Online the American mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato calls herself Yankee Diva, one hopes with tongue in cheek. (You can visit her at yankeediva.blogspot.com.) While the characterization suggests some of her pluck and gumption, it leaves untouched her sensitivity, grace and kaleidoscopic sense of fantasy. The whole package came into play last July 4 in London, at the season premiere of Rossini's "Barbiere di Siviglia" at the Royal Opera House, when Ms. DiDonato slipped and fractured a fibula midway through the first act, grabbed a crutch and finished the show to a standing ovation.
Though for the rest of the run her Rosina used a wheelchair, the public was not shortchanged at all. A DVD recorded at the time, to be released in April, documents Ms. DiDonato living her character in every tilt of the chin and toss of the head, hurling glances like darts (and actual darts like thunderbolts). No less vivid are the patter of the dialogue, the elegance of the melodic lines, her flair in the cascades of coloratura.
Back on two feet Ms. DiDonato is now in trousers at the Lyric Opera of Chicago as the frisky page Cherubino in Mozart's "Nozze di Figaro," through next Saturday.
"I'm bouncing off the walls," she said after her first day of stage rehearsals. "I've missed him so much," she said of Cherubino. "We mezzos are so fortunate to get to put our boots on, to get to explore such different emotions than we do as female characters."
This Cherubino is likely to be Ms. DiDonato's last, but there are many other slightly older young men in her stable, among them the hero of Handel's tale of chivalry "Ariodante," Mozart's toga-clad Idamante (in "Idomeneo") and Sesto ("La Clemenza di Tito"), Bellini's Romeo ("I Capuleti e i Montecchi") and Richard Strauss's adolescent aristocrat Octavian ("Der Rosenkavalier") and manic-depressive Composer ("Ariadne auf Naxos") .
At 41 Ms. DiDonato has been performing in recitals and concerts as well as in opera for just over a decade, generally to great acclaim. Her Rosina leapt from Kentucky and Arizona to a new production in Paris in just three seasons. Yet until that accident last year the most famous incident in her career was a fiasco in 1997 at the Wigmore Hall/Kohn Foundation International Song Competition in London while she was still in training.
Eliminated in an early round, she took advantage of an optional post-mortem with the judges, expecting to be told to work on her languages or something like that. As she recalls, she sat down at the table, and the pianist Graham Johnson — mentor and accompanist to a who's who of greats going back to Peter Pears, and chairman of the jury — said, "The judges feel you have nothing to offer as an artist."
Ms. DiDonato said: "It was beyond devastating. I wanted to touch people. I'd heard criticism that my timbre was a little shrill, a little forced. But I'd always been encouraged by being told I was a very good communicator. This threw everything upside down. I had to face the fact that I was putting on the mask of being a singer, of playing the role of a singer. I wasn't Joyce singing."
Contacted by e-mail in London, Mr. Johnson, who has never worked with Ms. DiDonato, welcomed the chance to give his side. "This incident has been rewritten apocryphally so that it resembles an episode of 'American Idol,' with me cast in the role of Simon Cowell," he wrote back.
"I wish to put on the record that I deny saying such a thing to Joyce, who was clearly a highly accomplished artist right from the beginning," he continued. "To say that someone was giving us nothing (or too little) of herself, and to say that she herself had nothing to give us are two entirely different things. I have no memory of actually saying the former (and if I did so, I was speaking for the panel as a whole), but I know I would never, ever have said the latter.
"I remember that Joyce wanted to know in detail what we thought — not being satisfied with generalities. My memory at this distance of years is that everything had a kind of impressive sheen — it was never less than accomplished — but that it lacked that personal note, perhaps a certain vulnerability, that makes a singer memorable and touching. This personal quality is indeed something that Joyce has acquired in full measure since, and no one would argue the fact."
By now Ms. DiDonato can conjure a world in a word, as she does at the start of "Morirò, ma vendicata," heard on "Furore," her Virgin Classics CD of Handel arias. Her character is Medea, and the meaning of her first word is "I shall die."
