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In Reno, a Jackpot of Big Voices

Whenever I am covering singing competitions in New York, one of the most astonishing revelations is the paucity of dramatic voices. Lyric mezzos, lyric sopranos, and lyric baritones dominate, and it’s not unusual to sit through days of auditions and not hear a single viable Verdi mezzo, Verdi baritone or even a remotely acceptable Wagnerian singer. Perhaps this shouldn’t be so startling when you stop to consider the significant areas of the repertoire that are increasingly difficult to cast; when I began attending opera in the early 1980s, you could not possibly have persuaded me that there would be a time when La forza del destino and Andrea Chénier would become relative rarities, simply because there was hardly anyone to sing them.

This development has in turn had a crippling effect on opera audiences. No matter how presenters may have struggled to reshape their audiences, works such as Otello, La Gioconda, and Macbeth are life’s blood for opera lovers—and when there’s no one to sing them, or when they’re sung by underpowered, poorly trained singers, those opera lovers are going to recognize that they have been handed a fraudulent experience, and they’re going to start staying home. (I also think you could make the argument that even most opera neophytes are bound to recognize when a performance isn’t “happening” for them.)

How we arrived at this point of true dramatic singers being in such short supply is a complex subject that always incites much finger-pointing and name-calling in the opera world. One widely held point of view is that educational institutions must take a big part of the blame. In New York, for instance, it’s well known that there is a reluctance for many teachers to commit to the extra time and care needed to train dramatic voices. Generally, lyric voices turn into finished products much sooner, and teachers who desperately crave a reputation in the business for turning out top talents, perhaps can’t be blamed for focusing on lighter voices. They can easily be plugged into workshops and into repertoire that is relatively inexpensive to produce. (Then again, many teachers simply don’t have the background or technique to train dramatics.) But the fact is that even many artists of considerable talent haven’t been really filling the void in the dramatic rep. Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, there was an explosion of ample-voiced sopranos—Deborah Voigt, Sharon Sweet, Jane Eaglen, Alessandra Marc—but of those, only Marc persuaded me that she was a true dramatic. Others make a valiant stab: Patricia Racette is a fine, committed artist, but vocally, she often seems a size too small for some of the Italian roles she attempts.

At the Institute for Young Dramatic Voices at the University of Nevada in Reno, Dolora Zajick, the preeminent dramatic mezzo of our time, has set out to rectify this situation. Zajick and her remarkable faculty seek out young singers with voices of dramatic potential and, over a long period, give them the care and attention they require. In late July, I traveled to Reno to spend three days closely observing the work being done at the Institute. I came away feeling deeply encouraged: Zajick is a born teacher, an endless source of expert information on all aspects of technique for all voice types. Her style is firm but fair and positive. She has, quite literally, a hands-on approach, moving the students’ jaws into correct position, counseling them on how to relax the tongue, and always stopping them when they begin singing through their noses as they ascend the scale.

There is a great deal of hugely promising talent at the Institute. Enrolled in this year’s summer program were no less than six heldentenors, some gifted dramatic sopranos, several outstanding dramatic mezzos and bass-baritones, and at least one genuine Verdi baritone—which Zajick feels is the rarest of all voice types. The degree of information that the Institute’s voice students have to synthesize is mind-boggling, and while I was sitting in on classes, they often became quite frustrated: once they got the Italian pronunciation right, they would have to be corrected on their rhythm; the next time around, they might nail both the language and the rhythm, but they would forget to provide proper breath support. Throughout it, I never saw Zajick or any other teacher lose patience. The Institute boasts a talented and dedicated faculty that includes but is not limited to: Luana DeVol, Darrell Babidge, Monica McCullough, Thomas Muracao, Cheryl Lin-Fielding, Yelena Kurdina, John Edward Niles, Beatrice Benzi, Thom Christoph, Francesca Gilpin, and Stefano Baldesseroni, covering everything from voice lessons to language coaching to scene preparation. I got to meet and observe them all over the three days I spent in Reno, and the results they yielded were mightily impressive. I didn’t sense any of the bad vibes that one often feels in a training environment, probably because Zajick holds the faculty to the same high standards that she expects of her students.

