Something amazing occurred near the end of March at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. Mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, born and raised in Prairie Village, KS, came back home to make her debut with the Kansas City Symphony, conducted by Michael Stern. The program included a piece by Jake Heggie, a noted composer whose music DiDonato had sung before.
Thanks to KCPT and PBS, the result of that week of activity can be seen in Homecoming: The Kansas City Symphony Presents Joyce DiDonato, set to air nationally as part of the PBS Summer Arts Festival on Friday, July 20.
"It’s the perfect story," Stern says. “This is the combination of lots of dreaming and working. Helzberg Hall is so different than any other performance hall. We get a chance to show that off.”
DiDonato has performed here before in other venues, but the anticipation of the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts amplified the excitement. During its construction, she called it “an accomplishment that Kansas City values the arts to see this commitment to fruition. Building a world-class performing arts center in this economy sends a signal to the world that we value culture.”
In the time between her 2011 appearance with the Harriman-Jewell Arts Series and now, DiDonato has performed at the New York Metropolitan Opera and won a Grammy for her compact disc, Diva Divo. She attributes a Midwestern work ethic to keeping her encouraged and going strong. “I am having a good ride. I absolutely recognize how fortunate I am …”
She praised Heggie, Stern and the Symphony personnel for choosing a challenging repertoire to showcase their skills. “Rossini is not easy to sing or play,” Stern says. “Jake’s music is lovely and inhabits the soul with a richer nature. Switching between the pieces demonstrates the range for all of us.” Of having DiDonato sing his pieces, Heggie says simply, “It is a pretty incredible experience.” KCPT President and CEO Kliff Kuehl is excited about the program’s appeal both here and on the national stage. “We have been working to position ourselves as a community partner and we got that chance with this project. It became an accelerant that we needed. It was a fun thing and also a whole lot of work. Kansas City Symphony Executive Director »» Frank Byrne saw a rough cut and commented that it was what he had in his mind’s eye. The joy for us was to be on the same page. I credit Randy Mason, Angee Simmons and the production team.”
Kuehl says a special dinner and tour of the new Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts with PBS CEO Paula Kerger in October helped seal the deal. “Along with Frank Byrne and the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts CEO Jane Chu, we had a fun and memorable after-hours tour. Seeing the performing arts center in person really helped sell Kerger and PBS on bringing the PBS Arts series to Kansas City.”
While Kuehl is thrilled to celebrate the Kansas City Symphony, DiDonato and the building, he explains the show is more than a love letter to the Kauffman Center, or a travelogue about the city. “The goal was to look behind the scenes, see Joyce with her family and at work with Michael. We also went to New York to see her getting ready to sing at the Met. DiDonato calls the filming “a good news story to share. As a Kansas City girl, I do want to share the community with others,” she says. “The arts in general, need to be celebrated. I have been all over and to be part of this, I couldn’t be prouder.”
Stern, who has resided in New York and other communities along the East Coast, says he likes the sense of allegiance and loyalty in Kansas City. “This is a city that invests in its future. There is active philanthropy. The PBS program gives us a chance to open the window blinds and share all that we do best.”
The Summer Arts Festival line-up, part of PBS’ ongoing commitment to arts content on-air and online, features films that celebrate the contributions of independent filmmakers including a behind-the-scenes profile of actor/playwright John Leguizamo, a film that chronicles a year in the life of talented teenage mariachi musicians, a look at priceless museum collections and a concert documentary profiling a world-renowned mezzo-soprano. The Festival explores international arts, including a historic concert by four Cuban music greats and a journey into Islamic art narrated by actress Susan Sarandon.
Putting the national spotlight on Kansas City in this forum is thrilling for Kuehl and the KCPT team. “We have constructive local storytelling with Imagine KC and Check Please! Kansas City, but with this we get to put our stamp on a bigger canvas. “Literally millions will see the show. There are 350 stations scheduled to broadcast Homecoming,” Kuehl says. “The treasures we have to offer will be seen around the country. Are we excited? You better believe it!”