Joan Dornemann: : Classical Singer 2005 Coach of the Year

At the recent annual Classical Singer Convention in New York City, Classical Singer magazine honored Joan Dornemann as the 2005 Classical Singer Coach of the Year. Nominated by those with whom she has worked, Ms. Dornemann is making a difference in the lives of singers. One student described her as a “true friend, always a professional, and most of all, a woman with a heart of gold.”

Along with coaching privately in New York City, Ms. Dornemann has worked for New York City Opera and the Metropolitan Opera, and has been involved with the Met’s Young Artists and National Council auditions. Next year Ms. Dornemann marks her 30th anniversary with the Met, where her duties now include prompter, assistant conductor and coach. She also founded the International Vocal Arts Institute (IVAI), which features two-to-four-week courses each summer in Montreal, Canada; Tel Aviv, Israel; San Juan, Puerto Rico; and Burgundy, France.

Ms. Dornemann has worked with such top-tier singers as Luciano Pavarotti, Plácido Domingo, Mirella Freni, Jose Carreras, Sherrill Milnes, Kiri Te Kanawa, Aprile Millo and Montserrat Caballe. Her book, Complete Preparation: A Guide to Auditioning for Opera, includes advice on technical, physical and mental preparation for auditions.

Individual coaching remains a central part of Ms. Dornemann’s career, and she maintains a firm commitment to her singers. She made time in her busy schedule recently for an interview, during the wee morning hours while in Montreal directing her summer program.

Did you grow up in a musical family?

I grew up in a family that had the patience to sit and listen to me play. They were not musicians, but they liked the fact that I wanted to be. My dad found the perfect way to keep me practicing: he just sat there with me. I really liked playing the piano.

At what age did you start to play?

Eight. I played the violin before, and started to play the piano at eight years old. My uncle took me to see a concert of Rubenstein playing, and I thought he was having such a good time that I was going to leave the violin and start the piano.

How did your college experience influence you?

I went to Hofstra University, which is out on Long Island. We had a wonderful theatre there that gave rise to a film director and a stage director—named Francis Coppola and Layney Cazan—and some other people there who were in the theatre department. I was an undergrad and they were grads, but I was sort of allowed to be the slave. There’s a Shakespeare theatre there that introduced me to harpsichord playing, which I immediately adopted as my own true love.

I learned something about theatre. It was a thrilling, thrilling experience to have that kind of a door opened. I was very shy and not very socially skilled, and [theatre] sort of opened up a world that gave me an even better place for fantasy and imagination, and building worlds of my own.

Are you a singer?

No. I am totally not a singer. As a matter of fact, in my audition with Mr. [James] Levine, he asked me to sing a few things, you know, to hear me do the cues and things. He asked me to sing the opening lines of Scarpia—and as I went [imitates singing], he said: “Oh—you won’t be singing much around here, will you?” No! But I did get to [sing] when I was going to be a teacher for music therapy for handicapped children. I was tired of playing concerts—well, not tired of it, but it was lonely, just too lonely.

While I was at Hofstra, I found this thing called “music therapy,” and I thought: “Ah, that’s what I want to do!” I went to teach school, and met some opera singers. They got me interested in opera—and I thought (I was sort of a snob): “Opera—ugh!” And then I just fell in love with it, because it had theatre, and music, and poetry, and fantasy, and everything that you could want—and I could teach!

Then I met … Rita Stephens, who hired me to work with the Metropolitan Opera National Company. I didn’t know anything about what I was supposed to do, really. She was a great believer in taking a chance, and she did take a big chance with me. She also taught me a lot of things about how to dress and how to wear makeup—and in those two years on that tour, I think I learned more than most people get a chance to learn in 20 years. When you have 200 performances a year, it’s just an incredible amount of time. It would take so long to do that under normal circumstances—and I’m so sorry we don’t have a company like that anymore.

Is that where you got your language training?

