Mezzo-Soprano  Dolora  Zajick

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


As this interview is being posted in 2013, Dolora Zajick is acknowledged as the leading Verdi Mezzo in the world, and has been for quite some time.  Her international career has been solid and steady, and came about after winning the bronze medal in the 7th International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1982, and being a part of the Merola Program at the San Francisco Opera.  Her performances and recordings have insured her a place in the pantheon of renowned singers.

This interview, however, was done early in 1989, near the beginning of her illustrious career.  Yet even then, she was secure in her musicianship and also in her way of living life both onstage and off.  Portions of the chat were used a few weeks later on WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago, and several times thereafter.  Now it is my pleasure to present the entire conversation as a look-back to what she thought when starting out.

At the time of this conversation, she was at Lyric Opera of Chicago for performances of Amneris in Aïda, a role she would sing again in a later season, along with two other Verdi works
— Eboli in Don Carlos and Azucena in Il Trovatore

When inquiring about interviews with musicians who were performing in Chicago, I would usually contact the public relations department of the organization.  Having looked at the artist
’s schedule to see when they would presumably be available, I would suggest several possibilities that fit into my own habits.  The organization would then make the arrangements for both time and place, and we’d meet for the conversation.  For Ms. Zajick, it was a surprise to find myself speaking with the personal representative about doing an interview, so I began by asking about this . . . . .

Dolora Zajick:    Oh, I do everything through my agents and managers.

Bruce Duffie:    I suppose that’s the best policy.

DZ:    It’s the safest one.  I just send them to my manager!  Some people I send to my PR manager, and some people I send to my manager.  If somebody’s offering me a job or is trying to finagle or something, I say, “Go talk to the manager,” and if somebody wants an interview, I say, “Go talk to my PR manager,” and he screens them.

BD:    Yes.  He called me and I had to explain what everything was about.  So I assume you get lots of requests for your services and for your presence?

DZ:    Yes.

BD:    Is it getting to be too much?

DZ:    Sometimes, but that’s their job, to screen it all.

BD:    Don’t you have any say-so in what you will accept and what you’ll decline?

DZ:    Sure!

BD:    Then at one point does it become too much work and not enough relaxation, and not enough rest and to prepare?

zajickDZ:    You just gauge how much you can do, and then you don’t do any more than that.  You find out what your limit is, and then you always make sure you get a vacation.  You always make sure that you do everything with the right energy level, which means you have to have the right kind of rest.  Different people work different ways.  There are some people that go around from place to place, and with a few notable exceptions, I think that most people who do that schlock through it.  I don’t like to schlock through things.  I like to do it very thoroughly from the beginning to the end.

BD:    Does this permeate everything
— the preparation of roles and the preparation for each night?

DZ:    Mm-hm.  Yes.

BD:    Do you feel that being a singer is like being an athlete?

DZ:    Sometimes yes, because it’s a high-performance job.  You have to perform in a motor sort of way, in a kinesthetic sort of way.  Your muscle memory plays a key role, and it’ll only work for you properly if you’ve practiced sufficiently, and that takes time.  It’s one thing to be able to do things from your head; it’s another thing to have your muscles trained so that they do it no matter what, and that takes six months, at least, for a person to learn how to do that.  Some people never do it, but they don’t do anything with any depth, either.

BD:    Six months to learn to sing?

DZ:    To get a role in your body.  It’s one thing to know it in your head and have the words memorized and the music and all that.  It’s another thing to have it in your body.  That’s a whole different level and that’s always changing because you’re always adding to it and changing and improving and improving, so you never reach a final level on that.

BD:    You don’t ever feel that you get to where you’ve perfected a role?

DZ:    No.

BD:    [Laughs]  That’s good.  You’ve won a number of competitions and you’re just really getting started in the big, international career.  Is this where you wanted to be at this point in your life?

DZ:    Yes.  It happened a little faster than we had planned, but it was in the plans.  That’s what we were shooting for, and it happened.  I carefully planned my career.  I just didn’t take anything because it seemed like an opportunity.  Everything was very carefully thought out before I made any step, before I accepted any role.  When you take something just to become successful in the short run, you can short-circuit your career in ways that you never even realized.

BD:    How so?

DZ:    Well, like getting overbooked in jobs.  If you fill up your roster with penny-ante jobs, then when the real McCoy comes along you don’t have any space.  You then have one of two choices — you could cancel, which is not really a good idea (which I don’t do), or you can forego the opportunity.  Another pitfall is when they’ll say, “Oh, come sing with this festival,” or, “Sing with this major opera company,” or, “Do this major role,” but the circumstances might not be right.  It might be a bad conductor or it might be a very bizarre production.  It might be a role that’s good for you but not spectacular for you and it would be the first time you sing in that city, so it wouldn’t leave as good an impression as if you had done another role for the first time.  Those are all things you have to consider.

