01 December 2007

Dining with Divas

Bisou sans bijoux: Joyce DiDonato and Bill
Photo by Gilles Jaroslaw, Paris 2007

One of the nicest things about not being a critic anymore is this: so many singers are now so much more comfortable around me. Lately I’ve had occasion to reflect on this, and to enjoy the benefits of my new status. I’ve attended performances by three wonderful artists, visited the ladies backstage, and gone for supper with them afterward. This is a rare privilege, one that makes me both grateful and boastful. But knowing the singers is also — I am understanding more clearly — valuable to me as an artist.

Long ago I recognized that opera appealed to me as a kind of storytelling by other means — in fact, by all the means at once — and the ladies who sing opera are therefore storytellers of a high order. If I pay attention, I can learn things about their creative process that will inform my own.

Let’s begin with Joyce Castle, the Texas-born mezzo-soprano whom I’ve known since an afternoon in the mid-1980s, when she visited the Weill Foundation. In those days, I was immensely excited by the existence of any Texan in opera, which I took as a sign that I was not alone in the world. Never mind that Joyce left the state shortly after her birth. Only a Texan would insist that she’s a Texan.

I began to seek out her performances at New York City Opera. Sometimes the presence of Joyce’s name on the bill was sufficient to induce me to purchase a ticket. That was the case with Einem’s The Visit, in which Joyce played the leading role, and my reward was one of the most complete portrayals I’ve seen on any stage or screen. She’s populated the stage of the State Theater with a whole town’s worth of memorable characters, comic and tragic and just plain weird, applying keen musicianship and theatrical insights that are consistently thrilling. In time, it wasn’t enough to see only what she did at City Opera, and now, whenever I can, I travel to hear her: to Minneapolis, for The Handmaid’s Tale; to Fort Worth, for The Turn of the Screw; to Boston, for Mahagonny; to Wilmington, for The Medium.

Joyce Castle, center, sublime as always in NYCO’s Cendrillon.
Sadly, she did not wear this outfit when we went out after the show.
Original photo by Carol Rosegg©

Last month I traveled to New York to hear her, as Madame de la Haltière, the stepmother in Massenet’s Cinderella opera, Cendrillon, at City Opera. In a rollicking production, with strong contributions from almost everybody, Joyce carried the show. As a hilariously hypocritical snob, she gleefully combined so many odious traits that you couldn’t help loving the character. She kicked up her heels in a couple of dances, and she soared over the (often very loud) orchestra with ease.

You’d have every right to expect her to be exhausted after that performance, but Joyce received my friends and me in her dressing room, then went out with us for supper. She regaled us with stories and tantalized us with her upcoming schedule (notably a return to Herodias in Strauss’ Salome, in Milwaukee); she made a point of engaging each of us, asking about our lives and our plans, too. That’s typical of her generosity. We had pretty much closed down the joint (O’Neal’s), when like Cinderella herself Joyce announced it was time to turn into a pumpkin and go home from the ball. But when I met her for lunch a few days later, Joyce was concerned that she’d been a party-pooper. On the contrary, she made the party, and if we went to another bar afterward, it was because she’d fired us up. Now some of us are talking about flying to hear her in Salome. In Wisconsin. In February.

It’s not as crazy as it sounds: if we go, we will be rewarded. At times Joyce becomes so consumed with the character she’s playing that she really becomes another woman. In Handmaid’s Tale (pictured at left, with Elizabeth Bishop), there’s a mammoth set piece in which one of the Handmaids gives birth, attended by all the women of the community in an elaborate ritual. As Joyce’s character, the barren Serena Joy, looked on, she began to strike her fist nervously against her stomach — below the belt. Her empty womb.

It was a stunning theatrical gesture, summing up so many of the character’s conflicting emo- tions, yet she did it discreetly, not trying to upstage anybody, just living the scene. Where did she come up with the gesture, I asked her later. She didn’t even know she’d done it. And I learned that sometimes the best art is that which we simply allow to happen.

Thanks to Joyce, I know Darren Woods, who introduced me to Joyce DiDonato, who introduced me to Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet. Though she’s as unlike a prima donna as a dramatic soprano can be, Jeanne-Michèle conforms to type in this: she avoids socializing with critics. When she heard I wrote for Opera News, she nearly stopped speaking to me on the spot, she later confessed. Mercifully, she gave me a chance to redeem myself, and we are becoming good friends, abetted by our love of New Orleans (her hometown) and of good music.

She came to Paris on 29 November to sing the world premiere of Philippe Fénelon’s Judith, which he wrote for her. The piece requires her to portray not the stealthy political assassin I remember from the Bible story but a psychosexual terrorist: difficult to imagine that this Judith could sneak up on the sleeping Holofernes. She sang at top volume, over the full orchestra of the Opéra de Paris, who played not in a pit but alongside her onstage. Yet Jeanne-Michèle seized on the less bombastic passages, too, caressing where she could, teasing out nuances where she found them. And though it’s a concert piece, she acted the role, as well, all the while singing the bejeezus out of a challenging, densely orchestrated score. As she took her bows, I said (but not too loudly), “Bis, bis!”

