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Dolora Zajick: Magnificent As Ever

October 3, 2011

Dolora ZajickMezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick’s visit to the San Francisco Symphony to perform in Verdi’s Requiem on Oct. 19–23 brings her back to the city where it all began. Three summers after Zajick participated in San Francisco Opera’s famed Merola Opera program in 1983, she sang her first SFO Azucena in Verdi’s Il trovatore. Her San Francisco Opera role debut as Amneris in that composer’s Aida followed in 1989. In between came her 1988 Metropolitan Opera debut as Azucena, with one performance televised. Zajick’s Met Amneris, also telecast, bookended her San Francisco appearances in the role.

Five months before she turns 60, Zajick continues to own those prime Verdi roles. Anyone who saw her recent Met Azucena, broadcast in HD to movie theaters worldwide last April, can affirm that her voice remains as intact, powerful, and innately suited to the role of the mad gypsy as it was at the time of her debuts.

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Less than a month before Verdi’s most operatic of requiems shakes the acoustic panels in Davies Symphony Hall, Zajick and I connected by phone at her home in Reno. Our topics included her involvement in the study of avian cognition, and her work with the Institute for Young Dramatic Voices, which she founded and champions. We ended with a vital discussion of the bel canto singing for which she is prized. Although we did not address a particular role, Zajick’s insights shed light on SFO’s current production of Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia.

Several times we were interrupted by a vociferous wild scrub jay who, like Zajick’s fans, eats out of the palm of her hand. In the midst of one engrossing subject after the other, somehow we managed to talk a bit about the Verdi Requiem, before she headed off to Salerno, Italy, for yet another Azucena.

There was an interview in Opera News some years back where you talked about being introduced to Fedora Barbieri, a fabled dramatic mezzo of an earlier era. She was blown away by the size of your voice. One of your dialogues was about how people today don’t understand large voices.

In Britain, at one point chest voice was considered the least tasteful thing to use in the low range, even in Italian opera that calls for it. But that didn’t change the audience response.

If you’ve got a big voice, but you don’t learn how to use all aspects of your voice, you don’t learn how to connect the registers together. Learning how to use chest voice is just as important as learning how to use high notes. When you find that track where they all connect together, you’ve got the start of a pretty good vocal technique. Then you add your refinements.

One problem today is that singers start training a lot later than they used to. Back then, girls started as young as 12, and boys about 15. Now, some who start late have great artistic instincts or training, but they don’t have the technical means to express it. So they put the cart before the horse. When people listen, they listen to the artistic expression, but they’re not necessarily looking at the technical means by which they are achieving it. Their artistic ideas are right, but the technical manner in which they’re achieving them is not. That’s why they get into vocal trouble so quickly.

Oh, hello — hear that bird? That’s a wild scrub jay that eats out of my hand in the front yard. I’m now an amateur field scientist for avian cognition: a naturalist, so to speak. Its mate is a scrub jay, and they mate for life. I’m looked on as a social food source.

He’s about to land on my hand. That’s Mort. His wife’s name is Ticia. C’mon, Mort. They’re the Morticias. One year, they had babies, all girls, so we named them Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. Tuesday ended up being fat and big for a scrub jay; we called her Fat Tuesday.

As you approach 60, you are singing fabulously. How do you account for this?

It’s a combination of things. I have got a very good vocal technique, a solid one. A lot of people were saying that I would ruin my voice, but I’ve been singing this way for 40 years now, and it hasn’t hurt me.

The second thing is that a lot of my colleagues think they can do more than they can. When they get lots of job offers, they do a lot of the back-to-back thing. It really rakes in the money and creates a high profile, but they often burn out sooner. They get vocally tired, and start compensating incorrectly. That gets them into trouble.

Third, I never really sang anything that was totally inappropriate for me in a stressful kind of way. I pushed the envelope and did a Lady Macbeth a few times, and a Dalilah that lies real low for me. (I did much better with the Lady Macbeth.)

Most people get into trouble when they sing a fach [that is, in a vocal category] that is too high or big or too small to them. Something too small can be just as damaging, because you shut down the voice and stop supporting the right way.

Your range is amazing. It keeps going up and up.

I don’t have an F-sharp [above high C] anymore, but I do have an unusually large range, because I can go to a C below middle C. I have unusually long and thick vocal cords for a woman. I think that accounts for part of my range.

I’m also very muscular. Because I use my muscles in the right way, that too has given me some longevity. Singers don’t use their arms very much, but they definitely use various muscles around the trunk.

[The Requiem] is such a wonderful piece — an opera all in itself. I think it’s one of Verdi’s “greatest hits.”

I keep them strong by singing the right way. A singer has to develop their trunk muscles to the same degree that a weight lifter develops the rest of their body.

