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STORY: Opera star Joyce DiDonato brings seeds of hope to San Diego

San Diego Union Tribune

Beth Wood

January 15, 2023


Multi-Grammy Award-winner and Metropolitan Opera star Joyce DiDonato has been very worried about climate change.

Given that she is a self-described activist, DiDonato decided to do something about it. And given that she is a self-described “belligerent optimist” and world-renown singer, DiDonato created a five-continent world tour to spread hope and seeds — literally — to audiences everywhere.

Called “Eden,” the multifaceted project brings together music, drama, and education to explore how we personally connect to nature. The repertoire was carefully selected for the tour and the album of the same name, which was released early last year.

“I find it quite powerful to sail through four centuries of incredible music, basking in the genius of composers from Gluck and Mysliveček to Ives and Handel,” DiDonato said in a recent email interview. “It seems that great composers go almost into a different gear when nature is their inspiration.”

DiDonato will perform “Eden” on Wednesday at La Jolla Music Society’s Baker-Baum Concert Hall. She will be accompanied by Europe’s period-instrument ensemble Il Pomo d’Oro, led for this evening by concertmaster Zefira Valova.

“They are incredible musical and theatrical partners,” DiDonato said. “They are eager to try new things, eager to be featured in a challenging and new kind of program… We have a synergy and a trust in each other that is quite difficult to describe but is immediately felt by the audience.”

The first song in “Eden” is Charles Ives’ “The Unanswered Question,” in which the instrumental disconnect is deliberate and profound.

Maxim Emelyanychev of Il Pomo d’Oro arranged “Question” and several other pieces in the program to accommodate chamber-orchestra versions.

The Ives piece is followed by “Eden,” an original song composed by Rachel Portman, who won an Oscar in 1997 for her original score for the movie “Emma.” Commissioned by DiDonato, “The First Morning of the World” is accompanied by poetry written by Gene Scheer.

It begins: There is a language without question marks … you can read it in the rings of trees.

“And we are off on a profound journey, just with his words!” DiDonato said. “Gene picked up very much on my desire to bring every audience member along with us towards more connection … It was a strong priority for us on this project to infuse people with hope by the end.”

Sprouting and Flowering
Mira Mesa’s 35-member Challenger Middle School choir will join DiDonato on stage to perform “Seeds of Hope,” which was collated from lyrics and melodies written for “Eden” by 11- to 13-year-old students at a London-area school.

Under the guidance of Challenger choir director Marielena Teng, the students will find that the performance is just the tip of the iceberg. The youngsters will also participate in four workshops here exploring climate-change themes.

Allison Boles, La Jolla Music Society’s Director of Learning & Engagement, explained that the “Eden” team offered two options: to be a “root” or “seed” city. Root cities hold at least three workshops for the school of their choosing.

“We said yes to the root city, because the more we can do the better,” Boles said. “Music and education fits into what we’re doing. Personally, I think music can change hearts and minds. This is the best way to make discoveries and learn.”

With support from the “Eden” team, each city develops its own curriculum. In San Diego, educator and expressive arts therapist Elizabeth Tobias will lead the four sessions, all but one at The Conrad.

“I’ve worked with Elizabeth and am thrilled she was selected,” Boles noted. “She’s a very talented artist and educator.”

The first session took place last week and explored climate change on a personal level. Following Wednesday’s concert in La Jolla, session two will focus on water, with a visit from staff from Chula Vista’s Living Coast Discovery Center. Session three will discuss how climate change affects human and animal migration.

For the fourth workshop, the students will take a field trip to Coastal Roost Farm in Solana Beach and discuss food justice.

“Science and art are coming together in these sessions,” Boles said. “The students will discover a lot about themselves and environmental concepts through art.”

For DiDonato, the educational component of “Eden” is essential to the tour, spreading seeds of hope among young people. Every concert ends with the distribution of seeds to the audience.

“My favorite social media posts (about this tour) are the ones where people are sharing their seeds sprouting and flowering,” DiDonato said. “It truly feels like a Garden of Eden springing up around the world.

“In San Diego, the audience will receive chamomile seeds — beautiful to look at, great for pollinators, and a delicious tea!”

More about Joyce DiDonato
Since making her debut at the Metropolitan Opera in 2005, she has performed in 10 Met operas, including the acclaimed “The Hours” last fall. [2022]

DiDonato is the patron of El Sistema Greece and has visited other locations of El Sistema, the free music education program that originated in Venezuela and trained San Diego Symphony Music Director Rafael Payare.

She often visits Sing Sing Correctional Facility and Chicago’s Illinois Youth Center and, last December, brought Sing Sing prisoners a “mini-Eden,” concluding with Mahler’s moving “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” (”I have become lost to the world”).

“The inmates sat rapt for this nearly six-minute song,” DiDonato recalled, “sung in a language they don’t speak, and they received it in such a profound way. This music is a gift, and in the context of ‘Eden,’ I do believe people can have a transformative experience of deep connection.”

La Jolla Music Society presents Joyce DiDonato: “Eden”
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday

Where: Baker-Baum Concert Hall at The Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center, 7600 Fay Ave., La Jolla

Tickets: $94 – $152

Phone: (858) 459-3728


Wood is a freelance writer.