Unanswered Questions at Joyce DiDonato’s Eden

Saturday evening was the twenty-third stop on the world tour of Joyce DiDonato’s conceptual concert experience called Eden, presented at Zellerbach Hall by CalPerformances (one of the project’s co-commissioners). Begun prior to the disruptions of early 2020, the show has now been touring for the better part of a year and after two performances in the Bay Area (the other at Stanford University’s Bing Concert Hall) headed south to Santa Barbara.

Eden opens in darkness with Charles Ives’ The Unanswered Question being played by its on-stage orchestra (Il Pomo d’Oro), and at Zellerbach DiDonato made her entrance walking down via the house left side boxes while singing the solo trumpet part of the piece’s dissonant sonic swirl. That is, the evening began like most classical concert experiences, with no words spoken (or even sung) to the audience, who had to rely on their printed program to understand what will be coming and what it is all supposed to mean.

In her notes explaining the show (which I read the morning after), DiDonato recounts some of the questions that drove the creation of the evening, questions that she hopes her audience will ponder in response to the tumult and upheavals in the world:

“What can I alone do?”

“What difference can I possibly make?”

“In this time of upheaval, which seed will you plant today?”

At the end of the program, DiDonato did finally speak to the audience, taking the mic (and later expertly depositing it in a well-placed pocket in her dress) to explicitly articulate these and other questions, and most important, to introduce the concluding act of each performance of Eden, a local children’s chorus, in this case the Piedmont East Bay Children’s Choir.

One of the implicit questions being posed by Eden was how one might reimagine a traditional voice recital and make it something more relevant and accessible. The question was only partially answered – one of the evening’s many unanswered questions. 

The musical heart of the show – a ninety minute set of pieces performed with no interruptions and only scattered breaks of applause – was impeccably sung and played, and can be heard on its eponymous Grammy-award winning album. The repertoire is grounded in the Italian Baroque and early Classical eras, with Cavalli, Handel, and Gluck interlaced with works by lesser-known composers. The twentieth century provides the third leg of the stool in the form of the Ives, one of Aaron Copland’s settings of Emily Dickinson, and two selections from Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder. British composer Rachel Portman’s “The First Morning of the World” (commissioned for the project and with text by Gene Scheer) represents the only work by a living or female-identifying composer. These varied pieces are performed without regard to chronology, offering unique and unexpected juxtapositions – a thoughtful, balanced, “curated” – as everything must be these days – song cycle.

Reordered and presented chronologically, this musical program would read as quite conventional and would be familiar to classical concert goers in terms of repertoire and coverage, including its well-chosen encore, “Ombra mai fu.” That is, first half pre-Beethoven, balancing better-known rep and composers with other work from deeper in the catalog, then a fast forward to Mahler, Copland, and Ives, with the addition of a living woman composer so the program isn’t technically all dead White dudes. (It is still all White program.)

For many in the industry the core musical program of Eden might appear to be one of its more innovative aspects, and compared to prevailing trends in programming it is indeed more adventurous and experimental, but this amounts to stepping over a very low bar. Programming early modern music by the likes of Marco Uccelli, Giovanni Valentini, and Biagio Marini (obscure contemporaries of Monteverdi unknown even to an overeducated musicologist like myself) is indeed outside of most programming norms. It is also illuminating to know of Czech composer Josef Myslivecek (a contemporary of Mozart) and his opera about Adam and Eve. These and the works by better-known composers were all of course carefully chosen to complement the nature-focused theme of the evening. But do these Kleinmeister really deserve the time and attention of an artist of DiDonato’s caliber when there is so much other music that could be elevated through the platform that only someone like she can create? Amid the vast catalog of songs by Fanny Hensel is there not one that might plausibly fit into the mix, or an excerpt from one of William Grant Still’s chronically underperformed operas that might complement the theme? If anyone thinks that programs such as Eden are solving issues of representation and diversity they need to think again.