BD:    How much in all of this can you control, and how much is just the luck of the draw in what they offer you?

DZ:    It depends on how badly you’re needed in the business.  The more rare your voice type, the more control your have over it.  If you’re a lyric soprano, it’s extraordinarily difficult.  However, you still can make choices.  I had some offers that a lot of people would drool over, but I turned them down because they weren’t right.  It wasn’t the right time or it wasn’t the right situation.  Now my career is going bam-bam-bam, and the reason it’s doing that is because I did the right things at the right time.  When I sang my first major role in a major house, it was a Verdi role which is suitable for me and I was thirty-four years old.  I had sung it in a regional house just a few months earlier, and that was the first time I’d ever sung that role.

BD:    Which role was this?

DZ:    This was Azucena.  I sang it with the Nevada Opera, and then I sang it with the San Francisco Opera.  So I waited until the right time.  I was fortunate that I was in a training program that somehow bridges that gap.  When you do have a large voice, one of the problems is that they don’t want to use you in small roles.  A lot of big-time singers get very nervous if there’s a big voice around.

BD:    They don’t want the competition?

DZ:    Right, but there’s another side of the story.  There are also problems with just simply getting a balanced sound in the cast.  Sometimes because the person has a larger voice and they don’t want to use them in lighter stuff, they often don’t have the experience that their lighter-voiced colleagues have.  So by the time they get on the stage, they don’t have the stage experience; they don’t have their stage legs, like their colleagues do.  Then everybody says, “Oh, they can’t move.  They can’t act.”

BD:    So how did you overcome this?

DZ:    I was in a training program that provided a tremendous amount of experience for me.  I was in this program only for two and a half years, and in that time I sang Suzuki with Merola and the mother’s voice in Tales of Hoffman.  I sang in forty-four performances of Madama Butterfly on Western Opera tour.  Because we rotated I did Suzuki for fifteen of them and sang in the chorus for the other thirty.  Then I sang in the showcase.  There, I did Bertarido in Rodelinda, which is a very large role and very demanding.  It was good for me to get out there and do a lot of recitative and things.  Then I did Marcolfa in Don Perlimplin, which was done in Purchase, New York, and then it was done in San Francisco.

BD:    You had the flexibility and the voice then to negotiate all the Handel?

DZ:    Oh, yes.  In fact, I’m going into that type of thing after I’ve established myself.  You see, I’ve only been in the business for two years and it’s important that I establish myself at what I am.  Then you do the other stuff.

BD:    What are you?

DZ:    I’m a Verdi mezzo that sings other things.  There are other areas where I can do just as well, but Verdi is my bread and butter.  The next step is the Mahler.  I have an affinity for lieder in concert work.  Then there’s other things like the Brahms Alto Rhapsody and Alexander Nevsky and the Rossini Stabat Mater.  I really enjoy doing that.

BD:    How do you want to balance your career between concerts and operas?

DZ:    I would probably be happiest if I was doing half and half, but it’s different for concerts because if you say “half and half” when you do an opera you’re at a job for one or two months.  When you do a concert you may only be there for three days.  So time-wise it would end up being more opera, but actual performances would come out the same.  I do like both.  I also sing the Slavic repertoire.  There’s a lot of things in the future in the like Joan in Maid of Orleans by Tchaikovsky, Marfa in Khovanshchina, Kostelnička in Jenůfa.  Those are roles that are very suitable for me, and also the bel canto repertoire such as Adalgisa, Leonora in La Favorita.  I really enjoy the Italian bel canto singing, and there’s Handel, too.  I love Handel.  My favorite composers, unfortunately, did not write a lot for me, although I might be able to do some Bach.  Bach and Mozart are definitely my favorite.

BD:    I see.  But you don’t want to spend your life doing Dorabella?

DZ:    Well, she’s not right for me.  I could do a Dorabella, but I couldn’t do it justice.

BD:    Why not?

DZ:    I know where I belong.  I know what my voice can do, and I’m not going to fool myself into thinking I can do something I can’t do.  Why should I try and be something I’m not, when the things I can do I can do very well?

BD:    Is it completely the voice in the throat that decides for you which roles you will accept?

DZ:    It’s a lot of things.  It’s your temperament.  It’s the kind of roles that suit you.  It’s the thrust of your acting abilities — not only do you have it or not, but where its thrust is.  I would be much more suitable as a Quickly than a Dorabella.

BD:    Is that a role that you already have in your repertoire, or will put in it later?

DZ:    I’ve already performed it in San Francisco, but it’s something I’ll probably do again later.  If I were going to do something funny, that’s really much more suitable for me.

BD:    Do you like doing comic roles?

