Thursday, March 10, 2011

Dolora Zajick Talks With Marc A. Scorca About Big Voices

Opera star Dolora Zajick, a "force of nature" as described
by Marilyn Horne, being interviewed by Marc Scorca.
Last night Dolora Zajick sat down with OPERA America President & CEO Marc A. Scorca in the company's offices to discuss her career, the physiology of singing and her new Institute For Young Dramatic Voices.

Possessing one of the most galactic opera voices of the last 50 years, the mezzo-soprano began the evening's discussion by recalling her first experiences with music as she was growing up. Born in Oregon and raised in Nevada, she did not grow up in a musical household. 
At about age 7, she was became obsessed with the idea of becoming a concert pianist, but it would turn out that the keyboard was not her calling. By age 10, she, a brother and sister, made three-part harmony for fun and it was not until she enrolled in music school that she realized the fun game was actually called a triad.  She began singing in the Madrigal group at high school with her siblings (who she claims also had large voices, so all the sections were balanced). She attributes the poverty of her public library growing up for learning about great singers of the past because they didn't have the money to buy recordings after 1962, so the voices in her ear were Ebe Stignani and Fedora Barbieri. Her first role on stage was Kate in The Pirates of Penzance for which she sang all the low notes for the Mabel who in turn sang all the high notes for her.

She started studying with Dr. Ted Puffer in the late 1970s at the University of Nevada, Reno. While singing at the Nevada Opera, she completed her Bachelor's and Master's degrees at UNR in 1976 and 1978. She soon moved to New York and performed in the choir at the First Presbyterian Church where she earned extra money as a soloist. She sang Santuzza for a performance of Cavalleria Rusticana that she said consisted of "three violins and a piano" at the New Jersey YMCA. She continued her studies at the Manhattan School of Music that led to an audition with Elizabeth "Betsy" Crittenden of Columbia Artists Management for which she recalled singing "O Don Fatale" (Don Carlo) "Prastite Vy, Xalmy" (Jeanne d'Arc) and "Non più mesta" (La Cenerentola). She said that the most important factor in getting a manager is that you MUST be able to sing well, otherwise a manager will be no good for you. Once signed, she got an audition with and was accepted to the San Francisco Opera Merola Program. Eventually she toured with the company's Western Opera Theater and later became an Adler Fellow. During the three years as a young artist at the San Francisco Opera, she sang roles such as Quickly in Falstaff, Suzuki in Madama Butterfly and even the High Priestess in Aida with Leontyne Price singing the title role. She said that Miss Price was very good at giving her helpful advice, including the two most important elements for being great: 1) It's how you sing. 2) What you do on stage. At the beginning of her career, she was often told at auditions that she would ruin her voice singing so loudly and with a big sound. She laughs that off saying, "I've been ruining my voice for 35 years now."


As the discussion switched to the training of large dramatic voices, Ms. Zajick focused on the past 100 years of singing and the circumstances that have altered the production of this voice type. Young singers of the previous generations were afforded lessons with an impresario (whom she described as a coach, conductor and voice teacher rolled into one) on a daily basis. The size of opera houses has also increased since the time composers like Verdi and Wagner wrote for specific theaters. And instrumentation of the orchestra has evolved to the point that players are producing higher volumes with the music. The key factor for voices today singing this type of music is the ability to penetrate the orchestra. She cited that Verdi requires more sound from the singer especially with the brass constructions, whereas Wagner asks more stamina but one can more easily ride the orchestral playing of the pit members. She also said that baritones, tenors and mezzo-sopranos really are the only voice types that can be labeled as Verdian because of the consistency of color and volume in their roles, whereas soprano roles often cover the gamut from light lyric (Oscar in Un Ballo in Maschera) to Mozartian voice types that singers like Eleanor Steber might have sung. In studying the physiology of dramatic voiced singers, she has found one common factor that seems most prevalent: the thoracic cavity. The larger the vocal instrument the bigger the chest, whether it is in length, width or roundness. She mentioned that sometimes the size and distance of the cheekbones play a part, but the chest is always a major component. Besides the physical attributes that one can be born with, she emphasized that it is imperative to study voice at an early age to achieve stamina. Once upon a time singers sang heavy Verdi roles as early as 20-24 years of age. She said it is important for a young singers to learn the "24 Italian Hits," or Vaccai's Practical Method of Italian Singing as it is formally known, but that they must be sung operatically at first. Once singers mature, they can perform them in the original Baroque style as intended.

