Dolora Zajick about her Institute for Young Dramatic Voices

Dolora Zajick is known to audiences all over the world as one of the greatest dramatic mezzo-sopranos ever to grace the opera stage. What those audiences may not know is that she founded an organization whose mission is to find and develop dramatic voices so that opera companies of the future will have an adequate supply of young artists ready to sing those wonderful full-blooded roles.
MN: Why did you start the Institute for Young Dramatic Voices?
DZ: There are several reasons why I wanted to start IYDV. For one thing, although there are now more people on this planet than there have ever been before, there are fewer dramatic voices. Something is wrong with that equation. I thought there needs to be some sort of helping hand so that dramatic voices don’t fall through the cracks in the system as they advance through their various stages of development. In 2006, when Sarah Agler, Rosemary Matthews and I founded the Institute, we conducted an interesting experiment. We auditioned singers aged sixteen to thirty so as to have a broad spectrum for a couple of master classes. Instantly, we discovered dramatic voices in the group aged sixteen to twenty-one, but none over age twenty-one.
Then we discovered that we were already losing dramatic voices at the high school level. The reason was that these kids wanted to fit into their high school choirs so they shut their voices down. Students with large voices are the most apt to be left out of a cappella choirs, so they tend to think they don’t have talent. We auditioned a sixteen-year-old bass that had a large voice and was quite mature for his age. His low and high notes were wonderful but everything in the middle was flat and insipid. It turned out that the middle range was where he was trying to fit in with his choir. He quit that group and we placed him in an adult chorus that was doing Messiah, so he got to learn coloratura and sing a solo. In letting his voice be what it naturally was, his mid-range came back.
We also lose dramatic voices at the conservatory level. It’s hard to cast large voices together with smaller ones, so some dramatic singers may get less stage time than more lyric singers. Sometimes the dramatic voices get left on the back burner. Some large-voiced singers don’t develop the acting skills expected of them because they don’t get as much stage experience as their lyric-voiced counterparts. I don’t want to bash conservatories, but there are some forces within some of them that that work against the development of dramatic voices. Another problem is that when a school gets a big donation, often one-half goes to instrumental music and the other half to vocal music. Most people don’t understand that educating a singer takes ten times the money needed to train an instrumentalist.
MN: How early can you spot a dramatic voice?
DZ: I was surprised to learn how early dramatic voices revealed themselves. You can discover them in kids as young as fifteen. Two years ago a fifteen-year-old boy opened his mouth and auditioners’ mouths fell open at the sound they heard. It was an adolescent sound, but it was enormous. By the time students are twenty or twenty-one, we know what their voices are. They may not know how to use their voices and their ranges may go up or down. The timbre can change, too, but the size is already present. With boys, the sooner the secondary sex characteristics set in, the more likely the voice will be lyric. With a more “gangly” teenager who takes longer to mature and has late growth spurts, there is a chance that the voice will evolve into a large voice. There are always exceptions, however. It also surprised me that the youngest female with a dramatic voice that we have ever found was seventeen, whereas the youngest dramatic male was only fifteen.
MN: Why is the education of singers so expensive?
DZ: You can’t put twenty-five kids in a classroom for six hours a week of French and expect each to have grasped the intricacies of French diction well enough to sing a French aria in Paris. That just won’t happen. You have to bring in people at the top of the business to work with each student, even if it’s just for two or three weeks. There is inertia in big organizations because they need innumerable rules to function. Also, there is a lot of politicking that leaves the needs of young singers at the bottom of the pile. Certainly, there are many good people teaching at conservatories, but they tend not to be grouped together. My idea is to take coaches and teachers who really know what they are doing and bring them together with the best young dramatic voices we can find. First of all, we need to find young people whose voices have the potential to be dramatic. When we put them together with some of the best teachers and coaches, we can’t help but have a winning combination.
I asked myself what I would like to have had available to me when I was in my twenties. I would have loved to work with a coach from Dresden, La Scala, or the Met and I would have loved acting classes. At the Institute, kids get acting every day and we bring in the best coaches we can find. This summer we had coaches from all over the world. I wanted our singers to be exposed to native speakers, people who understand the opera world in their respective countries. That speeds up the process for young singers. They get authentic input when they have coaches from the countries where the languages of the operas are spoken.
At our Institute, each student gets a lesson or a coaching every single day. That and our acting classes make us different from other programs. Our acting teachers are highly qualified people who work in straight theater and normally teach professional actors. They really know their craft, as do our musical coaches. Acting is an important part of a young singer’s training that wasn’t a big deal when I went to school.
MN: How does a student learn to choose the right teacher?
DZ: We want students to learn the underlying principles between different techniques of teaching singing. That’s what our team teaching is about. A student may be having trouble with the upper passaggio. He may have four different people telling him about the changes he needs to make in the same lesson. They may all have the same answer or they may have different answers. Different people may approach the problem from different angles. Upon hearing the possibilities, the student can then figure out what works for him. Teachers learn from each other, too, and their lessons improve. I know I’ve gotten better as a result of team teaching.
