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Ultimate drama queen, ‘Maria Stuarda,’ goes to the movies

Joyce DiDonaMatthew Polenzani

Joyce DiDonato, Matthew Polenzani

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When: 11:55 a.m.

Where: More than two dozen area cinemas

Tickets: $20-$25


Updated: February 19, 2013 1:46PM

Star mezzo Joyce DiDonato knows drama queens. After all, it’s the subject and title of her latest recital disc, which features arias sung by the reigning royals of operas composed by Cesti, Handel, Haydn and others.

At New York’s Metropolitan Opera, she stars in Donizetti’s “Maria Stuarda,” which pivots on a faceoff between two mighty monarchs: Mary, Queen of Scots and England’s Elizabeth I. Though introduced in 1835, “Maria Stuarda” is being staged for the first time ever at the Met, and will be simulcast in cinemas worldwide Saturday as part of the Met’s “Live in HD” series.

DiDonato regards “Maria Stuarda” as the height of drama queendom. “It’s as dramatic as it can get,” she said in an interview from the Met. “For me, the heartbeat of this opera is the confession scene at the start of Act 2, where she really purges her soul. Quite honestly, it doesn’t get any more dramatic than that. Her soul is literally on the line, and there she is, going against all her better judgment and fighting all these demons inside of her. So, yeah, I am living it, and I love it. She’s a true drama queen, all right.”

Q.Considering that “Maria Stuarda” had its Met premiere on Dec. 31, almost two centuries after its original debut, was this your most memorable New Year’s Eve ever?

A. We also had a lot of fun last New Year’s Eve [at the Met] with the debut of “Enchanted Island.” That was a wild ride of a night. This was altogether different but still incredible. To have the chance to premiere this opera at the Met, I haven’t fully processed it yet. And I might not until the final performance. It’s quite amazing to look out over the house and see 4,000 absolutely silent [as Mary goes to her death]. That was pretty spectacular, I have to say.

Q. What’s it like to be in the debut of an opera almost 200 years after later?

A. Obviously it’s not lost on me but I try not to dwell on it too much because that could freak me out. But there’s a real sense of responsibility of doing this work justice and doing it with my strengths. The real fanatics of opera have their favorite Stuardas, whether it’s Sutherland, Sills, Baker, Caballe, Gencer. I’m aware that I cannot ever be one of those singers. I cannot compete with ghosts, it’s just physical impossible.

So my best chance for success is to bring my strengths to it and to bring what I do best within my voice, my musical ideas, my theatricality. And prepare it with as much integrity to the score, to the stylistic ideas that I can because this now becomes a historic performance. And I want it to be as informed and as true to context of Donizetti’s writing as I can.

Q. Do you alter your performance in any way for “Live in HD” telecasts?

A. No, I really don’t think so. A wonderful director, Leonard Foglia, once told me, “Joyce, there are only two things that exist on the stage, true and false.” You can get by with a lot onstage but not in front of the cam­era because it will pick up everything. So I never change the scale of what I’m doing. I never make it bigger or smaller for the camera. But it does force you at every second to be absolutely true to character. So I think the cameras actually make us better performers for the house. It’s a huge benefit because all of a sudden, we know that everything is being captured. So I think the people in the theaters are getting a more nuanced, true performance.

But I will say it’s in the back of mind that I’m singing for my niece and nephew back in Kansas City, and I’m really happy that they think I’m a movie star now [laughs]. I won’t tell them any differently until they figure it out for themselves.

Q. Do you feel the simulcasts are bringing a new audience to opera?

A. I had a bunch of Twitter followers come to a show, and a lot of them had never been to the Met before. A lot of them have only seen in opera in HD. Two in particular were besides themselves about being inside the Met itself. How was it, I asked. “Well, it’s totally different but it’s electric inside here.”

And that’s something you’re never, ever going to replicate on a big screen. No matter how high definition it is or how great the stereo sound is, you’ll never be able to replicate that idea of electricity and energy. It’s the same as going to a live sporting event. You actually have a better view of it on TV. I love the idea of watching tennis on television. But if I had the chance to actually go and watch Wimbledon, I would never miss it. Because you can’t replicate that idea of being present.

Q. Now that you’ve sung both lead female roles in “Maria Stuarda,” do you have a preference?

A. I love both of the roles. The reason the confrontation scene is so electric is that they’re both right — according to their political circles, their dogma, their personal beliefs. They are both absolutely right and in the right. “Vil bastarda” — that gets all the press — but she’s not just hurling insults, it’s the truth. Mary is stating the truth. Elizabeth is a bastard child. And Elizabeth is saying, “your betrayed wedding bed.” Actually, it’s true, which is why it’s so charged. And it’s why they’re such fascinating characters. I love the fact that I’m singing Maria right now. It feels like the right time for me to sing her, ao of course she’s my preference right now. But I’m really tempted to seek out an opportunity to sing Elizabeth down the road a bit and get back to her.

Q. “Vil bastarda” is one of the most famous lines in this opera. Do you find it difficult to express or supress laughter, because it’s such an over-the-top moment?

A. The effect of that phrase is to simply say it, and it comes out different every night because my emotional state might be different every night. When I lead up to that phrase, you can almost sense the anticipation in the audience, and when it comes out, they are shocked. This is not such a well-known opera. It’s the diehards who know that confrontation scene. Probably 80 percent of the audience doesn’t know it, so it’s shocking. But I am just stating the truth for Mary. Donizetti wrote it in such a beautiful way that it carries a huge impact. So I’m getting there and I’m just saying the truth in that moment.

Q. When Elza van den Heever shaved her head for the role, did you secretly feel that you had to make an equally noble gesture?

A. No, not at all. I think that’s something she felt that she needed to do and wanted to do, and I just felt, well, more power to her. She walks around and she doesn’t put a hat on, and she’s just owning it and that’s just her. I love it.

Q. We’re talking on the morning of the Oscar nominations. Do you find time to see films and are you rooting for any contenders in particular?

A. I’m terribly behind. I had one chance to see a film recently, and my husband and I went to see “Skyfall.” I needed a James Bond fix. But now that the nominations are out, I want to see “Amour,” “Argo,” “Lincoln” — I don’t need to see “Les Mis,” though — no need to see that, with all due respect [laughs]. But I do need to catch up. I’m afraid I’m one of those people who catches up with movies on airplanes.

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