Mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato is one of the most gifted  singers of our time. A bel canto specialist, she’s given brilliant opera and recital performances throughout the Bay Area, with a special emphasis on the music of Donizetti and Rossini. This month, though, she returns to Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall with a Cal Performances program titled “Songplay.” A lighthearted celebration of Italian arias, American songs and jazz standards, it’s something of an adventure for this always captivating artist. I reached DiDonato by email midway through her tour of Asia. Here are her replies, edited for space.

Q: Can you discuss the inspiration for this program and how it developed?

A: This is a program that emerges strictly from the joy of singing and the celebration of great songs. My pianist and  arranger, Craig Terry, had the idea to play with some of the Italian art songs that every beginning singer aims to tackle. The moment he showed me his idea for “Caro Mio Ben” – something between classic and jazz – I was sold. It dawned on me in that moment how we’ve been singing the same song for more than 400 years – almost always about love: the desire for love, the pain of love, the joy of love. It’s the eternal quest.

Q:  The program spans Italian Baroque arias to songs from the Great American songbook. What are some of the highlights?

A:  Well, I’m biased, but I think they’re all highlights! My hope is that each song feels fresh. In choosing the pieces, I allowed myself to sing songs I’ve always dreamed of singing – “Solitude” and “Amarilli” – but other songs emerged as real surprises to me, like “Masquerade” and “Lean Away.” In the opera world, we don’t often think in terms of the sheer power of a great song, but this project really reminds me of that. Three minutes of the perfect melody can be some of the most potent moments we are allowed in this life.