Endless Opportunities: : A Conversation with Diane Zola of Houston Grand Opera

Houston Grand Opera is one of the top A houses in the United States. It is also home to one of the top Young Artist Programs in the country. Diane Zola, former Columbia Artists Management, Inc. manager and singer, headed the program until earlier this year, when Hector Vasquez replaced her and she accepted a position as artistic administrator with HGO. In this Classical Singer exclusive, Ms. Zola shares insights about HGO’s Studio, what she loves and hates about auditions, and the key ingredients for having a singing career.

You were a dramatic soprano. Where did you study?

I studied at the University of Michigan, the University of Texas at Austin, and the Mozarteum in Austria.

Did you go on to a career as a singer?

I had a minimal career. I was one of those singers in New York who worked in a law firm and pounded the pavement doing auditions. I did some singing in the States and in Europe.

What made you decide to get into management?

I felt that my career wasn’t going the way I’d hoped, and I had the possibility of taking a job at CAMI [Columbia Artists Management].

What was it like for you to be an artist manager?

After CAMI, I had my own management agency, and then I worked at another agency for five years. But I found that being an artist manager wasn’t always artistically gratifying. You’re never really part of the process. It’s a frustrating job, because there is always someone who is never happy with what you do, either your artists or the presenters. It was not fulfilling.

How did you decide to stop being a manager?

I didn’t really stop, but I was always looking at other, possibly more fulfilling options. I always loved young singers, and I felt that, having been both a singer and an artist manager, I had a lot to offer. When my colleague, Gayletha Nichols, was leaving the Houston Grand Opera Studio to work for the Met, I was asked if I might be interested in applying for the job. I did, and I am now in my fifth season here.

In what ways did your experience as a manager serve you here?

It allowed me to see how singers need to step outside of themselves and realize that often, when they don’t get a job, it’s not about them personally. It’s hard for singers not to take things personally, because their instrument is intangible and it’s part of them.

I always give the example of two different kinds of apples. Some people like Fuji apples and others prefer Granny Smith apples—but they’re both apples! We don’t all have the same taste.

Singers need to look beyond and always move forward, instead of dwelling on why they didn’t get something. They should, rather, try to better themselves by asking: “What can I do to make myself more marketable and more interesting to those who are hiring?”

What can happen is that many singers have too many people they listen to—and often not the right people. Everyone is willing to give advice. That’s another thing I learned as an artist manager: As a singer, you need to have just a small group you can really trust for feedback, and know that no matter how difficult it is, they will tell you if something is not working. Oftentimes, singers love to hear what they think works for them, and they can’t step outside of themselves to listen and observe themselves. It’s a hard life, being a singer!

What would you say are the key ingredients for having a singing career?

First, you have to have an incredible voice, not necessarily perfectly beautiful, but interesting. Then you must have a passion for performing. Everyone sees a certain amount of glamour in being a singer—the stage, the applause, the publicity—but that’s such a small percentage of how you, as a singer, will actually spend your time.

Are you digging deep into the text, and always improving your musical skills? Do you read the novel an opera is based on, or other literature from that time period? Do you go to art museums? Do you take the time to translate the entire opera and understand what is going on throughout all the parts?

There is this whole issue of languages for American singers. We can mimic; we can use the IPA [International Phonetic Alphabet], and our diction can be good, but do we really understand syntax? We can understand words, but what about the meaning in the way they’re put together? It’s all this and more that makes a singer.

What is the age limit for the HGO Studio?

There is no age limit. But [last] year, our singers ranged from 23 to 28. One has to be honest with oneself and say: “This is a young artists’ training program.” If you’re 35 or 40—I’m not saying you still can’t have a career at that age, but a young artists’ training program is probably not the path for you.

David Gockley and Carlisle Floyd founded the HGO Studio as a bridge between academia and the professional life. They found there was a lot that our educational systems were not giving to these young singers. Four years in a university is not a lot of time. This is why these studios were founded.

What does the program offer?

We invite a singer to join us for a year at a time; it’s a nine-month period. The pianists usually stay for two years. The singers receive a stipend, voice lessons every week, language instruction—they have to choose from Italian, French, German or Russian—and we also offer English for foreign students. Some study two languages. This is not just about diction or understanding a role; it’s pure language instruction.

