How do you balance three different careers?
That is the question that Dolora Zajick is asking herself as she steps into a new phase of her career.
“I’m running my organization, I’m singing and I’m composing. And I’ve got to find a way to reorganize myself so I can do everything I want,” she told OperaWire during a conversation in New York.
When you think of Dolora Zajick, the composer Verdi immediately comes to mind as the American mezzo-soprano has dominated his operas since her debut at the Metropolitan opera 29 years ago. Her Amneris and Azucena have become staples in the operatic world and have also been admired around the world.
And while Zajick can still sing these roles at the age of 65, thanks to her impeccable technique, the mezzo-soprano is starting to scale back.
“It’s time to start downsizing a little bit. I’m 65-years-old and I’m still doing big roles but I’m sandwiching things in between and gradually downsizing so that by the time I am 70 I am singing the right roles. I still have a voice but we don’t know how long it’s going to last,” she noted
And part of that downsizing has been seen recently this season as Zajick took on her third Wagner role at the Metropolitan Opera, Mary in “Der Fliegende Holländer.” While it has its share of challenges, it is a smaller role and one that helps Zajick maintain her technique and learn new ways of singing.
“The singers are more dependent on each other in Wagner than in a lot of Italian rep. So it makes for a different type of feeling when you cast. That’s one of the first things I noticed.
“Another thing I noticed was that the vocal range is much wider in Italian than it is in German and it kind of centers in the tessitura. It strays but not as much as Italian opera does.”
And another thing she discovered was that the styles in early Wagner and later Wagner works can vary greatly.
“With Ortrud [from ‘Lohengrin’] you have more time to say the words. Whereas with Mary it’s almost instrumental in its quality and it goes by so fast. And you have to say a lot of fast words like that. It’s something that Wagner didn’t really do later. It’s sort of in his early Wagner operas.
But regardless of how she sings Wagner she always approaches the music with a bel canto style, which, incidentally, is what Wagner wanted.
“He was not looking at it as a musical style. He was looking at the vocal approach so the singers weren’t pushing to screaming the notes.”
As her singing career continues to thrive and she continues to obtain successes, Zajick has her eye growing as a composer. It was not something she ever imagined doing but as she puts it, “it kind of fell out of the sky.”
In 2014 she made her composing debut celebrating the 500th year of Saint Teresa of Avila. The project came about when she was talking to a nun about doing a piece for the event. However, that was turned down.
So Zajick said, “Why don’t we just do our own. And she remembered that. And then I got an idea for a virtual chorus of nuns. I suggested it to this nun, who had actually written music to a couple of films. So she knew how to compose music. So she asked me to write something which was then reviewed by the Huffington Post. After that, Madrid asked to hear it. They liked it and they performed it in Madrid and from there it got legs.”
And that event led to many more offers that she would have never expected.
“Now I’m in a dilemma because I don’t have time to take on all these composition offers and they are important places.”
And Zajick wants to make sure that the work she does is of the highest quality. Writing a piece can take a short period but sometimes can take up to three weeks and the inspiration has to come from somewhere.
Luckily, the mezzo doesn’t seem to have a hard time with that part.
“I get ideas in my dreams. Like I had this wonderful dream about a duet that Mozart wrote that was arranged in such a way that everyone swore it was a trio because of the overtones. And I thought, ‘I wonder if that could really be done?’ And the answer is that it’s quite possible and I’m experimenting with it.”
Once Zajick is commissioned to write a work, she rigorously gets to what she considers “really fun.” It is the chance to write for various instruments and to discover more about the musical world.
“When I write for an instrument I always have to go to the instrumentalist and say, ‘Okay I need to know somethings. Do you play on overtones or do you play on the fundamental? Where is your tessitura, can you play outside the comfort zone and where is that extension?’ I did that with a cellist for this piece that I wrote for the nuns because there was a good cellist. I wanted to exploit the sounds of the cello and the harp. I discovered that you have to be careful when you write low notes because some people have a real bite in their low notes and some people don’t. So if you want a piece to be really successful you want everyone to be able to play it. Or else no one will play it.”
The final steps are putting the music onto a paper and Zajick has only one way of doing that.
“I don’t compose from a computer, I write long hand on an orchestra score. That is the best way because you can group things that way. And then I send it to an engraver who can print it the way I have and that takes real skill. For me it’s fun.”
The final thing that Zajick is continuing to thrive in is her Institute for Young Dramatic Voices, the program she founded in 2006.
The program began as a way to find dramatic voices which Zajick found to be lacking in the industry.
“People were saying, ‘Where are the dramatic voices? There are more people on earth so why are there fewer dramatic voices?’
“So we did some research and we discovered where those places were and where we were losing them. We conducted some masterclasses and invited people of all ages to come to audition for the masterclasses and then we would pick the singers looking for dramatic voices. And the interesting thing was we found them at the high school level. We found them at the emerging singer age level, often with singers where their window opportunity was very small with what they had to accomplish in order to make it. We found not one dramatic voice at the conservatory level.”
Once the research was conducted, Zajick and her team figured it out.
“What we found was that we lose most of our dramatic voices at the high school level. The reason is because they don’t do classical anymore and they’re cutting music out of the program and when they do acapella choirs you have a dramatic voice that is not going to fit in.”
One such example that Zajick remembered was a 16-year-old bass that came to her program in need of help with his vocal training.
“He was singing through his nose. He had this pitch sound you could barely hear. And all of a sudden he sang this beautiful low note and ‘I said wait a minute.’ Then he went back to his poor singing and then he sang this pretty good high note for a 16-year-old and I thought something is going on here. It turned out that where he was having trouble was where he was trying to fit into his acapella group.
“He was trying to squeeze his voice and we told him he couldn’t sing in that choir. And he started crying because it was the most important thing in his life. So we got him into a community choir that doubled with a college choir and he got to sing with adult voices and he got to let his voice be what it is. And he learned to sing coloratura and he got to sing a solo. That happens to a lot of kids at the high school level,” Zajick continued.
But it was also happening at conservatories.
“The problem with conservatories is that when they get the money they tend to spend it half on vocal and half on instrumental. And they don’t realize that it cost ten times as much to educate a singer than it does an instrumentalist.
“And most schools don’t have high-quality coaching. When they do get money instead of getting high-level coaches they do a fancy production and the kids don’t get the skills that they need. Because you cannot get away from the one-on-one coaching and then you have another problem in that most conservatories don’t get high-level singers. Now that doesn’t mean they aren’t going to have a career in music. But it isn’t geared for singing,” she continued.
That said Zajick doesn’t believe all schools are bad and that there are some great teachers that are beneficial but they are rare.
What separates her program from most is that she believes in personalized education and she also believes in her students working with various teachers.
“We got rid of that and we have them work with various teachers. And that is how we find out who they gravitate towards and where they have the chemistry. Some people work with several teachers all throughout the program and they do well.”
And the program has been reaping many benefits as numerous students have gone to major young artist programs and the level of singers has risen.
Recalling the beginning of the program Zajick noted that when they started the program there were no dramatic voices. They decided to take the first 22 singers that auditioned and every year they started seeing an increase.
Now Zajick is thrilled!
“We have like six Heldentenors and the thing is we are not a replacement program. We augment what they’re getting wherever they are. For example, we might have a student with a really great voice teacher. And if it isn’t broken, you don’t want to fix it. But maybe they’re not getting coaching or maybe they’re getting coaching but no experience. Or they need some remedial help. So our job is to provide a stepping stone to help them get to the next level.
“And we’re starting careers like Solomon Howard and Rachel Willis-Sorenson. We’re making an impact in the opera world and we will have those dramatic voices.”