Shunted discreetly behind a pillar in the Opera Club downstairs from the main lobby at the Civic Opera House, the mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato and I chat, out of sight of selfie-seeking groupies. She’s in town rehearsing for La Clemenza di Tito, the Mozart opera that began its run March 5th. We’re cramming our drink into the first intermission of opening night of Rusalka, which DiDonato is attending on her night off.
I ask her what she thought of the New Yorker article about her from October, for which the writer, Alex Ross, followed her around for six months. “I thought it was a little too short,” she says of the 7,000-plus-word profile, with a tone layering sincerity inside irony inside sincerity, like a Scotch egg of seriousness. Crap, if that was too short, what am I going to do with my 27 minutes and a few hundred words? (Once you shave off walking to the Opera Club, operagoers accosting DiDonato, and budgeting time to get back to our seats before the doors close, my recorder clocks in about 15 minutes of conversation.)
I’m drinking Cabernet I pre-ordered from the bar before Act I, hoping to streamline what I thought would be a tightly choreographed intermission. DiDonato asks for water. (Last night, she was at a private party.) “Many Manhattans were poured, served, and taken,” she says. “Today, I’m having water.” I say that the alcoholic connotation of the title of this post will be misleading. She suggests we retitle it “Hydrating with Joyce DiDonato.”
Opera singers, especially those of DiDonato’s magnitude, can be hard to book, even for a drink, because their schedules fill up ridiculously far in advance. When I tried to land a phone interview with DiDonato a month ago, she wasn’t just unavailable—she was unreachable, on a carefully blocked-out vacation period. “I was totally off the grid,” she says. “I was in Africa, on safari, in Kenya and Tanzania. The last two days I went to Rwanda and hiked with gorillas, the mountain gorillas that Dian Fossey [studied].” A publicist brings DiDonato a plastic cup of water from the bar. “It was beyond extraordinary.” We toast.
She plans the vacation gaps in her schedule and reserves some spontaneity for choosing the destination. She’d considered India for a yoga trip this time, and in August, she has spare time in South America. “The seed is planted for . . . what, exactly, I don’t know,” she says.
We realize the five-minute warning chimes came and went several minutes ago. Ascending the stairs to return to our seats, hearing the one-minute chimes, she rattles off Chicago-centric DiDonato trivia, in questions she asks herself. Favorite pizza: Pizano’s thin crust (she’s not a deep-dish lover). Favorite new restaurant: Tanta. Favorite yoga studio: Yoga Now. The publicists whisk her away from me, saying they’re going to sneak through some side entrance to prevent more crazed-fan attention. I walk down the aisle the noncelebrity way and see the cluster of them scurry in after the lights go down, sitting during the applause, four rows ahead of me. Only now do I realize I’ve forgotten to take a picture.
Luckily for me, Rusalka has two intermissions. I salmon up the aisle to ask for the picture during the second one. DiDonato welcomes me and continues to chat, even offering some off-the-record comments, just for pleasant conversation’s sake. She gamely poses with the balconies as backdrop. I also get a selfie.