"Handel is the greatest teacher," Ms. DiDonato said. "There's not much text to play with. Sometimes you'll have four sentences in a 10-minute aria. So I search for a way to paint the text and give the emotion that's under the text through the voice.
"At this point Medea has been through a lot, and she has made a decision. Yes, she will die, but also she will have revenge. So many thoughts can go through her head in the six seconds or eight beats or whatever it takes to sing that first word. She can be vengeful, ecstatic, pitiful. It's a kind of wailing, a kind of release. You have to fill every millisecond of the note. It's not easy. But if I do, I feel that's good."
Born in Prairie Village, Kan., a suburb of Kansas City, Ms. DiDonato was the sixth of seven children. Her father directed the chorus of St. Ann Catholic Church, where the congregation was treated to the elaborate polyphony of Palestrina and Byrd on a weekly basis.
"I still have a passion for that," Ms. DiDonato said, "but with high school I discovered musical comedy. And secretly I dreamed of being a backup singer for Billy Joel. I'd still like to make that happen."
She went to Wichita State University, firmly convinced of a calling to teach music in high school. But one stint in the chorus in "Die Fledermaus," and she was hooked on the stage.
"I struggled with that decision," she said. "Student-teaching in a poor district where the kids had special needs, I could see the need for passionate teachers in the classroom. The stage seemed such a self-indulgent thing to pursue."
Her father reassured her that there was more than one way to teach people and to touch them. "I took that to heart," she said. "That's been my key."
Still, there was that problem of the mask.
"I placed in competitions, but I never won," she said. "When we did 'Le Nozze di Figaro' in college, I got Marcellina, the housekeeper, not Cherubino. I could see people thought I had something. But I wondered, 'What am I missing?' I remember thinking in those years: 'No one is going to hand this career to me. It's not going to happen easily or overnight.' That kept me working, and working hard."
She still does. The more thorough the studio preparation, she says, the greater her sense of freedom in performance.
In 1998, as a member of the Houston Grand Opera Studio, she created the role of Meg in Mark Adamo's "Little Women." At the time Mr. Adamo said he could also envision her in the tomboy part of Jo.
"Meg is arguably the trickier part," Mr. Adamo said recently, "She has to complete the transformation from sheltered girl to mature young woman in a single 20-minute scene."
Back then, David Gockley, general director of Houston Grand Opera, said, Ms. DiDonato had made a pleasant impression. The next year, when she sang Maslova in the premiere of Tod Machover's "Resurrection," Mr. Gockley saw a star.
"It was a huge assignment for a second-year studio member," Mr. Gockley said recently from the San Francisco Opera, where he is now general director. "It was and is a fabulous role, calling forth the full range of vocal and theatrical skills. Joyce nailed it. We then offered her a string of the most important lyric mezzo roles."
On the international circuit composers like Handel, Mozart, Rossini, Bellini and Strauss have been and will continue to be Ms. DiDonato's bread and butter, with Donizetti, Berlioz and Massenet increasingly part of the mix. But next season, in Houston, Ms. DiDonato will revisit another 20th-century role from her early days, Sister Helen Prejean in Jake Heggie's "Dead Man Walking," which deals with the hot-button issue of capital punishment.
"I first did Sister Helen at New York City Opera in 2002," Ms. DiDonato said. "It was extraordinary as a young American to be involved in something that so directly reflects things our society is going through. We can do research and find human parallels to 'Le Nozze di Figaro,' but we don't in our own lives have the real sensation of being masters and servants. 'Dead Man Walking' poses questions directly applicable to our society today. And why are we artists? To hold up a mirror, to help people see alternatives.
"From a purely theatrical point of view, I've never felt a piece hit an audience so hard. There was an electricity in the theater. The audience really took the journey with us. And when that happens, you're in a very powerful place as an artist."