DZ:    Oh, I love doing comic roles!  The witch in Hansel and Gretel would be very suitable for me.  That’s really more my cup of tea.  It’s what I can do.  There are a lot of singers that can do everything, but at what level do they do it?  There’s also different fachs, and some are more specialized than others.  A lyric mezzo needs to be more versatile in the things that she has to do, so the thrust of her abilities have to be different than, say, a Verdi, mezzo.  Her theatrical abilities go in a different direction.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Tell me the secret of being a Verdi mezzo.

DZ:    The secret?  You have to know the vocal technique.  That is a must.  It’s kind of a dying art, but it’s still around.

BD:    Why is it dying?

DZ:    For the reason why a lot of things are dying — people don’t respect the old teachers.  They make fun of them.  They laugh at them because the exercises sound silly.  Nobody listens to them.  The business has taken over.  Music is a business now, and it’s no longer the artistic endeavor that it used to be.  Just finding a good conductor is hard.  Often the really good people don’t make it to the top because they find it too frustrating to deal with the incompetence.  There is a lot of incompetence in the business, a lot of it!

BD:    So how do you stay away from it?

DZ:    You don’t.  You can’t.

BD:    Is there any way to overcome the lack of experience in the pit?

DZ:    The whole business would have to be completely and radically changed.  There’s a buddy system.  It’s a network system.  For whoever gets on the network there’s this series of connections.  People promote people, and it’s not just one person.  It’s a lot of people, and they’re all on these networks — and some of them are rival networks.  It is who you know.  That’s always been true up to a point, but now it’s even more important than what you know, especially for conductors and stage directors.

BD:    Is there any artistic achievement going on amongst all of this?

DZ:    Yes, it happens.

BD:    It sounds like it’s an afterthought.

DZ:    [Laughs]  Well, it’s like random reinforcement.  Do you know anything about behavior modification?  They tested these schoolboys.  They wanted to find out what provided the best results and motivation, so they looked at punishment only, encouragement only, reward only, random reward, random punishment.  What they found was that once they knew what the reward was and what the behavior was that earned it, random reward was the strongest reinforcer.  So when I think of singing, once in a blue moon you get that performance!  [Laughs]  It makes you go on, hoping it’ll happen again because when it does happen, it’s wonderful!  But it seems that for every twenty-five you only get it once, and that’s sad.  It should at least be twelve or fifteen, but that’s the way it is.

BD:    But you go out there every night to make the performance you best you can, so you not?

DZ:    Yes, but it takes more than you.  It takes an ensemble.  Sometimes it’s due to lack of ability, and there’s nothing you can do about that.  Sometimes it’s attitude problems like, “applaud me” techniques.  “I’m the star.  The light should be on me,” instead of making it a piece of art that people can get lost in.  It becomes a showcase for who can get the most applause, and that’s not what it’s all about.  You’re there to entertain.  I don’t care what anybody says.  Singing is a servant class; musicians are a servant class and I don’t see any shame in that.  The audience is paying you to create an atmosphere that they can get lost in.  They want to be entertained.  It’s like reading a good book or watching a good show or getting totally lost in a painting.  That’s your job, and in opera there are so many variables it’s hard to make that happen.  There’s always a missing link somewhere.  If you’re looking at an opera and you think, “Oh, the horns sound really good,” or, “Oh, that was a terrible sound in the orchestra,” or, “Aren’t the costumes beautiful?” or, “Boy, she’s gained a lot of weight,” when people start thinking like that there’s something wrong with the production.  If they get so involved with what’s going on in the opera that they don’t think about those things and they’re totally moved by what’s going on and they’ve become absorbed in it, then you have accomplished something.

BD:    In other words, they shouldn’t think of “Soprano X” and “Tenor Y,” they should think of Aïda and Radamès?

DZ:    Yes.  They’ve become involved with what’s going on, and that only works if everything is right.

zajickBD:    If they’re thinking of Aïda and Radamès, how much emphasis should you make it so that they’re thinking of Amneris?

DZ:    You don’t do it that way.  That’s not the way you do it.  You respond and you react to what’s going on dramatically, and the attention is focused on the whole scene.  It’s not a thing of scene-stealing.  You will win the audience over doing what you’re supposed to do.  You can do that, and I do it time and time again.  You can even do it in a small role.  I saw a Marriage of Figaro where the gardener stole the show.

BD:    [Gently protesting]  But you just said it shouldn’t be scene-stealing!

DZ:    He didn’t play dirty tricks to take it away from the other people.  The other people were good.  He just did what he was supposed to do, but he did it superbly.  In small roles, character roles, you can make a real contribution to what’s going on.

BD:    Do you want to make a contribution, or do you want to make an impact?

DZ:    What do you mean by an impact? 

BD:    More than just contributing to the whole, but really being there completely.

