Joan Dornemann and the International Vocal Arts Institute: : An Intense Training Program for Today’s Singer

The list of alumni of the International Vocal Arts Institute includes some of the most employed and employable singers today. And it is no accident that many of them are on the roster of the country’s most prestigious house, the Metropolitan Opera, where the institute’s co-founder, Joan Dornemann, has worked for the past four decades.

“A great deal of my experience at the Met is with the big operas,” Dornemann says of her career as prompter, which began in part due to the encouragement of her friend, Montserrat Caballé. “It’s with Gioconda and Aida,” she continues, “all of the big operas that you really can only do with people who are older and experienced, and I love that part. It’s very exciting to work with all the great singers I’ve worked with and the great conductors to do these huge, magnificent operas. I’m doing Aida tonight and I can’t wait, even after doing a hundred.”

But Dornemann also has a gift for nurturing young talent, a gift that is appreciated by many a young singer facing the challenges of the profession, such as tenor Jonathan Blalock.

“Just last week I jumped in for an ailing colleague in Barber of Seville,” Blalock shares. “I only had a week to prepare the role of Almaviva, and the first person I called was Joan Dornemann. The way she helped me approach the recitatives helped me tremendously. Her understanding of the Italian is impeccable, from the grammatical rules to the colloquialisms and subtle nuances. She shares tips on how tenors have sung it on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera for the past few decades.”

Blalock is an alumnus of International Vocal Arts Institute, which Dornemann cofounded with Metropolitan Opera Conductor Paul Nadler in 1986. (Dornemann is artistic director and Nadler is director of musical activities.) The ongoing support Blalock received from Dornemann may be an example of what she means when she tells prospective participants, “If you get into this organization, you don’t get out.”

Dornemann’s two pursuits are not diverse, as both revolve around helping singers to get the job done. “She has saved my neck on many, many occasions,” says longtime IVAI faculty member and veteran Met mezzo soprano Mignon Dunn of Dornemann’s tenure as prompter. Dunn, who sang no fewer than 650 performances at the Met and has taught for many years at the Manhattan School of Music exemplifies the stellar faculty of IVAI, which in past years has included Diana Soviero, Ruth Falcon, Judith Forst, and a large number of acclaimed coaches, many of whom also work at the Met.

“The good thing about it is that Joan trusts the people she hires,” says Dunn. “I think that she leaves it kind of to us. It’s not that anybody gets short changed, but if someone needs an extra lesson or you’re working on something you really want to work on, it’s a great thing to have that time. If you need to work with somebody three days in a row, you can. It’s a marvelous team who really get along really well. We respect each other and we work well together. There’s no infighting. It’s a very special thing at a very high level.”

Offering teaching that comes not only from pedagogic ability but also performance experience is a priority of Dornemann. “You can really give them the benefit of experience,” she says. “Show them things that would take them years to learn, explain things to them that they might not see. I didn’t understand things about Bohème for 10, 20 years and I can just tell them now, and they can go build on that. It’s so complicated to prepare an opera. If you have somebody to really help you—to show you how to study, to show you what things mean, to show you how to use the language in a more efficient way—it’s like watching a light bulb go off in their brains.”

In the past, the program has taken place in consecutive months of the summer in Virginia, Tel Aviv, and Montréal, but parts of the program are somewhat in transition. Plans are being made for a new locale for the program in the States, and the program in Israel is also under some revision. At the time of this writing, Montréal is the only confirmed location for 2015. Auditions for the program take place in November at various locations and, in some cases, by video. Dornemann describes the restructuring and plans for new locales as exciting and says of Montréal, “It’s a great place to work. The double language, the European-ness of the city is very good for the singers from America. And we will bring some Israelis as well.”

The number of singers in the program varies, as does the expense, which in past years in Montréal has run around $2,600. “If you add up the price of a voice lesson every day (which in New York frequently goes at $200 or more), and a coaching every day (which generally goes at $85 or $125), and acting lessons, and rehearsal—it comes out to being an extraordinarily good deal,” she says. “But I must say, singers are very clever at raising money. We write letters urging them to raise money however they can. They have to make a list of the 10 richest people in town and we draw up a nice business letter. I wish that we had enough supporters to make it not necessary to charge them. There are a few programs that do that, and that’s wonderful. I wish that we could.”

There are several things that seem to distinguish IVAI from similar programs, one being that the students comprise a range of ages and professional abilities—something which soprano alumna Joanna Tabor (2007) found a terrific attribute. “I found it extremely beneficial to work with singers who were in different stages of their careers, namely those who were already in residency at major opera houses,” Tabor says. “Being taught what is expected of young artists while at graduate school is nothing compared to having the opportunity to personally observe and speak to artists who already work in the professional realm.”

The decision to include these varied levels grew out of conversations Dornemann had with illustrious professionals such as Mirella Freni and Caballé. “They told me what was important when they were coming up was that there were people who were ahead of them and people who weren’t up to their level yet,” Dornemann says. “So, they weren’t completely at the end of the line. There were some people who looked up to them and there were some people for them to look up to. I remember Sherrill Milnes telling me that when he went to the Met, Robert Merrill was a great source of advice and counsel.

