What are the duties of an artist toward society? As Russia invades Ukraine, as racism persists in the United States, this age-old question remains very much of the moment. And the list of issues to take a political stand on, whether by choice or suggestion, grows ever longer.
The one taken up by the mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato in her latest project, an album and concert program called “Eden,” is climate change.
Employing a broader repertoire than DiDonato’s typical focus on the Baroque — Wagner, Mahler and a new commission from Rachel Portman in counterpoint with Cavalli, Gluck and Handel — the program reflects on what this star singer sees as humanity’s disconnect from nature. If the result is more mystical than activist, DiDonato’s aim remains, as her liner notes say, a prompt for her listeners “to build a paradise for today.”
Touring since early March and arriving at Carnegie Hall on Saturday with the period-instrument ensemble Il Pomo d’Oro under the conductor Maxim Emelyanychev, the concerts are staged by Marie Lambert-Le Bihan. At performances, plant seeds are handed out to audience members, and, as part of an educational initiative, local children’s choirs — some ongoing, others formed for the occasion — sing “Seeds of Hope,” a song collated by the teacher Mike Roberts from lyrics and melodies written last year by 11- to 13-year-old students at a school near London.
In an interview, DiDonato spoke about her project and the issues it raises, picking a favorite page from Portman’s “The First Morning of the World,” which features text by Gene Scheer. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
What were the origins of this project?
It emerged about five years ago from the last big project I did with Il Pomo d’Oro, “In War and Peace.” I struggled for about two years to try to reconcile how to put climate change onto the stage in a way that made people want to come and experience it. I’m essentially an optimistic person, and I think my biggest strength is to prompt people to relief and hope, which is hard to do when you’re looking at a pretty dire situation.
In a naïve way, it falls under that category of a disconnect, from me to you and me to the world that I’m living in: When I look at music and the natural world; I see harmony; I see balance; I see all kinds of forces working together to create an ecosystem, to create a symphony, to create an environment where everything has the chance to thrive. So, I’ve married those two, and I’m putting it out under the invitation to say, in a really simplistic way: What seeds are you planting with your words, with your actions, with your tweets, on your balcony?
You start the program by singing the trumpet part to Ives’s “The Unanswered Question.” How did you select the repertoire?
We knew that it had to start in a mystical and magical way. The Ives is infinite, but you have this insistent question that keeps coming back, and you have a progressively complicated and chaotic non-answer. I just don’t know of anything that summarizes the 21st century more accurately than that.
That piece was on Gene’s mind in writing the poetry for “The First Morning of the World.” His line “there is a language without question marks” is a bridge from the Ives. We’re hoping to demonstrate what it is to be fully connected to nature, which happens in Mahler’s “Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft,” certainly in Handel’s “Ombra mai fu,” but also to demonstrate that ripping apart, that complete disconnect from nature that the Myslivecek warns about. We feel deeply in the “Piante ombrose” of Cavalli a sense of desolation and despair. The answer finally comes in the Mahler and the Wagner — and the Handel.
What do you admire in the music of Rachel Portman, which has predominantly been for film?
She wasn’t necessarily on my radar as a composer, but her name came up from several different sources. I listened to her “Leaves and Trees,” and it was clear that she had a very personal connection to the natural world.
What she gave us I wouldn’t classify as cinematic at all, but it feels perfect for trying to create the nurturing and tranquil side of nature. There’s an unease because the singer hasn’t yet learned to speak this language of nature that is in the text, but the language is present from the beginning in the flute.
There’s something comforting about that first bird sound that you hear in the morning. You’ve gone to bed reading all the headlines, and right before you pick up your phone to see the horror of the day, you hear the bird. There’s something primal in us that goes, “Well, here comes another day.”
The Portman song ends with “Teach me to sing notes that bloom like a canopy of leaves,/Meant to do nothing but feel the sun.” That would seem to imply that music can’t do much in the world, but you write that the album is a “call to action.” What can your audience really do in the face of climate change?
I think they can do extraordinary things, personally, but the extraordinary things are at a local level. I get completely overwhelmed if I’m trying to solve world peace or climate change. But when I do little things, and again I know this sounds so naïve, I’ve come to believe that it’s really the only way forward.
Literally, the call to action in this is planting seeds. We are giving seeds to every concertgoer who comes, and if everybody takes a pot of dirt, puts them in, gives them a little bit of water, we will have planted thousands and thousands of plants across the course of this tour.
The other huge part of this project is planting seeds of music in kids. I don’t know of very many more effective ways to grab kids and to empower them than choral music. That is one practical way in which this project is calling people to action.
So what do you think the role of an artist should be in politics?
I think some artists embrace more humanitarian aspects, and some are just called to get through the day and do the best they can — and I think all of it is OK. You can’t put one stamp on an artist and say, “Because you call yourself an artist, you’re required to do X, Y and Z now.” But you also can’t pretend that art and politics are not intertwined.
I don’t think we can make a blanket statement about what artists should and shouldn’t do, but if they want to talk about politics, and they want to use their music as it has been done for centuries, then they are allowed to do that.
You want to get your message out to as many people as possible, understandably, but you are touring this program on five continents. Has this project led you to question the priorities of your own industry?
For sure, what has been heavy on my mind is that I want people to take care of the environment and I’m getting on a plane to travel around the world. But I don’t think it’s enough to just do a 90-minute drive-by concert for people who can afford the tickets and move on to the next. That’s why we are leaving behind a green souvenir in the hands of everybody who comes to the concert. I think even more profoundly of the effect that it’s going to have on these kids, to join a world-class artist on the stage.
Of course, we’re finding more ways to travel on the ground if we can, and finding ways to do carbon offsetting. I know it’s not a perfect solution. The biggest thing is, the impact that we leave behind has to be lasting.