January 02, 2017

Joyce DiDonato interviewed on The Today Show about singing with prison inmates

The opera star opens up about inspiring prisoners at Sing Sing to express themselves through classical music.

American mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato is in demand at the most glamorous opera houses around the world, and has sung the American national anthem for a televised audience of millions at the US baseball World Series. But she maintains that her most intimidating audience to date, and arguably her most receptive, consisted of convicted prisoners at the notorious maximum-security facility Sing Sing.

In collaboration with musicians from Carnegie Hall, DiDonato has been working closely with prison inmates, performing for them and teaching them classical music concepts in the hope they will find catharsis, comfort and a way to express themselves through music.

"It reminds them that that part of them is perhaps not lost, in a place that's dehumanising [when] you are so aware that you are captive," she explained in an interview that aired on The Today Show this morning.

"I was staring into the eyes of these prisoners and we were singing to each other."

The Today Show footage - a rare look behind the walls of this infamous jail - includes DiDonato singing to the prisoners arias such as Purcell's When I am Laid in Earth (Dido's Lament), which features on her latest album In War and Peace.

She also performs music by one inmate who has composed specifically for her, Joseph Wilson, and describes the experience of giving concerts for the prison population. "The first time I sang I was singing about a woman exacting revenge on somebody that killed her husband. They started screaming from the audience, 'You go, girl!'" 

The Carnegie Hall program is perhaps a natural progression for a singer who has come to embody the role of Sister Helen Prejean in Jake Heggie's opera Dead Man Walking, the true story of a nun who offered solace and compassion to a prisoner on death row.

Through music, DiDonato insists, we can find hope - and peace - in the most unlikely of places.

Watch Joyce DiDonato on The Today Show here.