In terms of production values, the performance is fresh and new, answering the question of what a voice recital with a baroque orchestra would look like if presented as a RuPaul’s Drag Race “Rusical” maxi challenge (that’s a compliment, to be clear). In lieu of conventional concert dress, DiDonato wears a grayscale ensemble with exaggerated blonde hair and makeup (imagine Brooke Lynn Hytes in an “Ice Princess Eleganza” category). DiDonato physically interprets her songs on and off a platform with rotating metallic circles that are manipulated and partially assembled by the singer during the first half of the program. Lighting effects illuminated the orchestra from behind and at times cast colored patterns into the audience.

Eden is supposed to represent more than just an unconventional concert experience performed by a world-renowned singer, however, and this is made explicit during the final part of the evening in which DiDonato finally speaks to the audience. The obedient crowd at Zellerbach murmured and nodded in solemn approval as DiDonato talked about the educational goals and ancillary elements of Eden, in which young singers in choirs are convened to engage in projects relevant to them and their local communities, with a music and nature angle attached. The singers from the Piedmont chorus chose to delve into an exploration of endangered species in the Bay Area, and elsewhere these projects have focused on other local ecologies, flora, and fauna. When DiDonato joined the chorus to sing a choral piece written by previous participants in Eden, one could feel the audience’s collective heartstrings being pulled to the breaking point.

As I listened to what amounted to an abbreviated TED talk about how music might be made relevant and help change the world for the better, however, I couldn’t help but feel that all if this was a bit too self-congratulatory for everyone participating, and how much more an artist with Joyce DiDonato’s intelligence and talent could do to truly change if not the world then at least the suffocating culture surrounding classical music performance.

Listening to the presentation after the show made me wish she had spoken before and during the show to articulate its goals and objectives, making the musical journey more explicit and meaningful. The code of silence that mostly surrounds classical music performance presumes that every member of the audience has done at least an hour of homework prior, or will arrive with enough time to consume and internalize the contents of the program notes, something that even myself as a card-carrying musicologist does not always want to do or have time to do. Alternatively, instead of just providing song texts and translations via the supertitles, why not also project what piece is coming next and maybe even why? In a darkened theater it is impossible to follow along with a program without turning on an iPhone flashlight and being drawn out of the moment. More than any superficial changes in costume and lighting, this kind of shift in the performer-audience dynamic would make the art more meaningful and accessible. 

I could also not stop thinking about where I was literally sitting–on unceded Native land (not acknowledged in the verbal proceedings or printed program) and just as important, an eight-minute walk from People’s Park, where a different drama involving nature, young people, and the (majority White) Bay Area home-owning class (always out in force at legacy arts organizations such as CalPerformances) has been playing out in the California court system. For those not as steeped in Bay Area housing politics, you can consult reports here and here for the full story of how vocal denizens of the ostensibly Very Progressive city of Berkeley are opposing the construction of much-needed housing, including student housing, on the grounds that the noise created by students represents an environmental hazard. (I wish I were making this up.) 

Knowing this background made it harder to be taken in by the rapturous reception of the young singers by the decidedly older audience at Zellerbach, the majority of whom probably drove home in a for-profit mobility device (also known as a car) to a neighborhood exclusively zoned for single-family homes. Listening to the impossibly beautiful singing of the chorus from Piedmont inspired a similar melancholy in my mind, knowing that the high-income and almost entirely White enclave in the East Bay hills has like many other cities (San Francisco included) not yet completed a compliant housing element to submit to the State of California documenting how it will achieve mandated construction goals. When Piedmont finally drafted and submitted a plan it proposed the site of its current city hall as one place where apartments could plausibly be built (so as not spoil the prevailing neighborhood character), only slightly more feasible than the city of Orinda’s proposed housing on a freeway shoulder.

While it is wonderful to include and applaud young singers in programs like Eden, it would also be great to build housing that they might be able to use as students and even young or not-so-young adults. And this is where we see the limits of the politics of initiatives like Eden, insofar as they allow audiences to applaud young people and support vague efforts to change the world, but without truly challenging anyone’s core beliefs or inspire a change in action. 

Is it really Joyce DiDonato’s job to get into the messy politics of Bay Area housing? Maybe not. But since she opened the door to politics it seems like a question worth asking, even if like other questions raised by Eden it might also remain unanswered.