A Fresh Look at the Institute for Young Dramatic Voices

In the 1950s and 1960s there were many more big dramatic voices singing over the large orchestras of Verdi, Puccini, and Wagner than there are today. There are wonderful singers for Bel Canto and Baroque opera, but a dearth of great performers who can assume the truly dramatic roles. One of the few dramatic voices heard today belongs to mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick, who some years ago decided to work on bringing additional dramatic and spinto voices to the opera stage through her Institute for Young Dramatic Voices (IYDV).

The mission of IYDV has evolved considerably since its beginning in 2006. The current emphasis is on finding those students ages 15 to 36 who have dramatic, spinto, or unusual voices, such as countertenor or basso profundo. IYDV’s endeavor is to provide unusually talented singers with whatever instruction they need to enjoy a successful career. They can be young people who have just discovered that their voices could be right for opera. They can be conservatory students engaged in serious vocal study, or they can be singers on the cusp of promising careers whose skills merely need a bit of fine-tuning.

Administrative Director Sarah Agler, a San Diego voice teacher, began her involvement with IYDV when one of her students asked which singer’s recordings she should listen to. That student, Lori Lewis, was clearly a dramatic mezzo-soprano, so Agler suggested Zajick. When the student looked at the famous mezzo’s website, she discovered she could e-mail her. Having heard that Agler and Zajick attended undergraduate classes in vocal performance together at the University of Nevada in Reno, she asked her teacher to contact the legendary mezzo. Although Agler did not believe that Zajick would remember her, she sent the e-mail. Surprisingly, the singer did remember her and they reconnected at one of Zajick’s performances in Los Angeles. They had dinner together, and Agler attended a masterclass that Zajick gave. The following summer, Zajick said she was going to visit one of their mutual teachers, Rosemary Mathews, and asked if Agler would like to come along for the weekend.

They had a great time in Cache Valley, Utah, and it was there that Zajick presented her idea of starting a program for young singers with dramatic voices. She wanted to start “paying back” in some way. Having given masterclasses at Young Artist Programs across the country, she saw that there was a serious lack of dramatic voices in the emerging generation of singers. Many of the dramatic singers that she did see had problems that should have been dealt with much earlier. In some cases it was almost too late to correct ingrained bad habits, and she wanted to find a way to remedy the situation. Zajick’s first idea was an experiment to see what she, Agler, and Matthews could do if they started working with young dramatic voices. They wanted to see if catching them early made a difference.

IYDV’s first class graduated in 2007, and last year’s class was its seventh. Agler says that each year IYDV still receives a great many applications from students with lyric voices instead of the dramatic talents they are looking for. Many singers think that just because they have full-sized voices they are dramatic. That’s not true—but because of the dearth of dramatic voices at this time, the music industry often pushes them in that direction. There are, however, real dramatic vocal talents out there, and Zajick is determined to find and work with them.

A few of Zajick’s singers are now performing abroad with a great deal of success. IYDV has had students from Italy, Chile, Russia, and the Canary Islands, several of whom will be returning. Some of the institute’s most notable graduates include soprano Rachel Willis-Sørensen and tenor Issachah Savage who are now pursuing successful careers.

Willis-Sørensen has already sung Gutrune in Götterdämmerung and the Countess in The Marriage of Figaro at Covent Garden as well as Donna Anna in Don Giovanni at Houston Grand Opera. As a member of the ensemble at the Semperoper in Dresden, she sang Elettra in Idomeneo, Donna Anna in Don Giovanni, and Vitellia in La clemenza di Tito.

Savage, a graduate of the Merola Program, was also the grand prize winner of the 2012 Marcello Giordani Foundation International Vocal Competition in New York. In November 2013, he sang Radamès in Houston Grand Opera’s Aida opposite Zajick. His engagements for 2014 include performances of Canio in I pagliacci and the tenor part in the Verdi Requiem.

Other participants are also gaining recognition and experience. Solomon Howard, who is in the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program at the Washington National Opera, recently starred as Mohammad Ali in the premiere of Approaching Ali.

