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Dolora Zajick [Photo by David Sauer]
19 Aug 2013

Dolora Zajick on New Opera Written for Her

On September 18, 2013, San Francisco Opera will present the world premiere of Tobias Picker’s opera, Dolores Claiborne, which has a libretto by J. D. McClatchy based on Stephen King’s novel of the same name.

Dolora Zajick on New Opera Written for Her

An interview by Maria Nockin

Above: Dolora Zajick [Photo by David Sauer]


Mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick, best known for her powerful renditions of Italian dramatic roles, will sing Dolores. She says she always wanted a role in which she could grow gracefully. Since she wasn’t looking for a glamorous character she thinks his Dolores is an ideal fit.

On September 18, 2013, San Francisco Opera will present the world premiere of Tobias Picker’s opera, Dolores Claiborne, which has a libretto by J. D. McClatchy based on Stephen King’s novel of the same name. Mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick, best known for her powerful renditions of Italian dramatic roles, will sing Dolores. Her fans may not all be aware that she is also the founder of The Institute for Young Dramatic Voices that takes place in Utah every summer and that she is a composer and a watercolor painter as well. On June 19th, 2013, I spoke with Dolora who was at her home in Reno preparing to go to this year’s session of the Institute.

MN: How did you get the role of Dolores Claiborne?

DZ: Since I was in the opera that Tobias Picker and Gene Scheer based on the Theodore Dreiser novel, An American Tragedy, the composer knew my voice. It’s a long story, but I have always wanted a role in which I could grow gracefully. I wasn’t looking for a glamorous character and I think his Dolores is an ideal fit. I don’t think San Francisco Opera will have any trouble filling the theater because I’ve never had so many people come up to me to say they couldn’t wait to see the opera. I’ve even heard it from folks who have never been to an opera before. They’ve read the book or they’ve watched the movie. That story is part of popular consciousness. It’s an interesting work and the stage settings, which I’ve just now seen, are wonderful. Stage Director James Robinson has given us a thoughtfully planned production that makes the opera work.

MN: What kind of production is it?

DZ: It’s a production that tells the story. I think that concept productions are just a phase that will pass. I’m sure today’s director’s concepts will be replaced by something else in the future. Do you know what I think is going to happen? As we get more and more sophisticated special effects, opera companies will be able to do more realistic productions. Realism will then become a new craze. Since operas have not been done that way for a while, the new realistic productions will be considered works of genius.

MN: When did you know you would be singing Dolores Claiborne?

DZ: About a year go, or before that, actually. There had been talk of turning that book into an opera for a long time, maybe ten years. At this point, we are in a collaborative phase and I think Tobias is paying special attention to what will make me sound good. Everybody wants this to be a great show so it’s important to see that each of us has what we need. Making it the best possible show is all that counts. I told him where my best range is. I noted what I do best and what I don’t do as well, so he wrote Dolores for me with that in mind. It’s tailored to my voice.

The part is pretty big but not as long as Wagner’s Isolde. The opera is based on the book rather than the movie and it doesn’t have such a happy ending, but it’s a wonderful role based on a fascinating book. I wanted to play the part of an unglamorous woman. Glamor has its place in opera, but it isn’t the only possibility. Old people have lives, fat people have lives, and disabled people have lives, too. Many of them can be set in operas. Leading roles don’t always have to be sung by pretty ingénues. I thought I would like a role designed for me and it’s happening! San Francisco Opera is staging it and I’m very excited about it. Once it’s been seen there, I think many other opera companies will want to produce it because this opera will speak for itself.

MN: Is it more difficult to learn a role in a contemporary opera than a new role in a well known one?

DZ: It’s all hard. When you do something at a very high level it’s never easy.

MN: What is a singer’s responsibility if a rehearsal is not going well?

DZ: You have to remember that there are people who only do what they are told and never have much to say. I’m not a difficult person in the sense that I have to be in control. It’s not that, but if something is simply not working, I always address it. If everything is working well it doesn’t matter who is in charge. The bottom line is that we have to please the audience because basically they provide us with employment. Even composers have to please the audience. Ticket buyers have to feel that they are getting their money’s worth. That does not involve playing down to the lowest denominator. It’s high quality performances that bring converts to opera. If you bring in a new audience and you don’t perform at a high level they will not come back. A good performance happens when each and every one in the production is good at what they do and works hard to do his or her best. You might have a good stage director and a poor conductor or it might be the other way round. You might have a fine director, an excellent conductor, and a star singer who upstages colleagues because he or she can get away with it. Some things just happen: an artist gets sick, the set was improperly made, or the budget no longer allowed what was planned. Sometimes you don’t know where the monkey wrench is going to come from!

MN: Have you found many serious dramatic voices for your institute?

DZ: Yes, we have found a significant number of large and unusual voices. We look for different skills from different age groups. For the very young, raw talent is enough. They may not have musicianship, but they have to be musical. They may not know another language, but they have to have an ear for sound. We have discovered that dramatic voices show up very early. By the time a girl is seventeen or eighteen, you know if she will have a dramatic voice. With boys it can vary more. We had one who was a heldentenor at fifteen. With others, we might not be sure until they are nineteen.