DZ:    In the sense of the being there completely for the audience, yes, but the audience is like trained seals.  They’ve been conditioned to go “Bravo,” when they see somebody make the big gesture and when they come out for their curtain calls.  They’ve been trained.  Nothing can replace honest applause, and if they liked what you did they will give you honest applause.  Here’s a typical example.  There’s this one part where I go up to hit Aïda.  It’s a very dramatic movement and the typical scene-stealing thing would be turn around and make a great big gesture that would distract.  But that wouldn’t make me look good, not in the reality.  Instead, I keep my back is to the audience, and now it’s her show, it’s her move.  All I do is lower my arm, and when she says “Pietà,” she’s begging me and I’m looking right at her.  All they can see is my back.  Okay.  She grabs my forearm and I just take it away.  Don’t you think that’s much more powerful?

BD:    It’s more subtle, yes.

DZ:    But it reads more.

BD:    But it requires concentration and more alertness on the part of the audience.

DZ:    No, it doesn’t.  They will pick it up.  They always pick it up when you do that.  Then they start getting involved with it because that’s a much crueler move.  Then you’re really being nasty to her.  She’s begging you, and you’re just shaking her off like, “Don’t touch me, you bitch.”  You can make that read; they don’t have to see your face.  Then it’s her show.  She has the reaction, but it worked because then they see the interplay between the two, and the interplay is what is read.  It’s the reaction.  That’s what I mean by doing your job of acting and reacting.  If you’re responding to each other and there’s an interaction going on, it’s the relationship that is read.  That’s what makes it powerful.  They respond to that much better.  Let’s face it, there are a lot of singers out there that hire claques — twenty or thirty people to go “Bravo” in the middle in the arias and things.

BD:    I take it you’re not doing that kind of thing.

DZ:    No.

BD:    That’s good.

DZ:    I don’t.  I don’t believe in it.  You can tell when the audience really likes somebody.  Some singers pay people to throw paper and streamers from balconies and toss flowers onto the stage.  You don’t need to do that because when you take your bows, it’s the audience who decides who the star is.  Nobody else can make that decision.  You can work as hard as you can, and the opera companies will pick the people that are the showcase for the audience, but when it comes down to the bottom line, it’s the audience that decides.

BD:    Is the audience always right?

DZ:    I think they are, more than people realize.  As a whole they may not be able to say why it’s wrong, but they somehow sense that something’s missing.  They may not have the technical grasp of what’s going on; all they’ll know is that they’re not interested.  It’s not as enjoyable as it could be and they respond less.

BD:    You say they sense when something’s missing.  Do they also sense when there’s that extra spark and that special thing?

DZ:    Definitely, most definitely.  No doubt.  They’re very good at that.  [Laughs]

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You’ve been talking about singing as entertainment.  Where does the artistic achievement fall into all of this?

DZ:    For me, the bottom line is the music.  The music is the most important thing in the whole scheme of things.

BD:    More than the drama?

zajickDZ:    More than the drama.  I think the drama is extremely important, don’t get me wrong, but the bottom line is the music.  You have to have an instrument that is capable of communicating that music, which is able to perform that music.  The conductor has to be able to conduct it.  The instrumentalists have to be able to play.  So you have to have the technical facility in addition to execute the music.  Then comes the drama, which comes out of the music.  The drama is in the music, and more often than not it makes a lot of sense.  All you have to do is study the text!  Look at the text and look at what people are saying.  Look at the instructions that the composer gives.  It tells you what to do!  It tells you when you’re angry; it tells you when you’re sad; it tells when you’re laughing, and then you respond.  People ask, “Are you really crying up there?”  The act of wiping tears is a very effective way of looking like you’re crying.  All you have to do is wipe your face, and that reads instantly to the audience.  That’s an external thing.  You can even make yourself tear, and it’s still external.  The tricky part about singing is thinking back to when your dog died to make you cry doesn’t work for singers because then it gets in the vocal mechanism.  That’s very dangerous.  So singers have one of two choices.  They can either act externally, which, if you’re good at it, reads just as well, or they don’t act at all.  Some people do it as a matter of choice.  It takes so much energy to do everything that they decide the acting is not as important as the singing, and if they have to make the choice it’s going to be the music and the singing.  Some people try to do something with it.

BD:    So you’ve made this conscious choice to do what you can with it?

DZ:    Yes.  Because it’s very stressful, everybody has a way of drawing their own limits as to how much they can handle.  It’s such an all-consuming profession.

BD:    So then you’re really portraying, rather than becoming each character?

DZ:    Yes, and for me that’s most effective.  When you look at really good actors and you look at the bottom line, it doesn’t seem to matter whether they’re feeling it or not.  Both techniques work from a straight acting point of view.  For singing, it’s not a good idea to be feeling it because there’s just too much you have to be aware of.  You have to be thinking things like if the conductor misses the beat, or there’s something happening that’s wrong or that’s distracting, you can’t lose the pacing at all.  Whereas when you’re acting, you can improvise.  You can come up with something to fill that gap.

BD:    You have the time to do it.

DZ:    Yes.  As a singer, you don’t.  You have much more that you have to deal with.

BD:    Does the prompter bother you when she’s screaming at you all the time?