No. I went to school in France; I went to school in Italy. My father spoke German, so I had a good knowledge of that—as a matter of fact, for a little while, too good—my English was sort of suffering. I had wonderful teachers in Italy who really taught me … what words mean—not just what they say, but what they mean.

Great conductors that I worked with—Giuseppe Patane and wonderful Italian conductors in general—really helped me look more deeply into the construction of the music, the depths of meaning and impact. … And working as well in Paris with playwrights. … So I was very fortunate. I came at a time when there were people who were beginning to initiate this handing-over-the-knowledge process. … Up until then, I think people were sort of: “I know it, and I’m not going to tell you!”

I worked in Spoleto with Maestro [Gian Carlo] Menotti, which was a great experience, watching somebody actually write it down so that you understand it. It’s not just a sort of miracle that happens. Somebody sits there and thinks, and decides which note to write. It sounds so simple, but it was just such a profound experience, to see him wrestle with “what notes should I write.” It makes you realize that everybody else is also doing it on purpose. So we really have to do it the way it was written down, for the most part.

I worked in Barcelona in the winter and the summer, and at the New York City Opera in the fall and the spring. Julius Rudel was an enormous influence: The knack he has, the theatricality, the understanding of the stage—of where people are on the stage and what we need to do from the stage—the relationship with the audience and our respect for the audience as an important part of artistry. It’s not just for us. He was absolutely thrilling and fearsome to work for.

In Barcelona and in America we had all the wonderful American singers—just so many great ones. And in Barcelona, I could work with [Montserrat] Caballe, and [Alfredo] Kraus, and [Renata] Scotto, and all those people who came there to sing. It was a different level, much more about international opera.

[One day] Ms. Caballe said, “Joan, you’re a very nice coach. Now I want you to go in that little box there and be a prompter.”

I had no idea how to do that! But I finally figured it out, and it was kind of her idea that I should be able to prompt what I coached. Women had really not done that job before. It was really brave of Maestro Levine to hire me.

So, Maestro Levine hired you as a prompter at the Met. What exactly does a prompter do?

A prompter is like an assistant to the conductor. I’m [the singer’s] personal assistant for whatever you need close by. Do you need to know that your foot is on your dress? Yes, then I will tell you. Do you need to know that there are three bars before you come in? I’m going to hold my hand here and say stop until it’s the right time, because sometimes it’s three “oom-pahs,” and sometimes four, and sometimes two. And if you’re really involved in acting and reacting, it’s sometimes a slip of the memory. So you cue people, you give them words, and you prevent them from coming in [at the wrong time]. Or when somebody else has made a mistake, you fix it and avoid train wrecks.

You leave the conductor free. He doesn’t have to give every little cue, which keeps the illusion of magic for the audience. And very funny things happen sometimes.

I’m sure you have some great stories!

Most of which I can’t tell!

Any you’d like to share?

I’ll just … well, I can … Ms. [Joan] Sutherland. She did say to me: “You know, Joan, my pronunciation is not always the best, but my memory isn’t either. Please do tell me all the words, and don’t be afraid, dear.” She was so humble about the fact that words are just hard for her to remember. And who cared. She could just sing like she sang—a beautiful voice without words—I wouldn’t have cared!

Some singers just want to be alone on the stage, don’t want any help. You find out what everybody needs and you do that.

It was a very interesting day, the day I walked in there [to the Met]. The chorus and everybody went, “Oh my! The new prompter’s a girl!” And now we’re almost all girls—and next year will be actually 30 years that I’m at the Met.

What other work do you do at the Met?

A lot of coaching, a lot of prompting, a lot of rehearsal preparation. For years and years, I did a great deal of work with the young artist company and the young artist competition. And it was wonderful to do.

You worked to prepare them for the final round of the competition with orchestra?

Yes, I did that. And as a matter of fact, we made the transition from being accompanied in the final concert with piano, to orchestra.

