The mezzo sings Ulrica this month in the Met’s new ‘Ballo in maschera’
by Martin Bernheimer
Dolora Zajick may be one of a dying breed—a genuine dramatic mezzo-soprano. Note the crucial adjective: dramatic. She may have a competitor or two at the highest international level. Stephanie Blythe, 17 years younger, springs to mind. So, after a more limited fashion, does Ewa Podleś, born a month later than Zajick. Still, after a remarkably long and consistently successful career, Zajick shows few if any signs of diminishing returns. Although she has sung—and still sings—in houses all over the world, the Metropolitan Opera has served essentially as her home base. Her New York career began in 1988 in the same way as her current season, with Azucena in Il trovatore. It was a stellar start. James Levine conducted, and her associates included Eva Marton and Sherrill Milnes. Crucially, her onstage son was none less than the much hyped and possibly miscast Luciano Pavarotti.
‘He wasn’t very nice,’ she grudgingly admits when prodded. Then she proceeds to make generalized excuses for bad backstage behaviour. The problem is usually predicated, she says, on ‘nervous strain and artistic frailty’. As if to prove the point, she voices defence for an (in)famous tenor—name tactfully withheld—who once got carried away and began to strangle her during a performance. ‘Don’t you ever do that again,’ she told him in the wings, apparently con forza. ‘He backed away,’ she recalls, grinning. ‘I’m not a difficult person to work with unless something interferes with the artistic product; then I get distressed.’ But the friction doesn’t always last. ‘The biggest bastards sometimes turn out to be the nicest colleagues—once you stand up to them. In any case,’ she adds, ‘I have real friends in the profession, including those in my own voice type.’
At the start of the current season, she had totalled 210 performances with the Met. In addition to Azucena (September and October), her assignments this autumn embrace not only Ulrica but also Amneris in Aida (December). Zajick has long specialized in the emotional intensity and dynamic complexity of Verdi’s seconda donnas. The inherent range extremes have never posed a problem. She has always sung with natural ease and rich, even tone in all registers, with staggering power where needed yet with poignant lyricism when introspection was suggested.
She is nonchalant about her vocal compass. ‘I used to have a C at the bottom,’ she says, ‘and an F-sharp at the top. Now, on a good day I can only reach a top D’. Only. Peter Gelb has declared that Zajick possesses ‘one of the greatest voices in the history of opera’. In this instance, at least, it is possible to agree with him. Zajick assesses her achievements with less hyperbole, possibly protesting too much. ‘I got the career I went after, the one I wanted. I was never in the top ten, but I was always in the top 18.’ She chose—and still chooses—her repertory carefully, while defying the traditions and constraints of type-casting. She knows how to say no.
Apart from a recent, reportedly imposing, outing as Ortrud in Lohengrin in Los Angeles, she has avoided Wagner, and has no intention of changing that course. ‘I’m not really right for the Brangaenes and Frickas. They don’t really suit me.’ Still, she has undertaken challenges as disparate as the gutsy verismo of Santuzza in Cavalleria rusticana, the saintly placidity of Marfa in Khovanshchina, the bel-canto passion of Adalgisa in Norma, the spooky pathos of the old Countess in The Queen of Spades, and, one of her specialities, the witty witchery of Ježibaba in Rusalka. She beams at the thought of Dvořák’s anti-heroine. ‘I love that character. I don’t get to be funny very often.’
She mimes a cringe when asked to name a favourite role. The cliché is rejected. ‘It changes,’ she declares. Subject closed. She has never attempted Carmen (‘I considered it, but no’) and gave up Dalila after three tries (‘It sits in the lower middle—not the best part of my voice’). Her basic philosophy is candidly straightforward: ‘There are some roles that I can sing better than anybody, and there are some better left to other people.’ She does admit to special fondness for Eboli in Don Carlos. Most mezzo-sopranos dread the part. In addition to requiring much vocal heft and much theatrical heart, Verdi made conflicting demands with the Princess’s two arias. Singers comfortable in the seductive bravura of the Veil Song often come to grief with the tempestuous abandon of ‘O don fatale’. Or vice versa. Zajick, however, is equally convincing in both. ‘I think it may be my best role,’ she admits after a thoughtful pause. ‘The character is actually more interesting than Amneris.’ Sadly, one finds no Eboli on her current calendar. Nevertheless, aficionados can take comfort in her splendid Met recording of 1993 (Sony) or the DVD filmed at La Scala in 2008 (Hardy Classics).
