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
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 . . . . .
Oh, I do everything through my agents and managers.
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
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?
BD: Is it
getting to be too much?
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?
BD: Then at
one point does it become too
much work and not enough relaxation, and not enough rest and to
DZ: You just
gauge how much you
can do, and then you don’t do any more than that. You find out
limit is, and then you always make sure you get a vacation. You
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?
BD: Do you
feel that being a singer is like being an
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.
months to learn to sing?
DZ: To get a
role in your body. It’s one thing to know it in your head and
the words memorized and the music and all that. It’s another
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
BD: You don’t
ever feel that you get to where you’ve
perfected a role?
[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?
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?
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?
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
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,
that was the first time I’d ever sung that role.
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.
don’t want the competition?
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
BD: You had
the flexibility and the voice
then to negotiate all the Handel?
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
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
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.
see. But you don’t want to spend your
life doing Dorabella?
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?
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
BD: Tell me
the secret of being a Verdi mezzo.
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
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?
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
BD: Is there
any artistic achievement going on
amongst all of this?
DZ: Yes, it
BD: It sounds
like it’s an afterthought.
[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
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
once, and that’s sad. It should at least be twelve or fifteen,
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
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
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
Yes. They’ve become involved with what’s
going on, and that only works if everything is right.
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.
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.
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
DZ: But it
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.
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
BD: I take it
you’re not doing that kind of thing.
don’t. I don’t believe in it. You can tell when the
really likes somebody. Some singers pay people to throw paper and
balconies and toss flowers onto the stage. You don’t need to do
when you take your bows, it’s the audience who decides
who the star is. Nobody else can make that decision. You
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
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
BD: You say
they sense when something’s
missing. Do they also sense when there’s that extra spark and
that special thing?
definitely. No doubt. They’re very good at that.
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
DZ: 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.
“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
BD: So you’ve
made this conscious choice to do what
you can with it?
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
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.
Yes. As a singer, you don’t. You have much more that you
have to deal
BD: Does the
prompter bother you when she’s screaming
at you all the time?
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
rare. Most prompters are a pain.
BD: Do you
rely on the prompter even if they’re a pain?
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
BD: We’re now
using supertitles in the theater. Do you feel it brings the opera
closer to the
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
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
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?
BD: Being now
international circuit, I don’t know you’re going to get much
opportunity to sing opera in English anymore.
DZ: No, not
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
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.
BD: Are you
getting tired of the Verdi roles?
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
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.
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.
if you were singing it and
rehearsing it and performing it, you might get a
little more tired of it.
DZ: I don’t
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
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
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?
BD: Do you
sing differently for microphone than you
do in live performance?
BD: You just
get out there and sing?
DZ: You do
what you can do and you tell the mixers to lay off.
[Laughs] Is that really possible these days?
Sometimes. This whole idea of mixing voices
is to get them to balance. If they would just put the microphones
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
BD: I take it
you don’t particularly enjoy making
made a couple of fine
recordings. Are you pleased with the ones that have come
[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
yes. A lot of people seem to like it, so I guess it’s
pleased with the artistry you’ve given
as it goes into the tape?
Yes. I’m the happiest when there’s real
musicianship going on. That’s why I do it. That’s why I’m
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
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
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
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
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
DZ: But it’s
a very important one. Very
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?
BD: Is she
she’s fun fluff. It’s like Shirley Temple in a movie to spice it
bit and to have some contrast. She doesn’t advance the
plot. You could do the whole Forza
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?
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
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
can wait. It doesn’t bother me to wait.
It’s much better to wait.
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?
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
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?
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
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
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
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
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?
because we were making
BD: I hope,
though, that you find this occasionally
Occasionally. Once in a blue moon, but it does happen.
getting famous for Azucena. Tell me
a little bit about her.
DZ: She’s an
interesting character because
she’s not insane in the typical sense. She’s a very, very
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,
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
DZ: She does
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?
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,
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
open to other ideas, then?
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 more
— without 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?
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,
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?
BD: How far
ahead are you booked?
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?
depends on how tired I am. [Both laugh] When you’re tired
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.
At this point I asked my guest to record a Station Break for use on
WNIB, and inquired about her birthdate — which she gave truthfully!]
DZ: I’m not
embarrassed about my age.
good. Some people are demure about it.
DZ: Oh, I
think that’s so silly. We all age. It’s a part of
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
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.
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?
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.
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
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?
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
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.
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.
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
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.