Dirt: Masterclass in pleasure
Gioco, not giuoco.
Dani Lamorte on the joys of studying opera, online.
Joyce DiDonato. Depending on who you are, that name is either an imposing way to begin a paragraph or a complete nonstarter. Joyce is a star. An opera star. But if you're picturing a matronly figure with a bouffant in a gown that could ensconce the nation of Panama, that's not Joyce. Joyce looks like a cheeky, stylish aunt: short dresses with kimono sleeves and almost-to-the-knee black boots; cropped and feathered hair paired with a couple self-aware cracks at her own age. She's not a caricature, though. To the contrary, she’s so convivial that it seems false to refer to her journalistically as “DiDonato.” She’s Joyce, and Joyce is resolutely present in a way that attests to her self-confidence. She's done the work.
For several years, Joyce has held vocal and performance technique masterclasses at the Royal Opera, Juilliard, and Carnegie Hall. The videos of her masterclasses have become staples of my YouTube regimen, and it doesn't matter if you can sing your way through Norma or if you can't follow the melody of Nelly's "Hot in Here"—Joyce's videos are gold.
The masterclass setup is consistent: an audience of opera subscribers (the kinds of people whose names line the “generous donor” pages of a show program) fill a recital hall. On the side of the stage, a cadre of ambitious, early-career singers wait to work with Joyce one-on-one. Joyce won’t do much singing throughout the class, but instead listens and responds to the students’ songs. She starts each class by reminding the audience in the hall that this is absolutely not a performance; it's an educational setting. From the beginning, you're a guest watching someone learning. She's inviting you to take pleasure in someone else's growth, but without the gimmicks and tidy wrap-ups we find in reality television. We're watching someone climb the mountain, but we aren't going to see them reach the peak. That's not what this is about.
Thanks for reading Dirt! Subscribe for free.
The hard work begins. A student sings an aria, from start to finish, in front of Joyce. Then, she digs in. Occasionally, it's technical quibbles: “gioco,” not “giuoco;” head back, tailbone down. Mostly, it's mental. All serious athletes have a game plan in mind, Joyce says. She mimes whacking a baseball through the field and references the Kansas City Royals she watched as a kid. You have to imagine how you're going to get through it—the game, the opera, whatever—if you're going to stand any chance of accomplishing your goal. Singing is a whole body game, too. It's abdomen, back, lungs, muscles, cartilage, tension, relaxation, movement, stillness.
Maybe it's a little unfashionable, but Joyce talks about singing as a lifelong devotion that asks for something uneconomic and perhaps unreasonable. To sing opera is to tune your whole body towards singing arcane repertoire—often working under short contracts for moderate pay. And you're never quite done. There are always things you could do better, vocal cracks and wooden gestures to address. When one student admits she struggles with rhythm, Joyce warmly asks, "Are you doing anything to improve?" This isn't a space for embracing faults unquestioningly. If there's a fault, it's assessed. She'll later tell the student: "You're too good not to work on that." You're too good not to address your shortcomings. You owe it to yourself, to all the work you've already put in, to keep refining your voice.
You've already done the work. That's the message Joyce brings to her students again and again. They've spent years working just to be in a masterclass like this, and they need to trust that all of that practice went somewhere. It’s in their bodies, and Joyce asks them to let it express itself.
And that’s why I watch. I stumbled into Joyce’s masterclass videos because I’d taken up singing as a hobby, and I wanted to address all my beginner woes: tongue root tension, “wide” vowels, a tendency to take in way more air than I need. Maybe Joyce helped me with those things, but more than that she reminded me that we rarely start “from scratch.” After years of feeling like I'm starting over—moving, grad school, career change, pandemic, moving, career change—Joyce offers a potent reminder that experience accretes. Maybe I haven’t been singing all my life, but I have been breathing, and that’s still something.
In most of her YouTube clips, Joyce comes back to the breath and, more specifically, trusting the breath. Joyce treats the breath like an invisible, ongoing pulse that singers tap into. It's a force that stagnates if we don't spend it, though. "Use your breath, don't save it," she tells one pupil. "The minute you conserve, it blocks."
YouTube has endless hours of quick fixes, miracle treatments, and flawless executions. That’s not what Joyce offers. These videos are studies in openness. It's all expenditure of breath, release of tension, opening to be vulnerable as an example of learning. — Dani Lamorte
The Dirt: And breeeeeathe. Just breathe.
Need more Dirt? Here are some recent staff favorites: