Area vocalist wins opera award

? Her mezzo-soprano vocals have delighted audiences as far away as Italy. But despite her success, Kansas City area resident Joyce DiDonato was surprised this week to learn she has been awarded the 2002 Richard Tucker Award, opera’s most prestigious prize.

The New York-based foundation that gives the award announced the decision by its five-member jury on Wednesday. The annual award carries a cash prize of $30,000 and the opportunity to sing in October at the foundation’s annual gala, which is broadcast nationally on PBS and attended by representatives of major opera companies.

Joyce DiDonato, a Kansas City area opera singer, has received the 2002 Richard Tucker Award, considered opera's most prestigiousprize. She is shown at her Clay County, Mo., home in this August 2001 photo. The annual award carries a cash prize of 0,000.

“It came out of the blue,” DiDonato, a native of Prairie Village, Kan., said Wednesday from Paris, where she was preparing for performances as Rosina in “The Barber of Seville” at the Paris Opera. “I’m still sort of thinking they’re going to come back and say ‘Oops, sorry, we were actually thinking of someone else.'”

The Tucker prize is bestowed annually on an American-born singer who is “poised for the start of a major national and international career,” according to the award guidelines.

DiDonato, 33, whose parents live in Prairie Village, Kan., said she didn’t set out to be an opera singer. She began singing at St. Ann’s Catholic Church and Bishop Miege High School and studied at Wichita State University and Philadelphia’s Academy of Vocal Arts.

Not until DiDonato served apprenticeships at the Santa Fe Opera, San Francisco Opera and Houston Grand Opera that she began to land major roles.

When her career began to take off, she and her college sweetheart decided to move back to her hometown. Alex DiDonato, a security guard for the Kansas City Royals, tends the couple’s Clay County, Mo., home while his wife spends about 10 months a year on the road.

DiDonato came to the attention of the American public in PBS’s broadcast of Mark Adamo’s “Little Women,” one of a series of successes she has enjoyed in contemporary American operas.

DiDonato is the only recent winner to receive the Tucker prize before having made a New York debut, which she said made the announcement all the more unexpected.

She will make her debut in New York in September, when she is slated to play Sister Helen Prejean in Jake Heggie’s opera of “Dead Man Walking” at the New York City Opera.

Despite her international experience, DiDonato said the Kansas City area continues to be a source of strength and inspiration. She said the award recognized her family and her teachers who helped her.