Rather than isolate students in a practice room, Zajick favors letting them work in groups. Madison Beasley, a nineteen-year-old soprano enrolled at the University of Las Vegas, is in her fourth summer at the Institute. “When I got here, I was terrified to sing around the other people. You think, ‘I’m starting out, and I can barely get through my song, and they’re singing full arias.’ But it’s such a safe environment that I feel completely open to mess up, to not sound beautiful, and to work on the mechanics of singing and not be perfect. Watching someone else work on the same thing you’re working on can bring you together.” Soprano Jessica Faselt, twenty-four, was at the Institute for a summer of intensive work before heading to the Young Artist Program at Florida Grand Opera, says, “Dolora’s technique of having an open jaw and dropping the mouth and having a vertical mouth position, rather than a smiley, horizontal position, was kind of a new concept for me. I had teachers work on tongue tension and breath, but what she taught me kind of clicked a lot of into place. She’s all about developing the resonance, and letting the ear guide that. She also stresses how important it is to be a good colleague, someone easy to work with.”

At 4 p.m. on Saturday, August 5, 2017, a concert featuring the Institute’s young singers will be held at the University of Nevada’s Nightingale Concert Hall. Admission is free.

What follows is a transcript of an interview I did with Zajick, over lunch at Reno’s Stone House Café:

BK: You seem very happy with the level of your faculty here at the Institute.

DZ: I have collected these people that I’ve worked with over the years because I knew they were good at what they did. They are happy to be here because they can do something with people who have real potential. A lot of times when they go into programs, there may be one or two people with potential. And not all coaches see the full potential at the beginning, but then they come around because people make progress. Darrell Babidge and Luana DeVol and I are basically the core auditioners. Most of them come to us through our website. Some are referred to us. Some we’ve heard, and think they might be right for us. So the three of us listen, and what one person might miss, the other two catch. I think it’s the combination of the right ears for musicianship, languages, personality; we’ve had good success picking the right people.

BK: What are the most common problems that you come across among your young singers? It must be different for different age groups.

DZ: Yes. When we started this, we listened to singers from different cities and did a couple of master classes and invited people to see what the lay of the land was. You could be fifteen to thirty-five; the master classes were free. And we discovered dramatic voices under the age of twenty-one and over the age of twenty-eight, and nobody in between. So that was a red flag: what was happening during that in-between stage? We thought that the biggest problem was happening at the conservatory level, but it was actually happening at the high school level. For instance, we had a sixteen-year-old bass we auditioned. He was singing through his nose, and had his head cocked and he was out of tune. All of a sudden, he lets out this beautiful low note, and then he goes back to this other sound. Then he lets out a very good high note. Not perfect, but good. It turns out that was the range he was trying to fit into at his a cappella choir in high school. We told him he couldn’t sing in choir anymore and he started crying, because that was the most important thing in the world to him. So we got him into an adult choir that doubles with a college choir every year to do Messiah. He learned how to sing coloratura and he learned how to follow a conductor, and his voice came back, just because he was allowed to let it out. So the most common thing that we find is that the most gifted high school students are often let out of things because they don’t blend in; their voices are just too big. Nobody knows what to do with them. And, now that high schools are cutting music out altogether, they’re not getting that exposure. So we are losing most of them at the high school level.

And then, when you get into the conservatory level, the problem is that when conservatories get money, they usually split it down the middle, and half goes to the instrumental department and half goes to the vocal department. But people forget that it costs ten times as much to educate a singer as it does an instrumentalist. They have to study acting, body movement, linguistic coaching. You can’t put thirty-five kids in a classroom and give them French diction for two hours three times a week and expect them to learn French diction. It has to be one on one. And then, when a music department finally gets the money, instead of bringing in a coach from the Met for ten days, someone who knows what they’re doing, the conservatory will do a fancy production. And if they do an opera, they don’t do standard rep. They do something that will get reviewed by The New York Times, so it gets in a newspaper and they can say, “This is what our school does.” It might be a good publicity move, but the truth of the matter is that it is not helping the singers. So one of the things we swore we would never become is an opera company. That’s what usually happens with a fledgling training program. It becomes an opera company. We thought we could be more effective if we became an adjunct organization. We are a total program in that we address total development, but we don’t have an orchestra. We don’t do full productions. We do scenes. In most cases, the minute you become an opera company, it’s not a training program anymore. I mean, there have been good training companies. Wolf Trap is one.

