The opera stage is replete with people both visible and invisible.
You have the singers, the orchestra, and the conductor; arguably the most visible participants in any performance. You have your technician and other stagehands working to keep the lighting and other aspects of the production moving along swimmingly. You’ve got someone coordinating all of that.
And then hidden onstage is another important person you might’ve heard of – the prompter.
For years at the Metropolitan Opera, the main person in charge of that position was Joan Dornemann.
When you mention the prompter to most operagoers, they immediately identify that that is the person in charge of passing along the text to the singers.
Dornemann would stop you right there.
“Not quite,” she told OperaWire in a recent interview. “If they don’t know the words, they shouldn’t be up there.”
More Than Just Words
To be clear, Dornemann and most prompters do pass along the text to singers, but their work is far more complex and nuanced than that.
“It’s more about hands. It’s more about telling them not to open their mouths until a specific moment,” she signaled with her hands during our chat at her apartment in New York City. “If you see someone taking a breath earlier, you have to keep them in line.”
She might often have to give stage directions if a singer forgets where to go. Or if she sees a dress coming apart, she might point to a chorister or other stage extra and ask them for help.
“I remember once that Marilyn Horne’s dress was coming untied,” she narrated. “I told one of the chorus ladies to get pins. She slid off stage, came back with pins and pinned it up.”
She has to coordinate with the conductor to ensure that a singer, regardless of his or her position on stage, always sounds together with the conductor.
“If a singer was at the back of the stage,” she noted as she signaled the distance to the pit by pointing to a building outside her window, “that’s about how far away they are. As distance changes, so does time. Singing from the back, it takes more time to project. And if you don’t sing ahead of a specific beat, you’ll be behind.”
She noted that in big ensembles, she’s always shifting her eyes around, as if “driving in traffic,” to ensure that everyone is doing okay. She’ll know from rehearsals when certain artists might struggle in certain spots.
And there are always musical sections that trouble every singer.
She brings up the “Caro nome” in “Rigoletto” and how some sopranos skip the middle section of the aria.
“We all struggle in the same spots. Complicated is complicated,” she noted. “Music is very deceptive. There can be four-bar phrases and then there might be a five-bar phrase with a rest that wants to be missed. My job is to make sure it doesn’t get missed.”
But she often does something else that has nothing to do with technical precision or music.
“Sherrill Milnes liked prompting. He liked that there was someone there to aid or at to least smile at them,” she revealed. “The audience is too far for them to see. They can see my reactions. And my energy can help them. Our nature needs that. Some conductors are great at that and others are more serious all night. So for singers, it’s great to have someone smile at them and acknowledge when they got something right.”
In sum, her job description can be summed down to one quick sentences: “You do anything you can to make life easier.
“You essentially have somebody’s life in your hands.”
From NY to Barcelona & Back
Dornemann’s journey as a prompter didn’t start the way you might expect. She was an opera coach working at the New York City Opera and she had no idea then what a prompter was.
“I was working with languages and finding character in the text. Just helping people memorize the music, absorb the music. Like the coach for anything. I helped them reach better levels of interpretation and get the performances ready to go on.”
She enjoyed that work, noting that she is “a teacher at heart.”
But then she got a request to head to Barcelona to work with a rather prominent artist – Montserrat Caballé.
“The darling lady, she is the most generous woman in the world. She taught me so much. She broadened my experience of what singing is all about,” Dornemann recalled.
Barcelona proved to be a massive learning experience for her as she was in constant contact with international artists and was able to learn different aspects of the craft of singing.
“To be with all these great singers all of this time was just wonderful. People loved to talk about how they learned things. This is what a coach needs,” she noted.
Caballé asked her to work as a prompter for her, something that stunned Dornemann.
“I told her I’d never seen one. Her response? ‘Darling you will learn,’” Dornemann recounted.
She went right into the prompter’s box the next evening.
“I was so terrible. I had no idea what to do,” she recalled. Her first projects in this capacity were a Wagner opera, a work in Croatian, and at the Met Opera, two Russian works.
“Trial by fire,” she remarked.
But she was taken aside by a conductor, who told her what to do. And a year later, when she spoke again with Caballé about her initial experiences, the tone was decidedly different.