DZ:    Most prompters bother me.  Once in a while you get a really good one, and usually when they’re good enough to be that good of a prompter, they’re good enough to be conducting.  That’s the truth.  There is a prompter — his name is Jim Johnson — who I think is one of the finest conductors I’ve ever seen.  He sits in the little prompter box and gives cues, and they’re fabulous cues.  He’s wonderful and he’s very musical.  But somebody like that is really quite rare.  Most prompters are a pain.

BD:    Do you rely on the prompter even if they’re a pain? 

DZ:    No.  I tell them to be quiet.  Some of them are very nice and they know when to lay out and when not to.  If you have a problem with a certain spot, all you have to do is just go out and say, “I just need help with this spot, this spot, and this spot.”  Some of them are very sensitive.  They just have hawk eyes, and when they see somebody look down at the prompter box, then they know that they’ve got to be ready for a cue.  But most prompters can really screw you up.  Really, in most cases I prefer not working with a prompter unless they can be truly helpful.  There’s very few I would depend on.

BD:    We’re now using supertitles in the theater.  Do you feel it brings the opera closer to the audience?

DZ:    If it’s a good translation and if it’s really timed into to what’s going on onstage so it doesn
’t get off-kilter.  I think the business of doing it with a computer is a big mistake.  It should always be done by hand, like spotlights.  I think lights should not be done by computer.  Lights should be done by hand because each night it’s a little different; to sense that, I prefer the human touch.  The light cues need to be in tune with the musical cues.  But I’m also for English translations if they’re good.  The problem is that there are very few good English translations.  You have to be as good as the librettist to write a good English translation.  I’ve seen it done on rare occasions, but it’s usually not done well, and that’s the real problem.  But I prefer singing in the original language with supertitles, rather than singing in English — unless it’s a comic opera, in which case I think sometimes you’re better off doing it in English.  A lot of people think they have these great translations, but the truth of the matter is most of them stink.

BD:    If you get one of these translations that’s not much good, do you work on it and improve it a little bit?

DZ:    It depends. 

BD:    Being now on the international circuit, I don’t know you’re going to get much opportunity to sing opera in English anymore.

DZ:    No, not really.

BD:    Does that make you sad at all?

DZ:    No, not for the kind of things I sing.  I wouldn’t mind doing a Falstaff in English if it’s a good translation, but the Italian’s so wonderful.  Once you really start thinking in that language when you’re singing, it’s marvelous.  Falstaff is so brilliantly set, the whole opera.  It’s one of my favorite Verdi operas.  Actually, my favorite operas are The Marriage of Figaro and Magic Flute.  I like Gluck and Mozart and I like Handel and Bach.  It’s really interesting because when I first started out in music I was more interested in the Romantic stuff.  Then I got into the post-Romantics and I kept going back to Mozart and Bach.  Then I went through the thing of Schoenberg and going through all these different ideas.  I really got into Lulu and I got into Charles Ives.  I love Charles Ives.  I also go back to Mozart and I always go back to Bach.  I never get tired of it.  The others I get tired of.  I’m so sick of Madama Butterfly, and I’m even getting tired of Bohème.

zajickBD:    Are you getting tired of the Verdi roles?

DZ:    I’m getting tired of some of them, although Puccini kind of wears on me after a while... but I like Tosca.

BD:    But these are all operas that you either don’t have a part in or don’t sing anymore.

DZ:    I’m talking about just listening.  It’s like most operas, you reach a saturation point after a while.  You can only listen to a certain composer after a certain period of time.  When I’m studying different things, such as a role or something, I want to hear how different singers interpret it.  So I’ll listen to maybe twenty different Aïdas, for example.  So that got really old, but I never get tired of listening to The Magic Flute.

BD:    Perhaps if you were singing it and rehearsing it and performing it, you might get a little more tired of it.

DZ:    I don’t think so.

BD:    What about Wagner?  Are you going to sing any of his works?

DZ:    I doubt it.  It’s not suitable to my temperament.  It’s not suitable for me in a lot of ways.  I can sing it, but there would definitely be an Italianate sound in it.  Now some people like that, but I don’t really have an affinity for Wagner.  I do have an affinity for Hugo Wolf, however.  It isn’t that I don’t like German.  I think Mahler is much more suitable for me than Wagner.

BD:    So you’re going to go along the lines that Kathleen Ferrier had.

DZ:    In a way, yes, but I think I’ll be singing more opera than she did.  I don’t want to be exclusively an opera singer or exclusively a concert singer.  I want to be both.  I love concerts.  I love singing concerts.

BD:    Do you change your vocal technique at all because of the size of the house?

DZ:    No.

BD:    Do you sing differently for microphone than you do in live performance?

DZ:    Nope.

BD:    You just get out there and sing?

DZ:    You do what you can do and you tell the mixers to lay off.

BD:    [Laughs]  Is that really possible these days?