BK: The lack of dramatic voices right now is in some ways a situation brought about by the failings of the educational system. Does it ever anger you that you have to work so hard to help redress this situation?

DZ: Well, okay. Let me put it this way: the actual process of teaching is a pleasurable one. But dealing with the aspects of trying to remedy the situation can be less pleasurable. Because a lot of the time, I feel that we’re dealing with Lilliputians. People who just don’t understand. So many people have given up and said, “Opera is doomed, because no one can do it anymore.” But we’ve been through this before. It’s a cycle. And every time there’s a cycle where people go for the look rather than the voice—they did this at the turn of the twentieth century! There was an economic downturn, and they wanted to shake things up a bit and they decided to go after matinee idol types of singers. And at first it was a hit, because it drew people who went to the matinees, but then they stopped coming. And all of a sudden there was a crisis: Oscar Hammerstein buys a theater and starts the Manhattan Opera Company, and all of a sudden his shows were full every night. The Met got smart, and bought out Oscar Hammerstein. And they re-hired all those singers that they had gotten rid of, and the audience came back.

We are at that stage where we are collecting those singers. All of this came at an unfortunate time in my career, because it lopped off a couple of years where I could have sung [big roles] for a little longer. But that pendulum had swung to the point where great singing was not as valued as other things. But for people who are going to come after me, it is coming back. There’s this Japanese girl in our program, Miho Asai. She might well be a Verdi mezzo. This is a serious voice.

BK: What were some of the things that people said to try to dissuade you from undertaking this project?

DZ: They told me that people don’t normally sing and run programs at the same time; they usually do it after they retire.

They worried that I wouldn’t be able to give it the proper attention.

BK: Has that been an issue?

DZ: I’ve been a little overwhelmed, but I’ve managed. Actually, I’m balancing three careers, now that I’m composing and singing and doing this.

Another thing they said was, “You’re only going to have them for three weeks. What kind of changes can you make?” Well, we have informal workshops and we keep tabs on them throughout the year. Some people work with us year round; some people come just for the summer. If someone has a good voice teacher, the last thing we want to do is take them away from that person.

BK: Each year, how many people do you hear?

DZ: We usually get, altogether, about 200 people making an application. Then we pick twenty-five to thirty that we listen to in person. Sometimes it’s just to get a sense of the size of the voice. You can sometimes tell that on a recording, but not always. And then we make a decision.

BK: And you have to balance the number of new people with the number of returnees.

DZ: Right. And sometimes we’ll get sent someone. Washington National Opera sent us Daryl Freedman, because they wanted us to prepare her to sing Eboli, because she’s covering the role next season and singing one performance. So that’s our job.

BK: To “Italianize” her.

DZ: Yes. And the thing is that some people surprise you.

BK: Yes, they do. Every singer I know has a story about someone, early on, saying there was no point in continuing. And Lenore Rosenberg from the Met told me recently that about one-third of the time, she was proven wrong in her initial estimation of young singers.

Dolora, what are the things that you, as an educator, find most challenging about dealing with them as personalities?

DZ: I’ve discovered that if I work one-on-one too much, they lose perspective. When they work in groups, they can see their problems in each other, and they make much faster progress. They hear it, and they see someone struggling with the same thing, and it makes more sense to them.

BK: We have discussed this before. But, for the record, can you talk a little about how we got to this point, where lyric voices dominate, and the dramatic voices have a harder time, and a huge amount of the repertoire is being cut out, simply because we don’t have the people to sing it?

DZ: Well, one of the things you notice in Italy is that theaters are a lot smaller. And those are the kinds of venues that these operas were written for. We have developed this situation where we have bigger houses, and orchestras have to put out bigger sound than they used to. Even old Stradivariuses are tweaked to put out a bigger sound. Singers are now competing against that, and they didn’t have to do that before. When you ask the question, where have all the dramatic voices gone?, you have to take that in as part of the issue.