I was kidding. I didn’t seriously believe anybody could sing the piece twice. But when I found her backstage, she declared without prompting that she’d love to sing the whole thing over again, right away. With Jeanne-Michèle as with Joyce Castle, I wouldn’t have been surprised to find her completely exhausted, bundled up and whispering. Au contraire. Beverly Sills used to say that only toward the end of a performance did she begin to feel really warmed up; likewise, perhaps, Jeanne-Michèle was raring to go.

It must feel good, to let it all hang out this way, to engage for a couple of hours in a more disciplined variation on the primal scream.

Plenty to smile about: Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet

Moreover, there was consensus backstage that in contemporary works a single hearing isn’t enough to appreciate the composer’s achievement. That’s often my reaction to contemporary music, too, but I’m an amateur, and I was surprised to hear professionals say this — wholeheartedly. I regretted that I hadn’t called more loudly for that encore.

We went to a Lebanese restaurant, where at two long tables we must’ve resembled an updated, better-behaved version of one of the rowdy soupers that one finds in nineteenth-century French novels: Marguerite Gautier or Nana Coupeau & Cie. Jeanne-Michèle has some extraordinary friends in Paris, including Denise Wendel-Poray, Gina Elardo, and two ladies whose acquaintance I hadn’t made: the dancer-choreographer Richild Springer and the costumer Mine Barral-Vergez. Richild and Mine have worked with everybody — including Josephine Baker, whom Mine dressed and with whom Richild danced. Hearing this was like hearing that I was sitting next to two of Christ’s own Apostles, and they obliged me with some thrilling reminiscences.

But we didn’t need to look to the past for evidence of great careers: Jeanne-Michèle sat right before us. It’s an exciting time for her, as she explores a new role, Strauss’ Elektra, at the Deutsche Oper Berlin. It’s a wonderful fit for her dramatic skills, and she’s able to bring her healthy vocal beauty to a part that’s too often shrieked.

Elektra seems to have opened up new artistic possibilities for her, as well. Not that she was adrift beforehand, I hasten to add: the woman sings the most demanding Wagnerian roles all over the world, and you can’t do that without a keen sense of direction, and a keener sense of self. Yet when Jeanne-Michèle speaks, you can feel that a kind of harmonic convergence has been achieved, and you want to be in on it. I don’t know how, but I’m going to find a way to be in Berlin in February, when she sings the part again.

We’ll always have Paris.

The next evening, Joyce DiDonato returned to Paris, like Violetta in Act II of La Traviata. She was coming from an idyll in the countryside with her lover, and she was bereft of all her jewels. The resemblance isn’t exact: Violetta is a soprano who has pawned her jewels, and Joyce is a mezzo who was robbed.

She’d agreed to appear as a last-minute replacement for Marie-Nicole Lemieux, the Canadian singer, in a concert with the Ensemble Matheus, under the baton of Jean-Christophe Spinosi. The event organizers had removed Lemieux’s name but not her Fach from the advertising and the program, with the result that Joyce was billed as a contralto. When I told her this, she stared at me a second and then said, “You wanna go for a scotch? Or a cigar?”

Other singers might have freaked out under the pressure. Not Joyce. I spotted her as I stood outside the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. She was crossing the street, on foot and unescorted, carrying her gown in a garment bag, and she seemed perfectly happy to greet me and to chat for a moment. (I on the other hand was a nervous wreck. “Don’t you have to go to work now?” I said.) She was even trying to be upbeat about the robbery.

Joyce sang a number of arias by Handel, whose work she’s been performing a lot of (most recently Alcina in Milano and Poissy, and Ariodante in Geneva). But she hasn’t been performing this music with Spinosi, and without optimal rehearsal time together, they cast what was for me a really fascinating light on the process of music-making. On most occasions, Joyce makes it all look so easy. She stands there, the notes pour out, and you’re transfixed and transformed. A walk in the park. A mere bagatelle.

But of course it ain’t easy, any more than Astaire’s dancing or Pollock’s painting was easy. Joyce is such a hard-to-satisfy professional that she used her encores as do-overs for a couple of numbers. But it was hardly as though she and Spinosi hadn’t offered us extraordinary work the first time around, and I’d never have guessed that any improvement was possible in her “Ombra mai fu,” any more than I’d have guessed that she’d never sung it in public before that night.

Wendel-Poray: De-lightful, De-lovely, Denise
(But not to be mistaken for Di-Donato)

Tragically, she had another engagement and couldn’t go out for our traditional post-show beer. Denise Wendel-Poray and Gilles Jaroslaw and I went instead to a reception for the Ensemble. Denise, who happens to be a North American mezzo-soprano and blonde, too, was mistaken for Joyce at first: when we walked in, she was greeted with awe and reverence. Which she deserves after her own performances, but not necessarily after other people’s.

We heard some interesting views on orchestral playing, putting into context Spinosi’s animated behavior: though his baton work is tightly controlled and precise, the rest of his body is dancing. This turns out to be the Matheus philosophy. As one fellow put it, you’re moving your body in time when you play music. You are dancing. Why try to conceal the fact? Since my career as a violinist lasted precisely six cat-strangling weeks, I’d never considered the question.

My playing was not dance. It was abuse. I loved music too much to continue.

And so it is a very great thing that I know people who make music well, and who are willing to share their time, their experience, and their insights with me. In every meeting, I come away a little wiser. As artists, they are worth going out of my way to hear them; as people, they go out of their way for me. I’m a lucky guy, and I know it.