You shouldn’t do a heavy workout every day, which is one of the reasons why I don’t sing back-to-back unless it’s a certain kind of concert. Even then, I don’t do it back-to-back unless it’s something I know really well and it’s not too demanding, like the Verdi Requiem. I’ll do it back-to-back, but only on certain occasions. So I pick and choose. For the most part, I make sure that I have adequate vocal rest when I’m singing.

Have you turned down roles because they called for too small a voice?

No, I rarely had that problem.

What did they tell you that you were doing wrong that we’re going to hear when you sing the Verdi Requiem?

You’re not going to hear that in the Verdi Requiem, because the mezzo part is not that loud if you do it the right way. They said that I shouldn’t use the chest voice.

Others thought the voice, in general, was too loud. I don’t think that’s going to be true with this [S.F. Symphony] cast. In fact, the big problem when you get a bunch of big voices and an exuberant orchestra is actually getting them to move back to make the musical expression.

When you get a quartet of big voices, sometimes they start competing as to who can sing the loudest. People kind of forget about the art form and just throw it out. This is a professional group, so I’m not saying that’s going to happen. But the thing you have to be careful with, when you have a reputation for having a big voice, is that, when you let it all out, everyone else starts feeling competitive. So I find it best to pull back and then rise up to the balance. That’s much better than someone giving me a bad time.

What particularly appeals to you about the Verdi Requiem, and what are its challenges?

It’s such a wonderful piece — an opera all in itself. I think it’s one of Verdi’s “greatest hits.” It’s effective, it’s dramatic, it’s moving, it’s varied; it’s just a wonderful, wonderful piece.

The overall effect of it is what makes it work. The biggest challenge is that you want it to be a truly musical event that is moving. You have to make sure that everyone is working together and not competing, and that it turns into a real work of art.

I can’t [yet] talk about a work that is being written for me. I’m really excited about it; it’s a big deal.

Why do you think you’re primarily thought of Verdi singer when you also specialize in bel canto?

People have seen me as this Verdi singer, depending on where I’m at. In Spain, they see me as a bel canto singer. They have a different concept of bel canto than in the States or in Italy. The Spanish like bigger voices because they like to hear that dramatic change in the messa in voce, whereas, in Italy, they like a much lighter voice and much smaller dynamic range. That’s why I do a lot of bel canto in Spain and none in Italy. In Italy, they prefer me for either Verdi or contemporary work. In Spain, it’s bel canto first, then Verdi.

Do you know what bel canto really is, in the sense of voice type? It is an extremely adaptable art form that was meant to accommodate a wide variety of voices, as opposed to later music that was written more and more for specific voice types.

The great thing about bel canto is that you can do it with fairly large voices or very light voices. The most important thing is to maintain the style, which is that musical line and having that musical expression. As long as you maintain the musical line and the words and the text, and keep the style correct, you can pretty much do what you want with it. That’s what’s so great about it.

It is also what makes it dangerous, because a lot of people try to impose stylistic things on it. They think the freedom gives them carte blanche permission to reinvent the piece so totally that it doesn’t even resemble bel canto.

One common thing a lot of conductors do, because they don’t have either the ability or the singers or orchestra they need to accomplish it, is they rush through it. In order to get the energy, they do things very quickly. Then it takes away all the nuances.

Another problem is the conductor could be too indulgent, and the singers take too many liberties. They become unmusical and burdensome, which turns it into a self-indulgent display that’s not really in the bel canto style. So you have those two extremes. Unless the conductor really understands the style, and you have at least a couple of singers who understand bel canto style, you’re going to have trouble doing it. But if you’ve got certain things in place, there’s room for a lot more variety than, let’s say, Verdi, which requires very specific voice types to sing their parts.

The words are so important. The words shape the phrasing and the timing and the tempo in bel canto. There are times when you have to have a very steady beat to get a certain kind of line, and other times when you have to have that flexibility. Here’s where having a really, really good conductor is very important.

Are you taking on new roles?

I just did an Ortrud [in Wagner’s Lohengrin]. And because the company has right of first announcement, I can’t talk about a work that is being written for me. I’m really excited about it; it’s a big deal. I’ve been wanting to do something like this for a long time. I had a chance to go to China with La Scala in Verdi’s Don Carlo, but it’s at the same time as this new work. You’ll hear about it soon.

Jason Victor Serinus is a music critic, professional whistler, and lecturer on classical vocal recordings. His credits includes Seattle Times, Listen, Opera News, Opera Now, American Record Guide, Stereophile, Classical Voice North America, Carnegie Hall Playbill, Gramophone, San Francisco Magazine, Stanford Live, Bay Area Reporter, San Francisco Examiner, AudioStream, and California Magazine.


great review. i especially like the story of the scrub jays.