You also have to take into account the fact that people often try to get away from acoustical singing. But opera will always be acoustical singing. You can put cameras up there, and make a big deal out of the media thing, but the bottom line is that it is an acoustical art form, and you can only get that experience in a live venue. We’re going through one of those cycles where looks are more important than sound, but people always come back to sound. Also, when the economy is really strong, people go to things they wouldn’t normally attend. When the economy tanks, attendance goes down. People try to attribute it to other things, and then they try to “fix” it by spicing things up. They don’t understand that these waxings and wanings are normal.

They built this huge theater in Valencia, because there was a period where the economy was very strong in Spain, and opera became this hugely popular art form. So they built this mega-opera house, just like America. Now they can’t fill the damned thing. They gauged everything to when the glut was there. There will always be a steady audience for acoustical opera, but it’s never going to be a huge number of people. And people say to me, “Since not a huge number of people are interested in it, does that make it not valuable?” I say, “Most people don’t go to museums. Does that lessen all the great works of art? Should we take the statue of David and throw him in the river?”

BK: You were saying yesterday that sometimes the heavier lyric singers enrolled at the Institute make the transition successfully to being able to handle dramatic rep. Can you say a bit more about how that works—or doesn’t?

DZ: Well, part of it has to do with age. There’s a crucial window of age where voices seem able to grow. Then it cuts off, and they’re not going to go any further. When we take somebody like that, it’s usually because we’re not sure. They’re really young, but they have all the other qualities there. There is an important transition that takes place. When you work with really young singers, they often don’t know how much they have to know. One of the reasons we have the really youngest ones in a separate class situation is because if you give them too much important information too fast, they lose their confidence. By the time they get to nineteen, twenty, they feel like centipedes, and the mother is saying, “Don’t think. Just walk.” And they lose their confidence, so you have to dose it. You don’t want them to lose confidence, but you also have to develop that objective ability to look at yourself. We really stress that. They come here as young people, and maybe they’re the only dramatic voice where they come from, and all of a sudden, they’re not alone.

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  1. Martin Casella

    August 5, 2017 at 2:24 pm

    Love that article, Brian. Feel as if I was reading one of those classic, in-depth New Yorker pieces from the 1970’s. You capture the learning style, history, personality and details of the process. Her centipede analogy at the snaps it all into perspective. Thank you for more sharp, lyrical writing.

  2. Cornelia Alexandra Beigel

    August 5, 2017 at 4:20 pm

    Thanks Brian, so very interesting !!

  3. Bravo! Brian!Brava Dolora!
    We want Tristan and Isolde
    we end up with Dristan for a cold!
    Where o where are the Melchiors and flagstads of yesteryear?
    For those and all the eminent Wagnerians of old we shed a tear!
    Opera fans are no dopes!
    Thank our lucky “Future stars”
    We now have hopes!

  4. Thank you for a fascinating interview. Loved reading this article!

    • Thanks, Navida. The work that Dolora and her colleagues are doing is astonishing. Miss seeing you in David’s class!

      • This was a fascinating article about the dearth of the “BIG” voices and the work Ms Zajik and her Reno colleagues are doing to support (and find) the next generation. And, as is always the case, presented with the very elegant and intelligent writing style that is your signature no matter what the subject, More, please!

  5. Jennifer Melick

    August 7, 2017 at 7:05 pm

    Great column, about an artist who has so much to contribute. Loved the story about the a cappella kid. There might be dozens more where he came from.

    • Thanks, Jenny. I am so impressed with the work being done there. It’s so smart to work with them in groups rather than isolating them in a practice room. You can see and hear the results taking shape on the spot.

      • Brian, I’m so happy you wrote this about IYDV. As you know from my interview, I am proud to be a part of this project since Dolora is the real deal with no BS and is very hands on in running the program. I only wish she could get the funding to extend it to 4 or 5 weeks. These singers have the advantage of focusing on a small amount of repertoire so as to understand what “polish” means as they work with many of us, helping them to grow. She is a unique person.

        • Thanks, Tom. It was a privilege to watch the work that you all do. The other interviews will be incorporated into a separate piece I’m writing for OPERA Magazine (London). Hope to see you soon–

  6. Brava brava. I totally agree! Large voices need time and space to bloom.

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