“[Caballé] said, ‘Darling you were not very good.’” But now she was at the Met, where she would remain from 1975 onward, doing five shows a week.
It wasn’t always easy, and in exploring her past, she came across what she felt was a major low point for her.
It was “Il Barbiere di Siviglia” with Marilyn Horne as Rosina. Throughout rehearsals, Dornemann noted that Horne always picked up a glass before singing during the second act.
And that night, as always, Dornemann stood privy for that cue from the singer.
“I was listening to the music, but I saw her pick up the glass and I gave her the cue,” Dornemann noted. “But it was four bars too soon.”
Horne, being the artist she is, handled the situation well and made it through to the end. Dornemann “wanted to go into a small hole for a century.”
She proceeded to write an apology letter to the mezzo, repeatedly telling her how sorry she was for the gaffe.
“She wrote me back a note I still have,” Dornemann’s visage lit up as she recounted this denouement. “She said, ‘Welcome to the human race Joan. Lots of love.’ And she sent me a whole bunch of flowers.”
Looking to the Future
These days, she remains a prompter at the Met part-time, admitting that she loves it too much to give it up.
But her focus has shifted back toward coaching and growing the next generation of artists in an increasingly changing opera world.
“They used to say, ‘Go to hear an opera.’ Now they say, ‘Go see an opera,’” she noted. “That’s a major shift. The word today should be ‘experience’ an opera.”
She noted that a singer these days must worry about more than just singing.
“I love having the honor or possibility or luxury of working with all the singers I worked with. These last few decades have been wonderfully breathtaking,” she noted. “Now, it’s a little different. There’s so much talent out there but it gets split up by how much they can act and how much they can sing.”
She teaches and coaches privately, but she also continues championing her passion project, the International Vocal Arts Institute (IVAI), which offers singers a chance to work with major professionals of the industry in the context of a rigorous month-long program. This year the program is set to take part in New York and Montréal, where the company will mount concerts, opera scenes, and a full opera.
IVAI was founded in the 1980s alongside Paul Nadler. As Dornemann explained that the two were in Israel and noted the dearth of coaches for singers arriving to perform and work.
So they did something about it.
But they didn’t want to just create another institute for singers. They knew there were plenty of those around. What they wanted was a program where students could grow beyond their college years and learn from those working in the business.
“Singers need the university; they need a slow way of learning. But by the time you are 22 or 23, you need a lot more information,” she noted. “And you need it from people that have been successful in the business.
“There are lots of programs with nice teachers that go slowly and you go to different countries, but we need high energy and demanding programs. And with people that know how to do it. And that’s what we do.”
IVAI brings in top teachers and artists to work with students and explore the opera world at large, give them experience and insight on not only how to maximize their artistry, but how to find the ways to get it in front of the important people.
“You don’t get that wisdom from teachers who got out of school and started teaching. You only get it from people who have been in the theater like Mignon Dunn and Diana Soviero,” she noted. “Four years in school is not enough.”
Students learn to engage with text and also how to work on their bodies to become better singing actors.
“We provide an opportunity for people to unlock themselves safely.”
She helps her students understand style, using cooking as a metaphor.
“If you walked blindfolded into a pizza place, you would know from the smell of the dough, of the spices, the ambiance,” she noted. “That’s how you know that it’s Mozart. You just have to learn what went into it and didn’t go into it. What are the ingredients. And then it gets easy because after a while, the composers started writing the ingredients.
“You know that sauerkraut doesn’t go into an Italian opera. And in this Mozart opera there is no portamento because he didn’t have those portamentos. The French use diminished chords every chance possible. Italians only did it when someone was in real trouble.
“No one teaches that.”
She also provides students and young professionals with a new international family, as the program hosts singers from all over the world every summer.
“You can find people from New Zealand to Mexico and from many European cities. Whenever people go out for auditions or other programs anywhere, they constantly run into other people from IVAI,” she noted. “It’s a family and everyone in this program has someone to turn to.
“I hear it often. ‘This program changed my life.’ Or others say, ‘I didn’t learn this much this year.’ That gives me a lot of strength.”
The strength to continue propping up the greatest artists of the future. To make life easier for them.