We bring a lot of guest coaches. There are a number of singers who get a membership to the gym. I also pay for some of them to belong to Weight Watchers, because being physically fit is very important to a singer. It’s not just about appearance; it’s also about health and fitness.

We’re also very fortunate here in Houston to have a very generous community—whether it’s people opening up their homes, or coming to help us with our database and entering all the applications before I head out on the road. We have a buddies program where each singer has two buddies, and these people are there to help [the singers] if they need to be picked up from the airport. We have groups that come in and do in-kind work, where they offer their services for free, talk about business, how to manage your money. We try to make this program as complete as possible.

Is the stipend sufficient for the studio singers to live in Houston?

Yes. In addition, we have a lot of in-house and out-of-house gigs they can do for the development department, so they’re paid for those as well. I also get calls for recitals, or, for example, someone is being released to sing with Opera Pacific now. We also offer a lot of opportunities for artists to perform in main-stage productions, because they are all involved in studying and covering roles.

Sometimes we have alternate cast performances. It’s a fabulous opportunity for them to learn roles, to watch the pros work, to be involved with world-renowned directors and conductors. Some years we do a studio production. [Last] year we repeated The Little Prince, which we world-premiered in June 2003, and the majority of the studio artists were involved in that.

We have an incredible music staff here, second to none. The singers get coachings not just for the roles they’re singing or covering at HGO, but for their audition repertoire, or for whatever they need to sing elsewhere, too.

When are the auditions for the HGO Studio?

November—but they take place around the country: Houston, San Francisco, Chicago, Cincinnati, and New York.

How do you manage to stay alert during a long day of auditions?

Well, sometimes we’re in auditions all day and it’s so depressing. People aren’t singing well, or maybe we’ve made bad choices in whom to hear. Then this one person comes in and opens his or her mouth, and it’s like honey. That makes you wake up. This is what I love about auditions, that element of surprise.

What disturbs you in an audition?

Someone who’s unprepared. One time, we had someone offer an aria, and three pages of the aria were missing! That’s disturbing! Preparing well is also part of the job.

It disturbs me to see someone come in and not be pleasant. Some people may have an arrogant air about them, and that’s most likely a defense mechanism, but that puts you off. The thing is, I wish singers would realize that we want them to do well. We want to have a lot of good people to choose from. We, as judges, are on their side. If we didn’t want them to do well, what would be the point in going through all of this?

I always tell singers: “Consider auditions and competitions as performances.” Some say it’s not possible. I say, yes, it is! You need to set the stage. Of course, I don’t want to see overacting, like someone falling to their knees or flailing their arms about. We will always be most interested in the voice, but it helps to see someone display dramatic instincts.

Do education and previous stage experience play a big factor in accepting singers for the studio?

They do. You can often tell where someone has gone to school. Certain schools are better at musical preparation and understanding of styles, as well as giving singers the repertoire that’s right for them. In school, you often end up singing roles that you would not be engaged for in the professional world, so singers get an unrealistic idea of what they should be singing.

Oh, and another thing I find really annoying is when people’s materials are sloppy, whether it’s a written application that I find difficult to read, or a résumé in which opera names are misspelled, or names of colleagues are misspelled. It disturbs me when singers don’t take the time to prepare their materials well. It doesn’t even take that long.

It’s much easier now to update your materials than it used to be. I’ve been to summer programs to hear singers in auditions, and they don’t even have that particular summer program on their résumé yet. That should be the first thing to add, even when you’re in the middle of it.

People have to take responsibility for these things. This is their career, and they have to invest in these details too, not just in their voice.

If somebody ever has a bad audition, would you give him or her another chance?

I’m always willing to give someone a second chance. I was there; I understand what it’s like. The truth is, we remember a bad audition sooner than a brilliant audition. But with that said, I am very open to hearing someone a second, and sometimes even a third time.

Gayletha Nichols, Lindemann Young Artist Program director, spoke of there being extensive communication between the various Young Artist Programs in the United States. She mentioned you compare notes on singers.

