Joyce DiDonato holds balloons
Main Stage, Vocalist

Play with that Song

By Joyce DiDonato

Every beginning voice student knows the routine: you walk through the austere door – trepidatiously, mind you, and often questioning your very existence – and the skeptical teacher hands you their copy of the yellowed and overly used Singer’s Bible, The 24 Italian Art Songs. The cover, usually torn and hanging by a thread, aims to end the suspense of whether your vocal fate will be forever sealed as belonging to the “high” or “low” categories. Regardless, this feels like “IT”.  

And then we dive in, ready to summon both Callas and Pavarotti, all in one, and we let ‘er rip …

Disaster. Week after week we pay to return to the torture chamber for the humiliating attempt to NOT be flat this week. (Except that we went sharp last week, and can’t quite figure out how to split the difference!) Even if it says “Italian” on the cover, we may as well be attempting to sing in Swahili, and the questioning of your existence has now been fully answered: you are the epitome of utter dejection and have single-handedly failed the entire human species.

How we grow to hate these songs for challenging our musical souls! How could something which looks so benign on the page be the cause of such wretched anguish? Most of these poor pieces that have been battered around over the centuries patiently allowing many of us to sort out basic technique through them, have no real ownership – they are listed as anonymous, or wrongly attributed to this one or that one. Perhaps they are a match for our misfit vocals?

So returning to them years later (ok, even decades later!), I’m overwhelmed by the charm and the sweetness and the innocence that exudes from their stained, yellowed pages! They call me back again – but this time with a bold invitation to play, to invent, to celebrate a great song. Their overarching theme defiantly bridges the centuries and lines up with the eternal motif that we’ve all been singing of throughout the years: LOVE.

pianist Craig Terry

Enter the ever-playful Craig Terry, who had long envisioned these songs being given a slightly different “treatment”. Upon the first chords of his “Caro mio ben”, I was sold, and we were off and running. Playing with the old Italian melodies gave birth to the desire to also play with some of our favorite American Classics, letting love and heartfelt music-making be our platform.

Our playground has joyously expanded to include an extraordinary gathering of instrumentalists across all genres, each bringing a particular sound and expertise, and yet we’ve all fused into something unique to this singular project. And it has been some of the most joyous music making of my life.

When last I saw you “here”, I was singing on the theme of War and Peace, hoping to lead you to a peaceful state of mind by the end. If you’ve managed to stay there, I suppose love and joy are the next obvious steps: so throw your friends a fabulous, old-fashioned dinner party (perhaps Italian cuisine is in order?), press play, and revel in the joy of meeting some old standards as we frolic away. (You know you want to sing along!)

But if you do sing along, (come on, make your old voice teacher proud!) just keep in mind what the great Louis Armstrong said:

“You got to love to be able to play.”

See Joyce DiDonato in SONGPLAY on March 1, 8pm at NEC’s Jordan Hall.

Click here for tickets.

Photo of Joyce DiDonato by Chris Singer.

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