DZ:    Sometimes.  This whole idea of mixing voices is to get them to balance.  If they would just put the microphones further back and let the singers balance themselves, it would sound so much better!  Then you would get a more true sound of what’s going on.  But this idea of turning this singer up here and this singer down here and then people fighting and bribing people to turn it up at this point... it’s ridiculous!  Where’s the ensemble?  Where’s the art?  That’s the part about the business that I’m really disgusted with.

BD:    I take it you don’t particularly enjoy making records, then?

DZ:    No.

BD:    You’ve made a couple of fine recordings.  Are you pleased with the ones that have come out?

DZ:    [Laughs]  I’m one of those people that when I see myself onscreen or if I hear myself on recordings I can’t stand myself.  I don’t know why that is, but I listen to myself and I scrunch up.  I don’t like the sound of my own voice on a recording.  I don’t know why that is.

BD:    But I hope you’re pleased with it as you’re making the sound.

DZ:    Oh, yes.  A lot of people seem to like it, so I guess it’s worth something.

BD:    You’re pleased with the artistry you’ve given as it goes into the tape?

DZ:    Yes.  I’m the happiest when there’s real musicianship going on.  That’s why I do it.  That’s why I’m in this profession, and when I can have a good musical experience, that’ll make me happy for a month.  I’ll be on cloud nine.  For example, I did an Alexander Nevsky with Rostropovich, and I was on cloud nine for two months after that.  That was one of the most exciting musical things I’d ever experienced, and I just sang one aria.  He conducted the rest with the orchestra and it was just wonderful!

BD:    It’s in his blood.

DZ:    Yes.

BD:    Did he infuse it into your blood, too?

DZ:    The great thing when good musicians get together is that they don’t have to explain anything.  They get together and it happens, but it only works if they’re good musicians.  There are a lot of people who think they’re good musicians, and have to talk a lot and explain a lot.  It just means they can’t do it.  With a good conductor you can read it in how they conduct it.  It’s so easy.  They know what you want to do, you know what they want to do, and you both know the confines that the composer has set.  You both know the conventions.  You know where the liberties really exist, and each one takes them where they believe it’s possible.  Then you only have to adjust in a few small places.  I have found that when I work with a really good conductor, we don’t have to communicate by talking.  It happens.  A good accompanist is same way and also good singers.  Really good singers who have a real keen sense of ensemble and really understand ensemble from its finest point don’t have to explain things to each other.  You don’t have to say, “Don’t sing too loud,” or, “I need more sound here.”  You don’t have to because you know what you’re supposed to be doing and you feel the rallentando together.  You feel the ritard together.  You know the difference between a rallentando and a ritard.  You know how many people don’t know the difference?

BD:    It’s a subtle difference.

DZ:    But it’s a very important one.  Very important.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Let us talk a little bit about the couple roles.  You’ve recorded Preziosilla, so tell me a little bit about her.  What kind of a woman is she?

zajickDZ:    She’s fluff.

BD:    Is she fun fluff?

DZ:    Yes, she’s fun fluff.  It’s like Shirley Temple in a movie to spice it up a bit and to have some contrast.  She doesn’t advance the plot.  You could do the whole Forza without her.

BD:    But would it make the same impact if you didn’t have that kind of relief?

DZ:    In this case I don’t think it would create impact.  It just keeps you from falling asleep.  [Both laugh]  Forza is not an opera that I particularly enjoy.  There are great moments, but it’s not like Rigoletto where it’s this incredible thread of continuity from the very beginning to the very end.  Rigoletto is one of the most finely crafted operas from a complete sense of unison, in the sense that it just flows.  By the time it gets to the end, it’s had this sense of movement, and when you get to the end it’s over the opera seems shorter than it really is.  It’s crafted very well that way.

BD:    So then would you accept to sing Maddalena even though it’s a fairly small part?

DZ:    Possibly.  It would depend on a lot of things.  For me, I would rather do a concert work like a Mahler Eighth.  It’s a not a matter of ensemble and it’s not a matter of big or large roles.  It’s a matter of what I would prefer to be doing if I had to make a choice between the two, and I would much rather be doing the concert.

BD:    I assume you don’t always have that kind of choice, though.  It’s what’s offered at that time.

DZ:    Yes, but people are offering me a lot of different things now.  For the first two years I’ve been saying no for these parts.  For a debut it’s got to be Amneris or Azucena.  After that, it’s open to negotiations.  Then we do other things.  If they can’t accommodate me — if they’re not doing it or it’s already been cast
that’s fine.  I can wait.  It doesn’t bother me to wait.  It’s much better to wait.

BD:    Well, now, you’ve recorded Preziosilla.  Have you recorded some of the others?  You recorded the Requiem, also.  Are there other recordings in the can that are coming out?