We also take rank beginners up to age twenty-three at the Conservatory Level, but they have to have certain abilities as well as prodigious voices. If they don’t read music and have never sung opera, even if they have the right talent, it will take them three years to catch up with their colleagues. Our Emerging Singer Level is for students from twenty-four to thirty-two years of age. Here I sometimes make an exception for those who have truly exceptional voices. This group is for singers who have finished school but have not yet established careers. They don’t have management and probably don’t have more than one contract. They are not yet sure they will have singing careers. One of our voice teachers, Darrell Babidge, has managed to get some of these singers engagements on the international level. He is the director of our Emerging Singers and Young Professionals division. The Young Professional Level is for managed singers who have some contracts and just need the finishing touches before they make their debuts. Sometimes they come for specific projects or to work on stylistic matters.

We help students get into schools and we help them when they get out of school. We help them get into programs and we are there if they need us when they come out. We also have some joint ventures with opera company programs but our relationship with each company is different, just as each individual singer is different. Although there are dramatic voices out there, right now most of them just don’t make careers. That’s the problem we’re trying to fix. It will be nice to have a successor. We have a stage director from Italy who coaches diction and stages opera scenes in Italian with the students. Another Italian coach works on stylistic matters. We teach our students what makes an aria stylistically Verdi. That’s important. People have been paying less attention to style lately, so we are making a major effort to make sure it is imparted to our singers. The world is becoming smaller and the provincial sounds are going away.

MN: Who are some of your graduates?

DZ: Rachel Willis just had a major success as the Countess in The Marriage of Figaro at Covent Garden. This summer she is singing Elsa opposite the Lohengrin of Jonas Kauffmann in Salzburg. Issachah Savage, who is in the Merola Program, will be singing Radames in Aida for Houston. What makes our program unique is our age range. We cover both younger and older students than most opera companies, but we only deal with dramatic voices. Since we deal with diamonds in the rough, we lose more people than programs that look for polished singers to begin with. We also get bigger winners that way.

MN: Do you come in contact with many people who have never seen an opera?

DZ: You’d be surprised. I know lots of scientists and geologists, many of whom have never been to an opera. I have many interests that go outside of opera. My art friends like opera, but some of my other well-educated friends don’t know much about it.

MN: What is your favorite medium for painting?

DZ: I really like watercolors. Occasionally, I use some gouache, but I’m a very fast painter and watercolors suit my style. I’m fascinated with washes and I like working in layers. At first glance it might look like I’m laying the paint on thickly, but I’m not. Right now, however, I’m concentrating on Dolores Claiborne and the Institute because it’s all I have time for at the moment.

MN: Do you also compose?

DZ: When I finish Dolores Claiborne I go back to working on The Road to Zion, the composition I wrote for the Carmelite Monastery in Reno. It will be presented in San Jose, California to celebrate the 600th anniversary of the birth of St. Teresa of Avila and it will be played at the National Symposium of American Carmelite Nuns. All the national representatives will be in San Jose for the concert. The piece will also be recorded. There is a version for a large chorus and another for chamber group. Much of the text is in Teresa’s own words. The first of its three sections is called Teresa Encourages the Silkworms. She likened the development of the soul to the progress of the silkworm becoming a butterfly. The worm does not know it is progressing until it spreads its wings and takes flight. In the same manner the soul does not realize it is making progress until it is able to leave the body behind.

I modeled my work on chants from Herez. In it, the nuns sing their office in the way it is done in Spain. They begin with Psalm 84, which talks about the desire for spiritual union with God. Then a solo voice sings a poetic paraphrase of the saint’s words in which she explains one of her mystical experiences. That is followed by an interlude for string quartet, harp, and piano that features the cello. It starts out almost like the dark night of the soul. Someone, who is longing for God and wondering if there is a God, is not getting any answers. Finally, the soul makes the connection and takes flight.

When Teresa then wonders how such grandeur could come to as lowly a soul as hers, God replies that what He has made in His image is not lowly. Then, a small group of nuns returns to the chapel to sing of their longing. By this time they are wailing because of their frustration at not getting any closer to their goal and they wonder if Teresa simply made up her tale. Then, a part of the chorus sings that Christ has no body now but yours, no hands, no feet on earth, but yours. Suddenly the bell rings. It is the rude, obnoxious bell that orders all activity in the convent and sometimes tyrannizes them. The rest of the nuns come into the chapel and sing the finale in which they all realize that the mystical can also be found in the mundane, even the routine singing of the office.

MN: Will you be seen Live in HD from the Met during the 2013-14 season?

DZ: Yes, I will be singing Ježibaba in Dvořák's Russalka on
February 8, 2014. People should realize that the Live in HD presentations are a different art form. I think it will eventually follow its own trajectory. Right now it’s a hybrid of live performance and video that’s too much of both and not enough of either. When singers are being videoed, they have to make choices between pleasing the opera house audience and the people in the cinemas. Sometimes what would look good to the Met audience would be far too big for video. You can convey tons of meaning with a lifted eyebrow in a video, but the audience in the opera house would not even see it. HD is a new art form that his not yet matured. Right now opera companies are still trying to find their feet with it.

MN What will you be singing after Dolores Claiborne?

DZ: I go to Houston for Amneris in Aida and then I will take an eight-week vacation. I’ve not had a vacation in several years and I really need one. I’ve been doing all my projects non-stop for a long time, so I’ll just crash for two weeks and then record my composition.

MN: Do you have an amusing anecdote for us?

DZ: When I sing Ježibaba I have a mechanical cat on my shoulder in one scene. Its head rotates and its tail moves from side to side. It digs into my shoulder and its motor makes a whine. In the scene, I’m singing and throwing things into a cauldron. One time, I hit the cat’s head with a wooden spoon and it fell off but the body was still moving. I had to finish the scene with a headless cat, so I shrugged my shoulders and tossed the head into the cauldron.

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