She names three other assignments that please her beyond the norm, all possibly surprising: Léonor in La Favorite, Sara in Roberto Devereux and Adalgisa in Norma. ‘People in America may not regard me as a bel canto specialist,’ she says, ‘but I think I have nailed these roles on the highest level.’ One might worry that an Adalgisa as strong as Zajick could be a problem for the soprano singing Norma. The mezzo demurs when asked to name her happiest partnerships. ‘No, thanks. That’s too dangerous.’ Another subject closed.
Although she is often described as a contralto, she rejects the label. ‘It’s all about tessitura and passaggio; it isn’t a matter of range or timbre. I definitely have a mezzo passaggio.’ This, in other words, is a matter of vocal registration, defining the pitch area that separates head voice from chest voice. In Zajick’s case the transition between registers is astonishingly smooth, the resonance equalized and the break virtually inaudible. ‘Technique,’ she insists, ‘serves the art. The best technique is the one that seems artless.’ Because of her extraordinary top extension, she has been asked to sing Norma herself on occasion. ‘No way,’ she declares. ‘I am not a soprano, and never was.’ Still, she has ventured occasional Zwischenfach parts, notably Lady Macbeth (‘a special case’) and Santuzza (‘short’).
She still savours the prospect of repertory expansion. At the Met in 2005, she created Elvira Griffiths in Tobias Picker’s An American Tragedy. She found the experience ‘interesting’. In San Francisco next year she creates the title role in Picker’s Delores Claiborne. J.D. McClatchy’s text is based on Stephen King’s suspense novel, which, in turn, inspired a memorable film in 1995. The edgy plot concerns a reporter returning to a town where her mother, a maid, has been arrested for the murder of her elderly employer. Kathy Bates played the tormented mother in the film. Picker, who says he has composed ‘a powerful, heart-stopping piece of music theatre for a cast of brilliant voices’, describes the heroine as ‘a character destined for the operatic stage—passionate, desperate, trapped. Pushed to the extreme edge of life, she does what she has to, fearless and forsaken.’ David Gockley, the general director of the SFO, finds Delores and Dolora ‘a perfect match’. Zajick agrees. ‘I need a role that I can age with. In a sense I am the Kathy Bates of opera. Still, I’m not going to play Delores the way she did. I’m not a super-glamorous person,’ she adds, ‘but I do have something to offer.’
Although she has recorded six complete operas, plus the Verdi Requiem, her discography includes only one aria recital, The Art of the Dramatic Mezzo-Soprano (Telarc, 2000). It is most remarkable, perhaps, for an exquisitely controlled high D-flat—pianissimo—at the close of Lady Macbeth’s Sleepwalking Scene. ‘I learned how to do that,’ she explains matter-of-factly, ‘because I had to do that. Then I asked myself how come I didn’t do it before.’ She offers no answer when asked to explain why her discography remains relatively limited. She just smiles faintly, and shrugs. During her formative years Zajick haunted her local library for opera recordings. ‘I couldn’t hear enough,’ she recalls. She says she learned much by comparing and contrasting arias as sung by such predecessors as Schumann-Heink, Minghini-Cattaneo, Stignani, Elmo, Barbieri and Simionato. ‘In very different ways,’ she says, ‘they all were role models.’
Born in 1952—she isn’t coy about it—she originally studied voice while earning two degrees from the University of Nevada in Reno. Her prime mentor was Merle ‘Ted’ Puffer, founder of Nevada Opera. He remained a crucial career influence, despite what she describes as ‘a quirky personality’. Eventually, she followed him to the Manhattan School of Music, where he remained on the faculty until his death in 2003. She credits much of her mature success, however, to Helen Vanni, the former Met mezzo-soprano (emphatically lyric, not dramatic) with whom she continued to polish her art. ‘Puffer taught me the basics; Vanni added elegance.’