DZ:    No.  Not at the moment, but eventually.  There’s a lot of things flying around, but nothing’s definite.  The reason why there’s a lot of flying around is because once you sign a contract you can’t sing that particular piece with another recording company for five years.  So there’s a lot of bantering going back and forth as to who’s going to get what.  There’s competition.  People want to do the definitive recording of this opera, and then another group wants to do the definitive recording, so as a result you get a fight over the casts.  It’s really ridiculous.  When you make a recording it’s for posterity.  You can’t do a recording because it’s a career move.  When you do a recording it goes down in history.  It’s a legacy that you leave behind for other singers to follow.  So I think it’s important that you do the situation that has the most artistic integrity.  You have to go with that even if it means less money or foregoing another opportunity somewhere.  That’s a must for me.  I want the ideal.  Nobody can have 100 percent ideal situation, but I want a situation that at least realizes some of the ideals that I have hopes for because it’s important, I think.

BD:    Is there any chance that you set goals for yourself that are too high?

DZ:    No, because I realize them.  I realize all my goals and I’m always setting new ones.  I make realistic goals and then I work at it, and when that’s achieved you make a new level.  There are some goals that are long-term, and there are some that are short-term.

BD:    What are your long-term goals
— aside from singing for twenty-five years?

DZ:    I would like to be in a position where I can work with people who are really good at what they do.  That’s the bottom line.

BD:    Are you good at what you do?

DZ:    I think so, and I think it’s important that you like what you do.  It’s important that you don’t burn yourself out by doing too much.  Alfredo Kraus said something which is really very true
if you burn yourself out doing things just to make money or just to get ahead all the time, and you don’t enjoy what you’re doing, you’re going to short-circuit your career.  One of the secrets to longevity is to do what you like to do as much as possible.  It’s very easy to get burned out in this business, let me tell you.  I would find it tempting to just drop out at times because the pressures of having to deal with a lot of incompetent people in the business end.  It’s difficult.  Then you think of that one performance where that magic happened, and then you go on.  I didn’t go into this to be a star.

BD:    Why did you go into it?

DZ:    I went in to sing.  I couldn’t live without singing.  One of the most rewarding experiences of my singing career was singing at the First Presbyterian Church in New York City.  There was a guy named Bob Baker who had the choir there, and he managed to get all the best singers around, somehow.  He got professional singers to come and sing in that choir.  We did it for peanuts
we did it for $25 a Sunday.  These were music people that made their living as singers, and we would go in and we’d sing because it would be a wonderful musical experience.  It was a fabulous musical experience!  I learned so much, and there were a lot of good singers in that choir.  It was very rewarding.  We looked forward to those Sundays!  They were the highlights of almost everybody’s week.  We used to discuss among each other what we were going to do when he retires.  He retired this year and they’re trying to carry on with another conductor, but he has big shoes to fill.  This guy was one in a million.  I found that in all the three years that I was in New York during that period, of and all the things I did and all the things that happened to me, that was the most rewarding experience for me.  It was just singing in the choir, just singing second alto.  That’s all it was.

BD:    It made a huge impact on you?

DZ:    Yes, because we were making music.

BD:    I hope, though, that you find this occasionally elsewhere, too.

DZ:    Occasionally.  Once in a blue moon, but it does happen.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You’re getting famous for Azucena.  Tell me a little bit about her.

zajickDZ:    She’s an interesting character because she’s not insane in the typical sense.  She’s a very, very obsessive woman and she’s lived through a horror.  She saw her mother burned alive.  Then she killed her own baby and now she’s torn.  She feels she’s got to do something and always fix everything.  If she kills Manrico to avenge her mother, she’s killed another baby.  No matter what she does, it’s going to be the wrong thing.  If she has di Luna killed, then she’s going to have her son committing the same crime she had, and she’ll be condemning him to it.  I guess her logic is, “If he never knows that he kills his own brother, then it won’t be any problem.”  But she’s a lulu!

BD:    Are there any redeeming qualities about her?

DZ:    She does love Manrico.

BD:    Despite his lineage?

DZ:    Oh yes, she loves him like her son.  That is her son, in her eyes; that’s the baby she lost.  I guess the one to get even with is the one that you’re not with, because you don’t know that person personally.  So she goes after di Luna to avenge her mother because her mother told her, “Avenge me, avenge me!” and she feels like she’s let her mother down.  So no matter what she does, it’s going to be the wrong thing.

BD:    But at the very end of the opera, she screams that she has avenged her mother.  Does she die happy?

DZ:    That depends on how you interpret it.  I think she just feels it’s wonderment, or she’s gone really bananas at that point.  I play her, usually, as she’s really gone around the bend completely and she just is in total wonder and awe that her mother was avenged in spite of everything; that her mother somehow found a way to do it, as if her mother was a spirit there.  “It happened!  You did it!”  Then she’s out to lunch.  That’s how I play it unless you get a really good stage director, and then I’ll play it differently.

