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Joyce DiDonato: Eden

Joyce DiDonato in a blue floaty top with her arms above her head, with red face paint on her temple and the sides of her face

Joyce DiDonato’s latest project is nothing if not ambitious. James Drury finds out more.

‘It is an overture to contemplate the sheer perfection of the world around us, and to explore whether or not we are connecting as profoundly as we can to the pure essence of our being,’ writes the globally esteemed mezzo-soprano.

The idea came to her five years ago and was initially a ‘preachy’ and ‘militant’ call to arms about climate change, but evolved into something more universal that goes beyond that to ask us to embrace our role as part of nature. ‘There’s this disconnect within people at large, within communities, within nations, that we’re not taking care of each other,’ she told the Irish Times. ‘And that’s the bigger question that EDEN morphed into in these last two years,’ 

As well as a concert tour and album, EDEN also includes outreach work with schools. The project’s catchline ‘One song, one seed’ aims to plant seeds of change in people’s minds as we revel in the mezzo-soprano’s broad choices of music. To that end – and somewhat more literally – you’ll have received a corn poppy seed, which DiDonato would like you to plant. ‘They were once a familiar sight in arable fields but modern farming methods have made them much less common,’ she says, explaining why these were chosen for Barbican audiences. 

She hopes as a result of this project people will ‘look how much extraordinary benevolence there is in the world around us; let’s participate in building that up and taking care of that’. 

The driving force behind this mission is DiDonato’s relentless optimism (she laughs she sometimes belligerently clings to this trait). Renowned as an activist, she says ‘I know music can save lives, heal deep wounds, unify communities, and can bring real hope and comfort in the darkest hour. This is why I am an activist.’ She’s taken part in prison outreach work in the USA, is an active advocate for music education through El Sistema, which has changed the lives of more than 700,000 children in Venezuela, and uses her platform to champion social change.

EDEN opens with Charles Ives’ The Unanswered Question. On a trip to Brazil for the development of the project, conductor Maxim Emelyanychev suggested the 20th century American experimentalist composer’s piece. ‘I went, “We can’t do Charles Ives, what are you talking about?”,’ recalls the Kansas-born singer. ‘He started to play this music. I’d never heard it before and the minute it started, I was transported into the cosmos. I didn’t dare breathe for the four and a half minutes it was playing…we all got goosebumps and said “that’s how we start”.’

This breath-taking work begins with a solo voice posing what sounds like a question that goes unanswered until the wind section strikes up with an almost robotic response. The original voice seems to persist, asking again and again, and the answers come with a little more impatience, a growing sense disagreement among themselves as they become discordant. 

DiDonato says: ‘What I love about it is it’s putting us in a place that’s slightly outside of ourselves; it’s giving that energy we all have: why am I here, what’s happening to me, what are we doing to ourselves? We all have so many questions in our head right now and this piece is somehow calming but so human.’ 

Following this extraordinary opening is the UK premiere of The First Morning of the World written by Academy Award-winning English composer Rachel Portman with libretto by Gene Scheer, who frequently works with DiDonato’s long-time collaborator Jake Heggie.

Knowing that his new piece comes after The Unanswered Question, Sheer’s first line is ‘There is a language without question marks; you can read it in the rings of trees and in the wind and in the river and in the sound of birds singing. Has their song changed from the first morning of the world?’ It then takes us on a journey of more questions, asking for the grace to be able to speak that language. 

‘It was very important for us in this project to create a new piece and to have the birth of something, because the whole thing is about planting seeds, putting seeds of music, ideas, questions, maybe even answers along the way and seeing what fruit comes from them,’ says DiDonato. ‘Rachel is such a beautifully sensitive, attuned human being and composer. That searching and sensitivity comes through her music.’

‘This project and this piece is a call to remember that this language exists, that we’re a part of it, and the gifts and the revelations that come to us if we can open back up and value, listen and engage with it. This isn’t just about avoiding climate disaster, it’s about giving ourselves the fullness of the life that’s here now, and connecting to that.’

Journeying through two centuries of works by the likes of Mahler, Gluck, Wagner and others, the concert closes with one of DiDonato’s showcase pieces, Handel’s 'Ombra mai fù’ from Serse. Inspired by the idea of sitting in the shade of a plane tree, it is one of the composer’s most famous and popular vocal works. It’s the perfect ending for a project that’s ‘trying to tell the story of perfection, the story of paradise, the story of being inundated and flooded with beauty, love, nature in its extraordinary balance,’ says DiDonato. ‘I would venture a guess that we’ve all had access to that feeling at one time or another. I find that when I listen to a story, when I’m carried away by music, it connects me to that glimpse a little bit longer. That’s what we want to build.’

© James Drury

Programme and performers


Charles Ives The Unanswered Question
Rachel Portman The First Morning of the World (UK premiere*)
Gustav Mahler ‘Ich atmet einen linden Duft’ from Rückert-Lieder
Biagio Marini ‘Con le stelle in ciel che mai’ from Scherzi e canzonette
Josef Myslivecek ‘Toglierò le sponde al mare’ from Adamo ed Eva
Aaron Copland ‘Nature, the Gentlest Mother’ from Eight Poems of Emily Dickinson
Giovanni Valentini Sonata enharmonica
Francesco Cavalli ‘Piante ombrose’ from La Calisto
Christoph Willibald Gluck 'Danza degli spettri e delle furie: Allegro non troppo’ from Orfeo ed Euridice
Christoph Willibald Gluck ‘Misera, dove son… Ah! non son io che parlo’ from Ezio
George Frideric Handel ‘As with rosy steps the morn’ from Theodora
Gustav Mahler 'Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’ from Rückert-Lieder

*Commissioned by University Musical Society of the University of Michigan; the Harriman-Jewell Series, Kansas City; Abu Dhabi Music & Arts Foundation; and Cal Performances at University of California, Berkeley


il Pomo d'Oro
Maxim Emelyanychev
Joyce DiDonato executive producer and mezzo-soprano
Manuel Palazzo actor
Bishop Ramsey CE School Choir
Music Centre London Choir
Marie Lambert-Le Bihan
stage director
John Torres lighting designer


Translations by Richard Stokes © author of The Book of Lieder (Faber, 2005) and The Complete Songs of Hugo Wolf (Faber, 2021)

Artist biographies