“So we have several singers between 18 and 22 who are enormously talented and very inexperienced, and the other group is about 24 to 32,” she continues. “They are already doing an opera in a big theater so that they can prepare for it, or they’re trying a new repertoire, or honing their performing skills for what they have to do the next year.”

It is not unheard of for singers to return several years in a row, such as mezzo soprano Maya Lahyani and tenor David Lomeli, who returned to the program five and seven summers running, respectively. The ability to do full productions of roles they were preparing (in one case, covers for the lead in Werther with San Francisco Opera) is part of the performance-rich agenda of the program, which does at least one full production a year but next year may perhaps do as many as two or three.

“We do a gala concert, and this year I hope we will do a gala concert with orchestra. And we do solo pieces with a string quartet and soprano, baritone, or whatever. Because we find working without a conductor, putting a singer together with instrumentalists, and him having to become simply one of the musicians—how they want to rehearse, how they want to interpret the piece, how they want to put their imagination to it—it’s so good for them,” Dornemann explains. “Because they’re so used to having somebody tell them how to do it all the time, and it really fosters their own musical personalities, which I find today they’re a little reluctant to do. If I say, ‘Come on. What’s your idea for this? How do you want to do it? What do you think it says?’ [They say,] ‘Well, the conductor is going to tell me.’ They get a little reluctant to use their own imagination and their own intuition for fear they’ll be wrong. So we’re trying to go to wonderful instead of right.”

Soprano Chen Reiss is one of many Israeli singers to benefit from the program. “Growing up in Israel, IVAI was the event of the summer,” says the singer, who has now performed at major houses around the world and released her first two solo albums. “I was 14 years old when I first attended masterclasses given by Joan Dornemann. At age 16, I sang in the choir of the IVAI in the productions of I puritani and Tales of Hoffmann. When I was 20, I first participated as a soloist and already sang a leading part, Carolina in Cimarosa’s Il matrimonio segreto. At the time, I was also studying in New York and took regular lessons with Joan Dornemann and other faculty members like John Norris, Richard Barrett, William Woodruff, and more.” Reiss is currently a student of Ruth Falcon. She speaks from personal experience when she says, “IVAI has something to offer for students at all levels.”

The program lasts just less than a month, and when asked how she prioritizes what to work on with the students, Dunn answers, “You work as hard as you can and just steer them in the right direction. Is it something they’re doing with their breath, with their placement? You try to zero in on the things that they can start learning. Singing is not a secret. Singing is a habit. And you’re not going to totally change their outlook, but you can give them opportunities and open their eyes about what would be best for them. Because I have performed so much, I’m certainly not going to let the language not be correct. I want the music to be correct. I want them to know what they’re singing about. We work on scales and vocalises.

“You’re not going to change the world in three weeks,” Dunn continues, “but you can try. The good thing is you can be intense. They really work, the students who come. The ones who really do well fix a lot of mistakes in the program. They fix things they’ve been doing wrong but haven’t had time [to address].”

Tabor, who is now an AGMA member and sings with the San Francisco Symphony Chorus as well as doing other solo work in the San Francisco Bay Area, says that IVAI gave her a true picture of what to expect from the business of singing. “Of all the programs I’ve done, this was the one that really cut through the b.s. and let you know what you, specifically, need to do if you want to make a name for yourself in this art form,” she says.

“People find out who they are, where they are, and what they need,” Dunn agrees. “We have people who teach acting, who teach relaxation techniques, because everybody needs different things. Nobody is a robot. The body is not like an electric button and it’s going to work the same every day. It’s really intense and it’s really interesting. It’s a pleasure. You’re never looking at the clock. It’s just a matter of ‘how much can we get done?’”

As with many training programs, the relationships forged at IVAI have a way of continuing in the professional world—though, perhaps, in this case at a notably high level. Blalock, who recently apprenticed two summers in Santa Fe, says that over the past few years he has “worked with IVAI pianists, conductors, directors, and singers” at various regional houses and at his debut in a world premiere opera at the Kennedy Center for Washington National Opera.

“I’ve built friendships with people who live all over the world,” he says. “Thanks to these beautiful and generous colleagues, I’ll always have a couch to crash on in Montréal, Stuttgart, Berlin, Tel Aviv. I keep in touch with singers who excelled in their training there and are now debuting in fabulous places like the Metropolitan Opera.”

Tabor also speaks of close personal friendships that last beyond the summer. These ongoing relationships are one of the fruits of the program that most pleases Dornemann.

“They know that throughout the world, they can call so-and-so who was also in IVAI who will tell them about an audition in this place or can give them a place to stay, and there’s this whole network of friends from all of these years who, around the world, have these safe houses and safe places and really good friends,” she says. “And I never thought that would be one of the results, but it really is terrific to see this bonding together of people of every race, every religion, from every place in the world.

