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DiDonato, Diablo in national TV spotlight

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, Feb. 19, 2012, at 8:13 a.m.

Two more Wichita natives have spent the past week in the nationally televised spotlight.

One of them doesn’t care.

He’s a honey badger, and he takes what he wants.

The other is famous opera star Joyce DiDonato, a Wichita State University graduate who just won her first Grammy.

DiDonato, an internationally known mezzo-soprano, won the Grammy for Best Classical Vocal Solo Album for her latest release, “Diva Divo.” She was the first classical vocalist ever to perform live at the Grammys, which she did during the Feb. 12 pre-televised ceremony. Wearing a dazzling silver ball gown, DiDonato performed “Non piu mesta,” from Rossini’s “La Cenerentola.”

The star was born in Prairie Village, where she still has relatives, and graduated from WSU’s opera program in 1992. DiDonato is now considered among the top two mezzo-sopranos in the world, said Wichita Grand Opera director Pavan Bakardiev, and she’s in high demand.

“Her career has been skyrocketing in the last two or three years around the globe,” Bakardiev said. “She is the total package. She has the voice, the looks, the charisma, the versatility, and she has that special extra when she walks on stage. People like to listen to her.”

But DiDonato remains loyal to the town where it all started. She stays in touch with faculty at the WSU opera program, and in 2003, she performed for the school’s College of Fine Arts Connoisseur Series. In 2009, she performed in Wichita Grand Opera’s “The Barber of Seville.” And last year, she obtained special permission from New York’s Metropolitan Opera, where she was under contract, to perform at Wichita Grand Opera’s 10th Anniversary Gala Concert alongside fellow opera stars Samuel Ramey and Alan Held.

“She has affinity for Wichita because she studied here,” Bakardiev said. “We have developed a very nice relationship with her.”

Wichita’s other rising star is also in demand — but for much less serious reasons.

Diablo is a 5-month-old African honey badger that was born at Tanganyika Wildlife Park, where he lives with his honey badger parents.

He’s the only baby honey badger in the United States and one of only about nine in the United States, said Matt Fouts, assistant director of the Goddard park. That’s not because the species is endangered, Fouts said, but rather because no one cared much about honey badgers before last year.

That’s when a Los Angeles man known as “Randall” became an Internet sensation for his YouTube video featuring a honey badger — a video that now has been viewed more than 37.8 million times.

The 3 1/2-minute piece features Randall’s ridiculous, PG-13-rated narration over a National Geographic video of a honey badger hunting snakes and mice, being stung by bees, attacked by snakes and bullied by birds while in never-ending pursuit of food. (You can see it by searching “honey badger” on youtube.com, but be warned: The language is as rough as the honey badger.)

The narration includes the now-famous phrases, “honey badger don’t care” and “honey badger takes what it wants.” The video, released a year ago, became so popular that LSU cornerback Tyrann Mathieu was nicknamed “Honey Badger” this season, and fans and sportscasters began wearing T-shirts to games that said “Honey Badger Takes What He Wants.”

Randall now has a website (randallsanimals.com) and a book and a whole bunch of other narrated animal videos, though the honey badger video is by far the most popular.

It’s hard to understand why the video is so funny if you haven’t seen it, but the millions who have think it’s so funny that the honey badger has become a bit of a pop culture phenomenon, and now talk shows are calling.

Wildlife expert Jack Hanna, who has a longstanding relationship with Tanganyika, recently asked to take Diablo on the talk show circuit. On Monday, Diablo and Hanna appeared on CBS’s “The Talk.” They’ll also appear on “Late Show With David Letterman” on Monday and they have spots booked next week on “Good Morning America” and “Anderson Cooper 360,” though Fouts doesn’t know exactly when the latter two shows will air.

Fouts, who has been traveling with Diablo to all his appearances, said the honey badger video really took off just as the park’s season ended last year, so he’ll be interested to see how much more popular the honey badger exhibit is when the park reopens in March.

In the meantime, he’s enjoying the honey badger hubbub.

“I don’t know how many times I’ve watched the video,” he said. “It’s pretty funny, and it’s pretty accurate. The honey badger doesn’t care what he eats. They’re pretty darn tough. They don’t back down. If they want it, they just take it.”

Reach Denise Neil at 316-268-6327 or dneil@wichitaeagle.com. Follow Denise on Twitter: @DeniseNeil.

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