"Music and the arts can heal and transform,” says Joyce DiDonato

Music lovers in the UAE capital were enthralled by the stunning performance by American mezzo-soprano opera singer, Joyce DiDonato, on January 24. The globally-renowned performer made her debut in the Arab world at the Emirates Palace Hotel as part of the Abu Dhabi Festival 2019.

The evening’s programme, titled In War & Peace: Harmony Through Music, saw the two-time Grammy award-winner perform a collection of Baroque opera arias by Handel, Purcell, Jommelli and Monteverdi. She was accompanied by the internationally-acclaimed Il Pomo d’Oro Orchestra, nominated for this year’s prestigious Gramophone Orchestra of the Year Award, under the baton of Russian chief conductor Maxim Emelyanychev.

The capital was the last stop on her world tour, which saw DiDonato traverse the globe to perform for captive audiences in Asia including venues in China, Taiwan and Hong Kong; Europe including Russia, Greece, Turkey and Hungary, before heading to the Middle East.

Ahead of the evening’s elegant festivities, DiDonato spoke to the Weekend Review about performing in the festival, her inspiration behind In War & Peace, the title of her album and world tour, and shared her thoughts on the power of music to bring peace to a currently turbulent world.

“I would like [the audience] to feel a deep and lasting sense of peace and consider outside the concert hall how they can personally nurture more inner peace for themselves, and for their particular circle within our world,” DiDonato said.

“Of course, Baroque music has been littered with the theme of war and peace, conquering empires, inner madness, and the deep serenity of nature — so the musical content was always there. I have just looked for a way to sculpt it into a production for our time, inviting the audience to engage directly in the heart of the idea of actively seeking peace. I feel it is the moment in my lifetime to carry this message as loudly and as far as I can,” she added.

DiDonato was also keen to share her excitement about being part of this year’s festival, stating: “This is my first time to appear with the Abu Dhabi Festival, but I have been following from afar with great interest as this young but potent festival has taken shape. It is clear, through its mission of cultural inclusion and influence, that it is now one of the major players on the international scene. With this in mind, it’s a great honour to include this audience and concert hall as part of our International tour of In War & Peace.”

When asked about the inspiration behind the album’s title and musical selections, the musical artist — who has collaborated with celebrated institutions including the Opéra National de Paris, New York City Opera, Carnegie Hall, and the Hollywood Bowl — reflected that it was an attempt “to make sense of how we can move through this particular moment in human history.”

In fact, it was created as a way to address a devastating tragedy — the 2015 terrorist attacks that occurred in Paris.

“It was the general state of the world — in particular the Paris terrorist attack of November 2015. At the precise moment I was developing a new recording. I was sitting at my piano when I heard of the news, and I could no longer justify a “normal” classical recording of Italian Arias. I needed to change the direction of the programme and needed to use my voice to seek out [an] understanding of the world around me. This led me directly to the idea of finding harmony through music in the midst of this chaos,” she said.

This contemplation is brought to life through her choice of arias, as she noted: “I begin the concert with the words written over 300 years ago and set to music by Handel: “Some dire event hangs over our heads. Some woeful song we have to sing in misery extreme...”…I don’t know of any human being that sees the news today and doesn’t have this same visceral reaction!”

DiDonato is also passionate about highlighting the importance of letting classical music connect with the reality that always seems to circulate around it.

“Our industry tends to keep “sacred” pieces in a gilded cage, rather than allowing them to be living, breathing entities. The subject matter of this music is deeply alive and real, and certainly applicable to our daily lives,” she said.

Music has certainly proven to be an important part of many people’s daily lives. It lifts the spirits, offers comfort, and offers listeners an opportunity to escape reality, even if for a few minutes at a time.

“I know the arts can address this harsh reality. I know that music has kept people from taking their own life; I know that many “lost” people have found a voice in the power of expression via music; I know that for refugee children who have joined a choir finally find a place to belong; prisoners who are learning composition can explore forgiveness and atonement in their compositions; audience members can finally mourn lost loved ones when the tears can flow freely to a poignantly beautiful piece of music. There is no question — music and the arts can heal and transform. Radically so!” DiDonato said emphatically.

She further points out that seeking solace and reaching out to touch and empower others through music is something that is dear to her heart: “There is a quote that has given me great guidance during this project: Jonathan Larson, a US writer wrote, ‘The opposite of war is not peace. It is creation’.”

“I like that sense of empowerment when feeling overwhelmed by it all: I may not always be able to find peace at a given moment, but I always have the potential and opportunity to create; to create dialogue, to create art, to create harmony. This I feel compelled to do at the maximum of my capacity,” she added.

Nathalie Farah is a writer based in Abu Dhabi.

To learn more about the Abu Dhabi Festival 2019, please visit www.abudhabifestival.ae