Opera star urges students at Catholic school alma mater to dream big
Story and photo by Jill Ragar Esfeld
Catholic News Service
PRAIRIE VILLAGE, Kan. (CNS) -- Imagine a place filled with more than 400 children, yet so quiet you can hear someone breathe.
That was the scene at St. Ann School in Prairie Village -- and the person doing the "breathing" was world-renowned opera star and Grammy Award winner Joyce DiDonato.
"The only way I can make my voice travel is if I make it go on my breath," she told the students gathered for a mini-concert in the church. Her audience was mesmerized as she demonstrated her point by singing a note softly and then adding breath until her voice filled the church from altar to foyer.
How did these students rate a private session with one of the world's greatest opera singers?
DiDonato is actually from the local area and returned home in late September to star in the Lyric Opera of Kansas City's production of Bellini's The Capulets and the Montagues. Her homecoming included the visit to St. Ann School in the Kansas City Archdiocese.
DiDonato grew up in St. Ann Parish, attended school there, and went on to graduate from Bishop Miege High School in Roeland Park. The sixth of seven children in a close-knit Catholic family, her older sister is St. Ann music director Amy Hetherington.
DiDonato told her audience that when she used to be a cantor at St. Ann and perform in musicals at Bishop Miege, she dreamed of becoming a pop star someday. "Opera was something I didn't understand," she confessed.
After high school, DiDonato attended Wichita State University with a more realistic dream of becoming a music teacher. But God had a very different plan.
Through her college music classes, DiDonato developed an appreciation for opera that soon turned into a passion and -- after lots of hard work -- a career.
Today, she is a leading mezzo-soprano, which means her voice is lower than a soprano, but higher than a contralto, and she can sing what are called "trouser roles" -- a female singer playing a male character. For example, in the performance she gave at the Lyric Opera, DiDonato played the role of Romeo.
"I like opera because I like to pretend," she told students. "It's kind of fun to play a boy."
DiDonato also described opera as having mental, spiritual and psychological components. "This is everything that I am as a person," she said.
Students applauded when DiDonato told them one of her favorite singers is the British soul/pop singer Adele. They laughed when she told them Hetherington used to change her diapers when the opera singer was a baby.
She admitted to the group that she is prone to stage fright and cited as an example a London concert when she had an audience of 5,000 -- with another 4 million watching on television. "How do I keep from getting nervous?" she said. "I remember what my purpose is, and my purpose is to sing."
When asked if she had a most embarrassing moment, DiDonato recalled once slipping on stage and hurting her leg. She continued her performance using a crutch. Later that evening, she found out she had a fractured fibula.
Students plied DiDonato with a wide variety of questions including: Can a voice really shatter glass? The singer answered positively -- though she said it didn't happen often and depended on a very high voice vibration.
"I don't have that kind of voice," she said. "But I used to wait tables -- and I broke a lot of glass!"
The highlight of the afternoon came when DiDonato explained the role of Rosina in the famous opera Barber of Seville, and then brought the role to life singing "Uno Voce Poco Fa."
Once again, the students were mesmerized.
DiDonato told her audience that she'd performed in 50 different operas, but didn't have a favorite. She also talked about places she'd visited all over the world, but said she always loves coming home to Kansas City.
DiDonato finished her private performance by singing one of her favorite songs, "Somewhere Over the Rainbow."
Referring to the St. Ann School mascot, she told students, "I'm one of you guys. I'm a Tiger!" She recalled going to Mass there every Sunday and sitting in the front row.
"You're sitting right here," she told her young audience. "And you have no idea what you can do with your life.
"I want to remind you the sky is the limit -- what you dare to dream really can come true!"
- Ragar Esfeld writes for The Leaven, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Kansas City, Kan.