Many of the 2013 IYDV participants will be starting their careers over the next few years. The institute’s mission is to guide these singers with special voices until they are ready for the training programs offered by major opera companies. That aspect of its work makes IYDV very different from other training programs. Tenor Robert Watson has gone on to the Merola Program at San Francisco Opera. Although only 21 years old, 2013 Metropolitan Opera National Council Audition Winner Rebecca Pedersen has been offered many opportunities. With the advice of the faculty of IYDV and guidance from her teacher, Darrell Babidge, who is the director of IYDV’s Emerging Singers and Professional division, Pedersen will be able to find the path to a successful career. Another IYDV student, Tyrell Wilde, is a young bass with what his teachers think is a phenomenal vocal talent. He is about to sing his first small role in Salt Lake City.

Large dramatic voices often take longer to train than lyric voices, and singers with dramatic vocal talent are sometimes offered roles before they are ready for them. After many years of schooling, it’s hard for singers to turn down anything that offers a paycheck, so the temptation to sign a contract is tremendous. Teachers may say it’s too early, but singers sometimes accept the engagements anyway.

Zajick truly cares for her pupils in every possible way. She gives masterclasses when she is in New York and invites her summer students to attend. She also holds an informal winter workshop in Reno each year. She writes letters on her students’ behalf from wherever she is. For those who are ready to perform, she finds engagements and helps them get their careers started. 

She really assists them with every aspect of beginning an opera career. If asked, she also helps younger students find the right teacher and the right school. Most importantly, she guides them and teaches each one how to find the right teacher for his or her particular voice. That, of course, is one of the most important skills for a young singer to learn.

During the three-week summer intensive, Zajick is joined by a faculty she has personally chosen. Agler says that they really never had to go far to hire anyone. Many great teachers and coaches have asked to help. They are not exactly volunteers, but the remuneration is more of an honorarium than a paycheck.

Instruction at the program covers every aspect of a singer’s career, from music and stage training to auditioning, looking for jobs, and finding the right agent. For beginners, there is a course in music fundamentals in which they learn how to count and do complex rhythms. With new students, instructors first have to gauge where they are musically and vocally. That way, their teachers know where to start filling in what is missing in a particular pupil’s education.

Agler feels that they have some of the cream of the crop as their faculty. Coaches and instructors include Kathleen Kelly, Anthony Manoli, Terry Lusk, Joel Revzen, Richard Bado, Fabio Sparvoli, Kathryn LaBouff, Marianne Barrett, Laura Bozanich, and Daniela Siena. Voice teachers include Darrell Babidge, Rosemary Mathews, Elaine Scherperel, César Ulloa, Jacob Will, and Badiene Magaziner. Zajick and Agler have been wearing many hats, with both teaching voice and running the program. For next summer, they are happy to announce the addition of Beatrice Benzi, a coach from La Scala, and Luana DeVol, who will be running their Wagner program.

Acting is crucial for today’s opera singers and IYDV’s acting coach, Laura Bozanich, is an equity actress and stage director who teaches serious dramatic theater. Zajick wants to see that her students learn the principles of acting, not just what is taught in Acting for Singers. Students work on acting every day, either in class or on a one-to-one basis, and Bozanich is one of the institute’s most popular teachers.

The summer session offers young singers an opportunity to meet people at the top of the profession who love opera and the big voices that operatic drama requires. People attend each other’s coachings and they learn a great deal from that as well as from their own sessions. Although the summer program is only three weeks long, Zajick stays in contact with her students all year round, and IYDV also conducts informal workshops to help maintain continuity.  

The raison d’être of the program is the care and training of rare voices, so prices for the students are kept as low as possible. Zajick would not want a rare, large, or unusual voice to be lost to opera because the singer is not wealthy, so both tuition and living costs for singers are minimal. As of yet, IYDV does not have an endowment, but it is something the institute would love to establish. Right now it runs its summer program on the year’s donations, which usually amount to about $100,000.

IYDV has been going strong for more than seven years now, and although Zajick is a very busy singer, her dedication shows how very close the institute is to her heart.

Maria Nockin

Born in New York City to a British mother and a German father, Maria Nockin studied piano, violin, and voice. She worked at the Metropolitan Opera Guild while studying for her BM and MM degrees at Fordham University. She now lives in southern Arizona where she paints desert landscapes, translates from German for musical groups, and writes on classical singing for various publications.