What is the International Vocal Arts Institute?

IVAI was something that came out of a kind of accident. My friend Maestro Paul Nadler and I were in Israel at the same time, and noticed that there was a great deal of help for instrumental musicians but none for vocal musicians. Vocal music was sort of non-existent. The mayor of the city spoke with us and we decided we would come back to the States and try to find an organization, or make an organization, that could bring professional people from the opera theatres of the world to Tel Aviv, along with singers from all over the world who didn’t have access to these professional artists or who didn’t have money to work with them … and together we would all help them grow. Each opera company now has its own young artist program, but it’s been the last 20 years that’s happened. Before that [they] didn’t exist.

It became so successful because people like Alfredo Kraus, [Renata] Scotto, Sherrill Milnes, and other wonderful singers … came, and they taught. Everybody was really happy to come and be underpaid—terribly underpaid as a matter of fact. So that led to other cities saying: “This is economically sound; it’s interactive.” In Tel Aviv, we have Palestinians and Israelis singing together in the same opera. I think that’s going to help a great deal everywhere, this interaction between people.

What advice do you have for singers auditioning for the program?

Try to get yourself as ready as you can. Be very confident in what gifts you have and be ready to acquire the knowledge that you need.

We find that when people aren’t defensive, when they’re not close-minded, when they’re really open to learning, the teachers have a great time, and the singers do, too! A little part of our being has to be like a sponge, but you have to know what you need so that you don’t go after the things that aren’t really going to help you.

What magical moments have you had accompanying?

Oh my. I had so many magical moments playing for Ms. Caballé, I must say. Whenever we got to a part that was hard for the piano, she’d turn around and look at me and kind of wink [as if to] say, “you can do it!” That was nice. And then sometimes she’d walk around the back of the piano, and when she’d want to hold a very long high note, she’d put her hand on my shoulder and hold it until she wanted to get off that note.

There were not too many people who wanted to have women accompanists with them on the stage. I was so honored that she and Scotto gave me that privilege, and [Jose] Carreras as well. A lot of people … went over that barrier and said, “Come on, put on your nice dress and let’s go.” They’re all very magical and stay in your memory.

It builds your confidence, too. I mean, if I tell people today what a very shy person I was, they say, “No, I don’t believe it.” You learn eventually to behave as if you’re not shy, but I’m not sure it goes away. All the people who have given me a piece of themselves, a piece of their information, or their talent, or their instinct—each part of that builds each one of us a little bit stronger.

Do you still do private coachings?

Oh yes. I would never give that up. It’s so important for the singers, and it’s so important for me. I do that, absolutely.

How many do you coach in a day?

It depends. Sometimes I have time for one, sometimes I have two or three, sometimes, on a Sunday, I have five, or six, or seven. I like to coach. I find it doesn’t tire me. It exhilarates me; it keeps my mind fresh and going. I’ve also learned Russian in the past couple of years, so that keeps my mind going. It’s good to learn new things—and it’s good to find new singers and to keep [working] with the ones that depend on you. I depend on myself to see that their growth gets to the point where they can go out and sing.

Is there anything about singers that drives you crazy?

Well, two things: complete defensiveness: “<I.Oh, yes, I know how to do that.” Well, if you knew how, why didn’t you? Another thing: singers who really [only] want to put my name on their list, and are willing to spend the money for a lesson. I just want to say to them, “Look, I’ll sign your paper. You don’t have to pay for the lesson. Otherwise, you have to listen and we have to work together.” That makes me a little crazy, but I understand why they do it. It’s important to have this list of names, so that when you send your papers in people pay attention. But if they’re going to come, they might as well listen!

But other than that, I admire these people, who from their 20s to their 30s—which are really difficult times—spend their time and work so hard to get to their lessons, to be disciplined, and to get to where they want to go.

Sara Thomas

Sara Thomas is editor of Classical Singer magazine. She welcomes your comments.