, and it needs to be seven minutes of unadulterated fireworks at the end of three hours of non-stop performing. It’s a thrilling challenge, but it’s also an incredibly intense high-wire act!
LB Rossini wrote for people that he knew. So if you think of the vocal writing for tenors like Giovanni Davide or Andrea Nozzari, it’s high and very difficult, but it can’t sound like it’s difficult—it has to seem spontaneous. Trying to take ownership of those things and making sure to present them in a way that seems like 
it’s coming from a sincere place—that’s something I always try to do, in every opera. I think the most important thing is to live with a role and to make it your own. I have a lot of colleagues that I have a great deal of respect for, and they would do it differently from me. But we all bring our own gifts to the table when we perform these roles.

Joyce, when you sing that big, final aria,“Tanti affetti,” what goes through your mind? How do you balance the technical demands with being in the moment dramatically?
JD That’s where all the preparation comes into play. It’s the highest level of technical difficulty imaginable, so I’m relying on years of experience. But all the technical work is there to serve the emotion, so in that moment on stage, I’m only thinking of the journey Elena has been through, and the elation she feels about being reunited with her lover and saving her family. It’s an incredible moment of theater! —Philipp Brieler