“I think sports and opera go a long way toward being close together, and being very human together, and understanding each other’s humanity,” she continues. “We did a program in Japan for three years and we had students from Korea, and China, and the U.S., and everybody learned how to eat everybody else’s breakfast. It was better than the U.N. It bonds people together in a way that I think will augur for a better future in some respects.”


Dornemann on Ego and the Singer

“They have to get one. There are institutions of learning that I find reprehensible because they mount their singers’ egos so highly that they are next to impossible to work with. They’re defensive. They’re difficult. They don’t like to be told what to do. They don’t like to be asked what to do. And as a result, they don’t get the help they deserve. People are not eager to help. Then, on the other hand, there are some who can’t take a step without their teacher’s approval and are so teacher dependent, and that is not good. It’s like raising your children.

“You want them to know that you’re there in case, but that they are sufficient unto themselves. They have to have built enough confidence to have an ego, and I think the only way to do that is to get out there and perform. And when they’re in a place where they can only perform once a year, or they can’t perform at all until they’re in their graduate studies . . . I think the more you get out there and perform, the more your ego builds constructively, I tell them, instead of asking the judge, ‘What did I do wrong?’ ask, ‘What did you like about my voice, about my performance?’ So at least you get a good comment. ‘Oh, he liked my high notes—oh good.’ That gives you confidence and helps to boost your ego in a healthy way.”

Dornemann on Attitude in the Workplace

“I can tell you the advice I got from Sherrill [Milnes], who said, ‘Smile, and don’t stop smiling until you get home. And if there’s something you don’t like, call your mother.’ Andy Velis was a fabulous character tenor (at the Met), and he said, ‘Joan, I’ll tell you the secret of the theater.’ He pointed to the stage. ‘I’m gonna go out there, and a light is going to be on the stage, and that’s where I have to go stand. But before me is gonna go a donkey. And if he leaves a lot of crap where I have to go into the light, then I will see the true problem of the theater: how to get into the light and stay out of the crap!’ Actually he said, ‘out of the merde!’ That was such a blessing. It means don’t gossip, don’t fight, don’t be so opinionated—unless your life depends on it. Be polite. Say hello to everybody.

“Plácido Domingo is such a gentleman. He comes into a room and he says hello to every single person. Whether that person is a super, or a cover, or a star. Every single one. It’s such a gracious way of being. This is a kind of European art form, and it really needs manners. It makes it nice for everybody who is under such stress all the time.

“I learned from a wonderful tenor, Charlie Anthony. He paid every single person a compliment every day. He always said something nice to me. ‘Hey, I like your shoes’ or ‘You got a nice haircut.’ Something nice. And it just relaxes the temperature. Somebody saying to the pianist, ‘Hey, you really play great.’ Everybody needs that in the theatre. It was such precious information to me.

“It’s a very intimate world. You have to walk up to people you don’t know and sing love words to them and you’ve gotta be as comfortable as you can be. I ask all the tenors and baritones which sopranos they like to sing with, and I was so surprised when so many said, ‘I like to sing with Montserrat.’ And I asked, ‘Why?’ and they said, ‘Because she smiles at me like I’m the greatest singer alive.’ She was the one who insisted that I go learn how to prompt. It makes a nice combination, because working with the singers all through the rehearsal and knowing where the strong points are and maybe where they are not—if nothing else, just being able to be there and smile and say, ‘Yes, yes, good.’ And everybody has told me how valuable that is, and just knowing that somebody is there, just in case.”

Dornemann on a Changing Marketplace

Dornemann’s book, Complete Preparation, written with Maria Ciaccia, is out of print but still available and it includes sage advice for the auditioning singer. When asked how she might update the book, which was written in 1992, Dornemann said that what is still essential is “a really good solid vocal technique in a voice that has some individuality—you can say, ‘Wow, her voice is really very ____’ and put a word there.”

But, she continues, “The visuality has arisen 100 percent. It is so much a part of everything now, so that if you don’t really make every effort to look as if you could be on TV, you had better have one of the greatest voices in the world. Also, there’s so much media—everybody knows everybody now. Everybody knows about everybody. I was talking to Deborah Voigt, and our feeling was that there is too much being shown that is not well chosen. I would advise people to put on Facebook and those things, only those things that they are really doing well and not just half a lesson that was kind of OK, because everybody sees it. I’m not sure, but I think it’s not an exactly safe thing to do. People do a concert and even if most of it was good and something was really not good, it shouldn’t be out there.

“I think the other problem is that it’s so easy to see, now that we are doing so many auditions by video and a computer, I think it’s lacking a real resonance of a space—and without a space, voices just don’t sound the same. I’m trying to figure out how to solve this problem because we’re missing an acoustic in so many of these preliminary audition videos. It’s a blessing in some ways—and in other ways, it’s really creating a different kind of market almost.”

Lisa Houston

Lisa Houston is a writer and dramatic soprano who divides her time between Berlin and Berkeley. She recently performed Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder with the Kensington Symphony Orchestra and the title role in The Last Diva on Broadway with the Leipzig Kammeroper. She can be reached at