"Amarilli, mia bella" (Caccini) sung by Cecilia Bartoli

"Le Violette" (Scarlatti) sung by Renata Tebaldi

"Oh, del mio dolce ardor" (Gluck) sung by Sumi Jo


She also said that it is important to get the voice "rolling in an honest way" at the beginning and these songs give a young singer something to cut their teeth on. Something that Ms. Zajick is adamant about is that every singer must do coloratura in order to be great, especially if they plan on singing Verdi. She recommended that a mezzo-soprano might learn a Rossini aria like "Una voce poco fa" and really get it under their belt even if they never sing it in public.


One of the most fascinating moments of the evening came when she demonstrated a technique used by Mongolian singers (the throat singers of Tuva) to produce two tones simultaneously simply by changing the position of the tongue. This changes the placement of the sound and creates overtones. She said that producing a focused air flow in combination with tongue placement is the simplified explanation of what singing is all about. Watch a demonstration by a young man on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4kDXGSwiRmA. She has labeled herself as a "plumber" when she is in the role of teaching. First one should look at the mechanics of singing, then realize resonance is overtones. Once the student can hear it, he or she is able to control it by the positioning the tongue. According to Ms. Zajick, one of the great joys of teaching voice in this way is that it has made her a better singer because she has to technically describe what is going on in the voice and body to a student.

When asked what is the most common issue for young singers today, she responded that too many learn music or roles on their own and develop bad habits. At her institute no singer is allowed to learn anything unsupervised. She stated that as singers mature in life and develop their technique the less guidance they need from others. The Institute For Young Dramatic Voices works with a ratio of 1 teacher to 2 students, allowing for personal attention and development during their 3-week long program. She said that young male voices need the most attention and care. Based in Utah (with hopes of extending to San Diego, California), the Institute offers training to four different levels of singers. She mentioned apprentice programs that will give big voices the proper role experience 
are difficult to find, but it will do more damage to sing a role that is too small for your voice just as if you were singing a role too big.

Some advice she offered for young singers:
•Most important is to find the right voice teacher and attend the school where they are teaching. Good singers know when they are improving with a teacher and should follow their instincts.
•Good early technique creates longevity in an opera career.
•Young singers should have at least 30 minutes of individual vocal training a day.
•Set a time frame for your career and have goals that you want to reach by certain ages.
•Singers with big voices sometimes need to create their own opportunities in unique venues.
•Don't think there are only a certain number of slots open for roles to be filled by a few select singers. There is always a part for you.

Ms. Zajick said that being an opera singer requires so many skills that no one person has all of them. She told a joke about God handing out professions to infants waiting to be born and as they waited in line to receive skilled destinies like doctor, lawyer or teacher, God became late for an appointment and the last few in line got the remnants of the basket with a simple "and you all will be opera singers." In addition to having what she defines as kinesthetic empathy and the physical attributes of a big-voiced singer, she attributed the length of her career to the time off between performances during which she either learns music for any new upcoming roles or simply rests by not looking at a note of music ("I have other interests, too..."). When asked about taking on new roles, Ms. Zajick mentioned The Countess in Tchaikovsky's Queen of Spades that she is currently rehearsing at the Metropolitan Opera and which opens on March 11, 2011. Although a part taken up by aging singers toward the end of their careers, she feels the administration was looking for something more of a "spectral sound."

For more information about OPERA America check out their website and to learn about the Institute For Young Dramatic Voices click here. [Source]

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