BD:    You’re open to other ideas, then?

DZ:    Oh, sure.  When I get with a really good stage director or a really good conductor, I’m very pliable.  It’s very easy to work with me.  If I get with somebody who doesn’t know what they’re talking about, then I dig my heels in, so.  I don’t believe in throwing tantrums.  I think you can accomplish just as much
maybe morewithout throwing a tantrum.  You have to mean what you say, but you don’t have to be nasty.  There are too many nasty people in this business.  Why add to the nastiness?

BD:    Amneris and Azucena are the roles that you like to use for debuts.  What are the other roles that you’ve sung a lot and really enjoy?

DZ:    Well, I haven’t really sung a lot.  I’m new at this, but I can tell you the roles that are next on my list.  Léonor in La Favorite, Adalgisa in Norma, Santuzza.  I’ve done a lot of Santuzzas — not a lot, but some
Joan in the Maid of Orleans by Tchaikovsky, Marfa in Khovanshchina, Eboli.

BD:    You’re working on these to get them into your repertoire?

DZ:    Some of them I already know.

BD:    Have you had offers for all of them?

DZ:    Yes.

BD:    How far ahead are you booked?

DZ:    We’re getting into 1994.

BD:    Is it a comforting feeling to know that on January 3rd of 1994 you’ll be in a certain city doing a certain role
whatever that role is?

DZ:    That depends on how tired I am.  [Both laugh]  When you’re tired and you’re performing a lot, you look at your schedule and go, “Oh, my God! I can’t do this.”  Then when you’re feeling energetic, you can’t wait to do it.  So it depends on how I feel.

[Note: At this point I asked my guest to record a Station Break for use on WNIB, and inquired about her birthdatewhich she gave truthfully!]

DZ:    I’m not embarrassed about my age.

BD:    That’s good.  Some people are demure about it.

DZ:    Oh, I think that’s so silly.  We all age.  It’s a part of life.  We’re all young once and we grow up and we get old.  It happens to everybody.  There’s no shame in it.  If anything, there should be pride in the fact that you’ve lived that long — especially if you’ve hung on to your scruples.  There’s not enough respect for age.  You should just be happy at the age you’re at.  That’s the way I feel.

BD:    Is singing fun?

DZ:    Sometimes.  I get more enjoyment working on it than actually performing sometimes, because sometimes you have to work with some dodos.  [Laughs]

BD:    Is that why concerts are better?

DZ:    Concerts are often better because there are fewer variables to get out of control.  There’s less likely to go wrong, and there’s fewer people to deal with.

BD:     Fewer dodos?

DZ:    You’re less likely to get a dodo.  When you’ve got seventy people working on a production, something’s going to go wrong.  If you’ve got five people working on a production, there’s less hassle.  There’s less likely to go wrong.

BD:    And of course all the onus is on your shoulders.

DZ:    I don’t mind that.  I like being responsible for myself.  There’s a lot of freedom in it.  There’s a lot of freedom in responsibility and accepting things and being able to look at things as they are and not passing the buck.  Being able to accept the responsibility for things that you are good at, and things that you didn’t do well
— that gives you freedom.  I know a lot of people don’t see it that way, but I feel like I have freedom.

BD:    Are you coming back to Chicago?

DZ:    Probably.  Those things are all in negotiations.  I’m sure that my manager and Lyric are talking.  If they haven’t, they will be.  I’m not concerned about that.

BD:    What are you concerned about
— just the artistry?

DZ:    For me, yes, and working with nice people.  Although I must say, when it comes down to the bottom line, I’d rather work with a competent bastard than an incompetent nice person.  But of course I always prefer working with nice people.  I’m easy to get along with, and I don’t like people that scream and yell and shout.  I think it’s totally unnecessary.  You can get just as much done by stating the facts.  I’ll say, “Let’s negotiate,” or, “Why do you want me to do this?” and if it’s a good reason, then you do it.  If it’s not a good reason, you deal with it in whatever ways you can.  You dispatch the problem in whatever way is most expedient.  It’s different in each case, but you don’t need to give somebody a bad time or scream and yell or bitch and gripe and start rumors.  You don’t need to do that... although a lot of people do that.  But a lot of people don’t.  Even though there’s a lot of nasty people in the business, there’s also an equal number of real Menschs.  There’s really good people that somehow made it to the top without stepping on anybody.  They made it on the basis of their talent.  They were good to their colleagues and they didn’t step on anybody in any way.  They held onto to their integrity even when things got rough.  Those people do exist in the business.  So for every rotten egg, there’s somebody like that.

BD:    Thank you for chatting with me.  I’ve enjoyed this very, very much.

DZ:    Thank you.  It was nice to meet you.


© 1989 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded in Chicago on January 3, 1989.  Sections were used (along with recordings) on WNIB later that month, twice in 1991, and again in 1997.  It was transcribed and posted on this website in 2013.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.