We have a ratio of two students per teacher. Our people believe so strongly in the program that they work for an honorarium. They earn a great deal more at their schools and opera companies during the rest of the year. We are most grateful to have these quality people working for us. This year, 2014, is the first in which the Institute’s program began to resemble my original vision. Its level has shot up dramatically. Now we need to keep up the number of students we take so as to accommodate the number of coaches we need in order for the Institute to function. From any group of students there are always some that you know definitely have dramatic voices, but even in that group there may be people who have trouble learning and applying the functions necessary for the profession. We give them a reasonable time to try to resolve their problems. Then there are those whose voices have turned out to be lyrical. We can’t keep them but we help them get appropriate placement.
MN: How do your various levels function?
DZ: The Opera Discovery Program is for students aged 15-17; The Introductory Program for ages 18-22; the Intermediate Program for ages 18-26; the Emerging Artists Program for ages 24-33; and the Young Professionals Program for ages 27-36. There is no age limit for the American Wagner Project.
DZ: Our Opera Discovery Program is really a separate entity from which we cull graduates to continue as part of the regular Institute. The Introductory Program is designed for singers aged eighteen to twenty-two who can’t read a note of music and have never before taken a voice lesson. It’s for singers with potentially dramatic voices that start late. We’ve gotten some good singers out of it. Some singers aged twenty-two and under can make up their deficits. Others cannot. In some ways it’s like the Discovery Program but for older students. Our goal is to discover talent and we know that sometimes one finds a gold mine “outside the box”. We’ve found a couple of good dramatic singers that way. I was almost twenty-two when I started. That isn’t too late.
IYDV is an umbrella for several programs. Luana De Vol runs the American Wagner Project and she makes the decisions for it. She has no age cut off because opera companies have to look harder for Wagner singers that they do for those who can sing Verdi. Luana is actually in charge of two divisions: The Wagner Project and the Wagner Division of the Intermediate and Emerging Singer levels. Also, like everyone else, she works with the Opera Discovery group.
This year I took a chance asking the big-name coaches to work with the Discovery kids. I was pleasantly surprised when they said they enjoyed working with them. (She followed that with a hearty laugh). When coaches from La Scala enjoy working with the singers in the Discovery and Intermediate Programs that says something. These are students we have had from the beginning and in whom we have tried to inculcate a strong work ethic.
Sometimes teachers, coaches, and staff don’t realize how young some of our students really are because they are precocious, and they expect mature behavior from the teenagers. Especially when dealing with artistic types, we have to remember that their problems may be close to the surface. We have to go out of our way to protect these kids. Often it is the most eccentric kid who will have the most to say as an artist. Until these youngsters learn to channel their eccentricities into art, it’s our job to help them get to a level of equilibrium before they go to other places.
MN: Is there a dramatic voice body type?
DZ: We’re been measuring bodies to see if there is a dramatic voice body type. Generally dramatic voices are found in singers with large torsos. Basically, it is the size of the chest that matters. The singer’s torso has to be large enough to enclose large lungs that will supply the power for the voice. A singer needs not only the vocal folds and focus, but also lungpower to support the sound. An opera singer also needs good musculature in the torso. Actually, the strength of that body trunk musculature is more important than the size of the torso because it is where vocal control is created.
Another thing we discovered is that different torso shapes require different muscles for support. In a person with a short, wide, round torso, the place where they will feel the most muscle engagement will be quite high because the ribcage is short. Singers with long torsos are more likely to make the most use of their back muscles. Singers with average length torsos are apt to make the most use of their abdominal muscles. At IYDV we don’t believe that one size fits all. We don’t want cookie-cutter singers that sound alike. We want our singers to sound like the individuals they are.
There’s a reason we have seven voice teachers. We have a voice teacher to cover every age and every level of development. Generally, singers will gravitate to the teacher with whom they make the most progress. We also offer mid-year workshops in different cities to help Institute students keep current with what they have learned and ready for the next summer.
MN: What is your future vision for the Institute?
DZ: We want IYDV to become a school without walls. We are not attached to any company. Since we are an adjunct program, not a replacement program, we’re not out to raid anyone. Timing is important to us and we are now beginning to form important partnerships with different companies. I think that is where some important changes in the industry can take place. We have found that there were a great many people who have wanted change, but we had to find them. I just facilitated bringing some of the most capable teachers and coaches together. It was interesting to see how people from different opera houses were happy to collaborate in our program.
I also want the program to become a symposium for teachers and coaches. We all learn from each other. I’ve learned a great deal from team teaching and observing other teachers’ lessons. A great many of the coaches and teachers enjoy that aspect of the Institute as well. I want everyone’s time at the Institute to be a positive learning experience.
Eventually people will understand what we are all about. Then, I think we’ll either have real friends or real enemies. (She says with a chuckle).

product_title=Dolora Zajick talks about her Institute for Young Dramatic Voices
product_by=An interview by Maria Nockin
product_id=Above: Dolora Zajick [Photo by David Sauer]