* DiDonato's portrayal of doomed Mary Queen of Scots is hit
* American soprano says worked hard to master role
* Does kickboxing to keep fit, finds gym machines boring
By Michael Roddy
LONDON, July 9 (Reuters) - On stage and off, you don't want to tangle with Joyce DiDonato - American soprano extraordinaire and practised kickboxer too.
The 45-year-old diva has been leaving audiences at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden roaring for her singing and performing of the hugely demanding bel canto (beautiful singing) role of the doomed Queen Maria Stuarda - Mary Queen of Scots - in the second of Donizetti's three Tudor operas.
There's hardly a more gripping and dramatic scene in opera than the one at the end of Act Two when DiDonato as Maria has a knock-down, drag-out confrontation with Queen Elizabeth I, sung by the up-and-coming Italian soprano Carmen Giannattasio.
They spit insults at each other, DiDonato hurls "vil bastarda" (evil bastard) at her rival and pulls the tablecloth from under Elizabeth's picnic lunch, sweeping all the food and dishes to the floor - all this in the full knowledge that it will ensure she has her head chopped off.
"I feel completely shattered," DiDonato, changed out of her 16th-century-style royal frock into a cocktail dress, told Reuters at a reception after the opening night on Saturday.
"This is the most difficult role I sing so I always have to step back a bit and make sure I've got some bit of me that is engaged just in navigating the vocalising ... but there are two moments when I just lose it and I'm really not present anymore, and one of them is the confrontation scene," she said.
Otherwise DiDonato - who practises the martial art of kickboxing to keep fit because she finds fitness machines boring and shows off her arm muscles to prove it - thinks that in this production she has finally nailed a role she has also played at the Houston Opera and at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
"The first time, in Houston, the part was 'singing me' kind of from beginning to end but I got through it. I did a lot of work and when I got to New York I'd say there was about 16 percent of the opera that was still 'singing me' and at some point I just had to get through those particular moments.
"Here I finally feel like now it's mine, I'm choosing in every moment how I want to sing it rather than this is the only way I can do it and I've never felt that with another role. This has been the biggest learning curve for me."
Here's what else she had to say about her long climb to the top of a cut-throat profession, her upcoming South American tour and new album after winning a Grammy in 2012 for "Diva Divo":
Q: You didn't have one of those immediate career successes, and didn't really hit your stride until about a decade ago, when London and European audiences embraced you before you'd become a star at home. Now you are a regular at the Met and sometimes host the global HD broadcasts. What's it like being at the top?
A: If you're at the top the bottom comes very quickly (laughs). But really, the only way through the time when you're not getting work and when it's hard and when things aren't coming is to go back and do the work you have to do. The work is what will get you through and if a singer starts to fail there's no way you can hide it, you have to work with what you have.
Q: You've got a big South American tour coming up and a new album of bel canto songs from Naples, but from some little known composers. Why this flirtation with the southern climes?
A: I was in South America just two years ago and after my first concert in Santiago I was so surprised that first of all it was sold out and then they literally showered the stage with flowers ... These audience were thirsty, and especially the young people, so after the first concert I called my manager and said let's find another tour and we booked it ...
There's a passion, an unfiltered joy and exuberance and that will lead me into the launch of "Stella di Napoli" which is my next album and really it's sort of an homage to bel canto opera.
(Writing by Michael Roddy; Editing by Gareth Jones)