From all outward appearances, mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato is at the summit of her profession — that .01 percent among opera singers who warrants a new production of the epic Les Troyens at the Vienna State Opera, has a major recording contract with new pieces written specifically for her, was chosen as narrator of the current film Maria by Callas, and has high-profile Philadelphia Orchestra concerts coming up at the Kimmel Center (Nov. 8-10) and Carnegie Hall (Nov. 13).
When she does sing: "There's a billion things I want to change."
Yet the native of Prairie Village, Kan., who still counts Kansas City as one of her homes, has maintained Midwestern pragmatism.
Consider how she discusses one of her lesser successes at the Metropolitan Opera. Because good mezzo-soprano roles aren't as numerous as good soprano roles, singers such as DiDonato take chances on works that aren't a sure thing. Rossini's often-neglected La Donna del Lago was the hit of the Santa Fe Opera season in 2013 with DiDonato. But in 2015 at the Met, it was not. Despite her best efforts, it was beautiful but boring.
"Bless that piece," she said, with inflections suggesting multiple meanings. "The musical merits are worthwhile — when you have the singers to pull it off."
You wonder how she makes characters live when the composer meets her less than halfway, especially in The Enchanted Island in 2011. Handel arias were strung together with a new faux-Shakespearean scenario that also came with strangely unflattering headgear.
"I don't look at it from the outside," she said. "Every piece I sing, there's no false emotion for the character. I approach it from the inner life of the character."
In Philadelphia next week (and later at Carnegie Hall) she'll sing Chausson's sumptuously beautiful 1890 Poeme de l'amour et de la Mer, which is sure to show the Philadelphia Orchestra's strings at their best. Why is the piece never done? Why has she sung it only once before? Well, the Maurice Bouchor words have nearly every French romantic cliche in the book — flowers, water, beautiful children, and poetic birds all described against a backdrop of Byronic anguish.
"The point is to let the piece be what it is and not try to impose more drama or more philosophy onto it," she said. "There's something beautiful and naive about having these very simple images. You just need to let it be that."
The piece turns on a dime near the end, though, with the grief-stricken use of the word oblivion — a moment when the singer confronts death. Poetic mists disappear. The musical wind shifts. Every performance gives special coloring to that word.
"The description potential is amazing," she said. "Oblivion has no end, in contrast to infinity … which goes into the light. Oblivion is the same, but I see it in a dark way." But there's no predicting how she will sing it.
"Whether it's about the loss of a parent, a loved one, or a past lover … I haven't made that decision yet," she said. "I have four concerts [of the piece], and it may be something different each time.
"I think of the loss of my father. That's one kind of sorrow and grief. Loss of my mother is a very different flavor … I never want to be so concrete as to not leave the doors open to be inspired when it comes up."
Such options and more are possible with her medium-weight, immensely agile instrument for Handel and Rossini that easily unfurls amid longer, Romantic-era vocal lines and that has a lower range that can chill your blood. The frosting on the cake is her vibrato: It's fast, even tremulous, with emotional vulnerability always close to the surface.
Maria Callas was finished at the Met in her early 40s. But DiDonato is approaching her 50th birthday with no signs of the artistic consolidation that happens as singers consider how they want to spend the rest of their careers.
Indeed, her repertoire is growing, not narrowing.
Recent recordings have been new works: Last year's Les Troyens recording won this year's Gramophone Award in England. In January, she released the full-length opera Great Scott by Jake Heggie that had mixed reviews at its Dallas premiere but that on disc delivers belly laughs as well as fine music. In September, she came out with Into the Fire, a live recital disc that includes a Heggie song cycle dramatizing sculptor Camille Claudel, who ended her days in a mental asylum.
Next is her Songplay album and tour — a bold fusion of early-baroque opera, 1950s jazz, and tango that will be heard, among other places, at Princeton's Richardson Auditorium on March 10.
She chooses recording projects with care: "It needs to be something that adds to the musical canon."
In many ways, DiDonato is the patron saint of late bloomers. She entered Wichita State University with plans to teach and do a bit of singing but left for Philadelphia's Academy of Vocal Arts in years that have been characterized as a series of defeats.
She earned a living as a singing waitress at the Victor Cafe and directed a church choir in Lansdale, then moved on to vocal apprentice programs. In Houston, she was told her voice was running out of gas and needed to be rebuilt from the ground up.
Such a solid technique is what makes her fall schedule possible: Vienna, Philadelphia, New York, Liege, Moscow, Paris, Kansas City, Ann Arbor — and then, in early 2019, Shanghai.
She knows that had fate been a bit different, she would be planted in Kansas City rather than passing through, with a musical life confined to church choirs. Yet she keeps assuring young singers that "everything will work out."
That doesn't mean Grammy Awards for everybody. You will find your place in the world, she says, though it won't always be easy.
The piece is about a rejected lover who goes into the winter landscape to die, terrifying hallucinations and all. It has also been recorded by the greatest singers of the last century.
In recent weeks, she was on the verge of cancelling. "You have to feel a personal call to that piece," she said. "Why should I sing it? What do I bring to the table?
"But I think I've found something …."