Singers all talk amongst themselves, but they don’t think we talk? If someone is doing very well, I’ll get a phone call. If one of our young artists goes out in the summer to Wolf Trap or to San Francisco, I’m going to hear how they’re doing. I think it makes for a more cohesive world for these young singers.

I have a wonderful group of colleagues like Gayletha—there’s also Leonora Rosenberg at the Met, Richard Pearlman [Editor’s note: This interview took place before the unfortunate passing of Mr. Pearlman in April 2006.] in Chicago, Sheri Greenawald in San Francisco, and Felicity Jackson in Florida. We talk to each other and share concerns for someone. A lot of times we all travel to the other company for various reasons and we’ll hear their young artists. Sometimes we’re all vying to have the same young artists in our program. I think it’s great sometimes when we’re all interested in the same person.

Do you ever have singers in the HGO studio who choose to go for a steady, less pressure-filled job in the chorus?

I don’t think being in the chorus is less pressure; it’s a different type of pressure. But none of the studio artists I know do that. We’re very proud of our alumni out there working as full-time singers. Some of them leave here with a lot of work for the next few years in their pockets. Others go to New York and struggle like a lot of other singers. There are no guarantees.

I would say that if you get into [a program], especially one of the training programs I mentioned—the Met, Chicago, San Francisco, or us—it’s maybe a little easier to have doors open for you. People hear you. Our studio artists sing for artistic administrators and general directors coming to see performances here; they audition for them. They’re being heard all the time by a lot of people.

Do you try to cover all Fachs when you pick the singers?

It’s different every year; there’s no set recipe. Of course, we look at who might be returning, when we’re looking to see who to add to the studio. We look at repertoire for the following year, and what roles our studio artists might have the opportunity to perform or cover. Then we might find one or two where the talent is so extraordinary that even though we may not have a lot of work for them on stage, we feel that we can offer them a certain level of training that they’re not going to find in graduate school. So we open our doors to them that way.

When did you start as artistic administrator?

I started on Sept. 12, 2005, and I continued as director of the Opera Studio until the first part of this year, so I had both jobs for several months.

What are your responsibilities?

I work very closely with the general director and music director regarding all artistic plans for the future: repertoire, artists, the negotiation of contracts, [and] also for chorus and orchestra. I’m the representative for AGMA; people come to me if they have complaints or concerns about the company. I will still stay somewhat involved with the Studio as far as advice, especially about repertoire for the Studio artists, and also about management.

What plans do you have for the company in the next five years?

I would say we’re going to stay on a very innovative, interesting track, both repertoire-wise and with artists. I see us continuing to grow, and hopefully even our seasons may expand to more productions.

Any other words of advice for singers?

There are so many words of advice that I would give. I think No. 1 is to study hard, to cover all of your bases, learn your languages, to remember that in addition to being an aurally oriented society, we are also a visually oriented society, and to make sure that you are in good physical shape and health. …

Never feel slighted. If this is meant to happen for you, you have to just keep going on, from audition, to audition, to audition. We have to remember how many auditions Beverly Sills sang at [New York] City Opera before she was ever engaged. Everyone wants instant gratification. There isn’t any instant gratification; it’s a lot of hard work.

When do you think someone should draw the line, if the career is not happening?

I think that’s personal. Actually, it depends on the voice type. The heavier the voice, I would say, the longer you can try to pursue the career. But I think you have to step back and take an honest look at your life, and say: “Am I finding the fulfillment and the joy struggling to do this? Is it worth it? Or is there something else that I could do that would bring me more joy and satisfaction?” And look at your options. There are a lot of options out there. The world is endless.

Maria-Cristina Necula

Maria-Cristina Necula is a New York-based writer whose published work includes the book “Life in Opera: Truth, Tempo, and Soul” and articles in “Das Opernglas,” “Studies in European Cinema,” and “Opera News.” A classically-trained singer, she has presented on opera at Baruch College, the Graduate Center, the City College of New York, UCLA, and others. She holds a doctoral degree in Comparative Literature from The Graduate Center. Maria-Cristina also writes for the culture and society website “Woman Around Town.” To find out more and get in touch, please visit her website.