DiDonato’s ‘EDEN’ Communing with nature through music
A week after California finally emerged from a series of threatening atmospheric river rainstorms, award-winning mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato is bringing her new passion project to town. EDEN is a timely theatrical experience co-commissioned by UCSB Arts & Lectures that explores our connection to nature and its impact on our world adding movement and theater to art songs and other vocal music spanning four centuries. In reviewing the production NPR said, “EDEN beckons humanity back to the garden” and called DiDonato’s voice “truly one of nature’s great wonders: luminous, silken, flexible, full of colors and expressive shadings, always supported by the breath so even the finest threads of tone shine.” Indeed, the recording of the project is nominated for a 2023 Grammy.
In an email interview previewing the January 24 performance of EDEN at the Granada Theatre, DiDonato’s “voice” came through loud and clear. (Edited for space and clarity.)
Q. What prompted you to create a production that puts climate change on the theatrical/art song stage?
A. There is a power in storytelling, and transformation can happen in a concert hall when strangers gather together to experience art. I have had the privilege of singing the notes and words of composers and poets who have turned to nature as their muse, and mining great insight and inspiration from their works. We need to return to the connection to nature, and perhaps most importantly to our inner nature, and to search for our place in this world. The performance is a reminder of how nurturing and caring nature is with us: she has had terrible “headlines” across the planet in recent years, and certainly we are living devastating moments of her destruction in real time, particularly here on the West Coast. And yet, she continues to also care for us, nourish us, feed us. We must reconcile how we partner with her now.
How did you make the choices of musical selections about nature?
The driving force was this journey about connection and using the majesty and the complexity of nature to find answers. From the outset I knew that we would begin with “The Unanswered Question” of Charles Ives, and all would lead to Mahler’s masterpiece “Ich bin der welt abhanden gekommen,” where the answer seems to arrive very quietly and simply. In between, I wanted a hugely varied and sometimes wild “garden” of music, crossing centuries, language, characters to show quite literally how timeless and universal this human quest is. As a perk, it demonstrates how my career has also spanned such varied music and it’s a joy to be able to travel so far in such a short period of time with
Perhaps it’s because I’m writing these questions in the lull before the final “atmospheric river” devastating the California coast was due to arrive, but I can’t help but wonder how you can look at this dire climate situation with such optimism?
I certainly don’t have unbridled optimism, because I see as clearly as I can the reality of the world around me and how we don’t seem to be heeding the warnings. I sing a piece from Mysliveček’s oratorio, “Adam and Eve,” at the end of our first section where the “Angel of Justice” comes down and sends a fiery rebuke to the people threatening to “destroy the seashores, burn the verdant pastures, and spread a plague” among them because they forgot who they are and where they come from. (Talk about relevant!) But my shaky, yet belligerent optimism comes from nature herself. At the start of the lockdown, I looked at the flowers breaking through the ground after the winter, completely unaware of viruses and masks and cancellations. The flowers were simply doing what they were born to do. Nature carries on. When I see the faces of the children who join us on this tour (Music Academy’s SING! program participants here) singing with their cheeks turning red and screaming as they come off-stage, “This was the greatest day of my life!” I feel that pure joy and connection and I know that it still can and does exist. Yes, the destruction is real and the forecast is bleak. But we are doomed if we don’t hold on to hope.
Beyond the directness of distribution of seeds to the audience, how do you see the EDEN album and the performances as a call to action?
The very first place change must happen is within ourselves. If we can gain a bit more empathy, foster more compassion, our behavior begins to change. And it can have radical effects. Sometimes the only thing that will bypass the fear and the patterns we so desperately cling to is bold, radical art. It can be a kind of psychic slap that wakes us up from being simply unaware. Classical music can simultaneously soothe and comfort you through its beauty and purity, while completely derailing what you thought was real.
How has the first part of the EDEN tour impacted you and your relationship to music and nature?
It has been the greatest project of my career, without question. We’ve connected with over 800 children, and I’ve seen transformation happen right before my eyes as they feel the power of their voice being heard… There is something quite mystical about how this piece unfolds and how the audience receives it. It’s a different kind of listening that occurs, and I am deeply, profoundly moved by it. So far, this tour has only amplified what I have always known: music is divine, and nature is home.