Zajick’s breakthrough occurred when she won the bronze medal, despite cold-war obstacles, at the Tchaikovsky Competition in 1982. Soon after returning to the States, she entered the Merola training programme at the San Francisco Opera. The move turned out to be decisive. Her big-time career began in a small way when in 1984 she was cast as the priestess in a San Francisco Aida. Next came the First Maid in Elektra. The director was Regina Resnik, herself an imposing mezzo-soprano (who had begun her long career as a soprano). She became the first of many authorities who told the young mezzo to hold back. ‘She said I was trashing my voice. Well, I’ve been trashing my voice for almost 40 years.’ Zajick giggles.
Her promotion to central roles came a year later. In addition to the minor ‘hojotoho’ echoes of Schwertleite in Walküre, she inherited the major ‘reverenza’ utterances of Mistress Quickly in Falstaff. One critic—actually, this critic—lauded remarkably promising ‘gallon-jug’ tones. Zajick says she savoured the coaching of Geraint Evans, if not the role. ‘Although it was fun, it lay too low for me.’ She never tried it again. At the outset, she still used her real name, Zajic, properly pronounced Bohemian fashion as if it rhymed with ‘lights’. She eventually changed it, reluctantly, because ‘too few people could get it right without coaching’.
It did not take long for Zajick to become a coveted international attraction. Ask audiences in Chicago, Houston, Verona, Rome, Vienna, Paris, Milan, Oviedo, Barcelona and London, for starters. Then ask such conductors as James Conlon, Daniele Gatti, Valery Gergiev, James Levine, Lorin Maazel, Zubin Mehta, Riccardo Muti and Michael Tilson Thomas. Despite her candid no-nonsense nature, she turns discreetly mum when asked to discuss those with whom she works. She cites only two other subjects as interview taboos: politics and religion. Smart interviewee.
Although born in Salem, Oregon, she has long called Reno home. She escapes, when she can, to what is virtually an operatic no-man’s-land. ‘I recharge my batteries by being alone there.’ Unabashedly describing herself as ‘a little bit of a renaissance person’, she gardens, composes music, writes, paints, and, yes, studies Paleolithic art and music. These are serious pursuits, not passing publicity gimmicks. Her greatest extracurricular passion, however, must involve talking to birds. The activity, for her, entails an extensively researched, scientific exploration of avian cognition. Her enlightened obsession stems from an eight-year relationship with a curious scrub jay who visited her garden one day. In a characteristic flight of whimsy, she named her feathered friend Mort (his lifetime mate became Ticia). ‘Mort would come and eat out of my hand. He looked upon me as a social food source. He would talk to me, and I would whistle back the same patterns. We really communicated.’ She beams as she recounts the bonding experience.
Nudged back to the realm of customary human endeavour, Zajick is eager to discuss another pet project, her Institute for Young Dramatic Voices. Founded in 2006 and headquartered in San Diego, California, it addresses—or valiantly tries to address—the current shortage of voices that can do justice to the heavyweight roles of Verdi, Strauss and Wagner—big, luxurious voices, in short, like Zajick’s.
‘We’re not interested in getting people to be dramatic singers who aren’t. We specialize in freaks of nature who have trouble fitting in. It’s not a large group, but we have located some of those special talents and are helping them along the way. We call it the Ugly Duckling Club.’ For three weeks each summer, the ‘club’ offers intensive coaching to singers with large or unusual voices, ages 15 to 36, at varying levels. They work with coaches and teachers who understand the nature of adolescent development. This year’s session was held during June and July in Orem, Utah. In addition to their technical and interpretive lessons, participants are taught about language, movement, stage presence, nutrition, fitness and professionalism. Not just a symbolic presence, Zajick does much of the teaching herself. Institute admission, according to the official syllabus, is ‘based solely on merit and musical potential—regardless of ability to pay’. Tuition, for the most part, is free, ‘thanks to the extraordinarily generous support of donors and sponsors’. A concert marks the end of each session.
Like impresarios everywhere, Zajick admits that filling certain slots can be problematic: ‘It is hard to find Verdi baritones and basses, especially baritones.’ And mezzo-sopranos? ‘The true mark of success,’ she says, ‘will be when I find my real successor.’ It won’t be easy.