Acclaimed mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato returns to the Harriman-Jewell Series for a concert promoting peace.
Conflict is nothing new to the human experience, whether between enemies, neighbors, brother against brother, sister or lover. But in this age of 24-hour news cycles and the added flame of incessant social media, the headlines tell a story of conflict that is uncontrollable, unstoppable, and inescapable.
— Joyce DiDonato
It was these messages of uncertainty, and the collective fear they’ve activated, which propelled internationally acclaimed mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato to make her next album into something more than a collection of beautiful arias. Writing from an airplane en route to London, DiDonato described In War & Peace: Harmony through Music as her “most personal project to date,” which she predicts will be one of the most substantial projects of her career.
She recorded In War & Peace with the Italian ensemble Il Pomo d’Oro, directed by Maxim Emelyanychev, and they are taking the project on an international tour. On Dec. 7 they come to Kansas City, presented by the Harriman-Jewell Series.
But the performance in Folly Theater will not just be an “evening with a pretty artist singing pretty music,” according to Clark Morris, executive and artistic director of the Series. Instead, the event will be “a thoughtful dialogue on topical conversation,” he said, “a poignant, powerful experience around a theme that is prevalent in our world today — this idea of conflict — both the emotions that lead us toward conflict and the emotions and resolve to try and dispel conflict in the world and promote peace.”
The idea came to DiDonato as she sat at the piano in her loft, overlooking the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. “I was going through all kinds of possible arias to record for this album, and what kept hanging over my head was the sense that I wanted to put out a message of peace.”
“I just want to remind people that we are not always victims of circumstance,” explained DiDonato, “but we have an active role in working towards/choosing peace.”
The repertoire for In War & Peace draws from works of the Baroque era that dwell on these concepts. The project spans an emotional arc, ranging from arias foretelling doom, swearing vengeance, questioning fate or weeping laments, to songs of hope and rejoicing, selected from the likes of George Frideric Handel’s Giulio Cesare and Rinaldo to Henry Purcell’s The Indian Queen, Dido and Aeneas, and Bonduca, among others.
DiDonato, of course, is one of the foremost mezzo-sopranos of this generation, a multi-award winning artist (including last year’s Grammy Award for Best Classical Solo Voice), and a renowned interpreter of Baroque opera. (In April 2017, she returns to the Series with The English Concert to perform the title role in a concertized version of Handel’s Ariodante.) Il Pomo d’Oro, likewise, specializes in Baroque performance practice on period instruments (and has, as Il Complesso Barocco, collaborated frequently with DiDonato over the past 15 years).
DiDonato and the Harriman-Jewell Series have a shared history, too, with Kansas-native DiDonato attending concerts presented by the Series with her family during her formative years. “[The] Series is one of the premier presenting organizations in the country, so it’s always an honor to be invited,” she wrote. “There is no more special city than Kansas City, and I have always tried to include singing here at least once a season throughout my career — which means they have seen me grow and expand and have shared in a huge variety of performances over the years.”
This will be DiDonato’s seventh appearance for the Harriman-Jewell Series, which included a once-in-a-lifetime duo recital with tenor Juan Diego Flórez for the Series’ 50th anniversary gala concert in 2015. “The Kansas City audience was really moved by it and people still talk about it to me today, and I hope they do 50 years from now!” said Morris.
Along with collaborating with Il Pomo d’Oro, DiDonato worked with fashion designer Vivienne Westwood to create the gowns she will wear for this project. “She is a huge music lover and years ago our artistic paths happily crossed,” wrote DiDonato. Westwood designed gowns for DiDonato’s “Drama Queens” project, as well as for her role as the sorceress Alcina, in both instances creating sumptuous garments imbued with high glamour. “I help to choose the fabrics, give them a very strong idea of the essence of the character I will be playing, and we create it together. It is a hugely rewarding partnership and it’s a true honor to wear her iconic creations! By being part of the creative process, I get to truly help sculpt the feel of the clothes, and help make the character’s journey more clear to the audience.”
Additionally, audiences will have a part of the project. On September 21, 2016, the International Day of Peace, DiDonato launched the website http://inwarandpeace.com, announcing it on Twitter and Facebook with the hashtag #TalkPeace, which she has used since July to place the project and its message within the ongoing global conversation. She has also partnered with Hallmark to provide cards during her concert tour for audiences to participate, too.
In multiple languages, this question is posed: “In the midst of chaos, how do you find peace?”
Already, responses have flooded in from around the world from international celebrities and musicians, politicians and felons, street performers, students, and children. Tenor Plácido Domingo, pianist Alfred Brendel, conductor Riccardo Muti, Vivienne Westwood, actors Judi Dench and Patrick Stewart, and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg have all shared their philosophical strategies and personal codes.
Baritone Richard Gibson, who has performed with the Lyric Opera of Kansas City and is an Operation Iraqi Freedom Combat veteran, wrote, “I find peace the same way I did in combat: I turn my fears into action for my brother…I serve my fellow man, with the gifts that I possess to the best of my ability; and only then has my day been worth living and worth being proud of. However, it is not only peace that I find, but love as well.”
An eight-year-old refugee named Sita wrote, “I find peace and hope in a rainy city where refugee people find warmth and strength to paint sunflowers.” A young musician from the United States simply stated: “I hope.”
The conversation continues. Anyone is welcome to contribute to the website, and everyone can engage in peace: personally, in conversations among friends and families, within their communities, and on social media, as exhibited by DiDonato.
Morris said, “I think what we see now in Joyce DiDonato is someone who has obtained everything that any opera singer would ever want, and yet she’s still pushing the boundaries and looking for a way for her art to be even more meaningful and powerful in the world. I can’t wait to see what she does with this performance in December.”
Joyce DiDonato and Il Pomo d’Oro will perform In War & Peace: Harmony through Music at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 7 at the Folly Theater, 300 W. 12th St. For more information and tickets, 816-415-5025 or www. hjseries.org.
Photo by Jim Barcus