Joyce DiDonato Takes A Stand At Stonewall

Joyce DiDonato sings during a video shoot for NPR Music's Field Recordings series at the Stonewall Inn in New York City (NPR)
Joyce DiDonato sings during a video shoot for NPR Music's Field Recordings series at the Stonewall Inn in New York City (NPR)

On June 28, 1969, police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York's Greenwich Village. A riot broke out, sparking successive nights of protest and, many say, the emergence of the modern gay rights movement.

LGBT rights have come a long way since that summer night 46 years ago, when there were still laws criminalizing homosexuality. But mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato believes there's still work to be done, so she chose the Stonewall to gather a few friends, talk about equality and sing a centuries-old song that still resonates.

Another reason for the gathering was to remember Mark Carson, a gay man fatally shot in the neighborhood almost two years ago. The city's police commissioner stated Carson's death was clearly a hate crime.

"The idea of a murder happening blocks away from the Stonewall Inn is incomprehensible to me," DiDonato says. "It shouldn't happen anywhere. It tells me that we're not done talking, and we are not done working for people to comprehend what equality is about and why it is important."

DiDonato, 45, straight and a native Kansan, is outspoken on LGBT issues and one of today's most sought-after opera stars. At London's popular Proms concerts she capped off the 2013 festival with "Over the Rainbow," saying it was devoted to LGBT voices silenced by Russia's anti-gay laws. At the Santa Fe Opera, she dedicated a performance to a gay New Mexican teen who took his life after being bullied.

"If there's intolerance and injustice being waged against people, we feel that," DiDonato says. "Because in the end, we're all in this together."

Look closely in the crowd of friends DiDonato pulled in for this video and you'll spot Edie Windsor, the octogenarian who fought the Defense of Marriage Act all the way to the Supreme Court — and won. Another friend is gay playwright Terrence McNally, the Tony Award-winning creator of the Maria Callas play Master Class and the libretto for Jake Heggie's opera Dead Man Walking, which DiDonato has recorded. She credits McNally with showing her the courage to fight for equality.

Then there's the music. DiDonato sings "When I am Laid in Earth" from Henry Purcell's 17th-century opera Dido and Aeneas. Sometimes called "Dido's Lament," the aria unfolds slowly yet purposefully, with a refrain that seems to predict the mournful strains of an African-American spiritual.

Purcell's protagonist pleads for a kind of absolution but also begs not to be forgotten ("Remember me, but ah! forget my fate"). And while DiDonato employs her art to speak about big issues, she says that in the end, it's the people who count — a loud and clear message in Purcell's opera.

"I never want to forget the face and the person," she says, "whether it's Edie Windsor or Terrence McNally or Mark Carson, because that's when it's personal and that's when it matters the most."

MUSIC

"When I am Laid in Earth" (from Purcell's Dido and Aeneas)

PERSONNEL

Students from Juilliard415: Francis Liu and Tatiana Daubek, violins; Bryony Gibson-Cornish, viola; Arnie Tanimoto, viola da gamba; Paul Morton, theorbo

CREDITS

Producers: Mito Habe-Evans, Tom Huizenga, Anastasia Tsioulcas; Audio Engineer: Kevin Wait; Videographers: Mito Habe-Evans, Susan Hale Thomas, A.J. Wilhelm, Anastasia Tsioulcas; Editor: Mito Habe-Evans; Special Thanks: The Stonewall Inn, Mark and Rachel Dibner of the Argus Fund; Executive Producer: Anya Grundmann.

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