On the Beat

She writes the songs: Zajick branches out into composing.
by BRIAN KELLOW

ON the Beat hdl 415
© David Sauer 2015

RECENTLY, CATHOLICISM seems to be the running theme in DOLORA ZAJICK ’s career. In February, she made her role debut as Mme. de Croissy, the old Prioress whose crisis of faith explodes on her deathbed, in Washington National Opera’s Dialogues of the Carmelites . The Catholic Church is also at the heart of a new dimension of her career — composing. Last August, San Jose’s Cathedral of Saint Joseph gave the world premiere of her scene for solo voice, women’s chorus and small orchestra, Roads to Zion . It was written to honor the 500th anniversary of St. Teresa of Ávila, founder of the order of reformed Carmelites, who had a paternal grandfather who converted from Judaism to Christianity; St. Teresa was canonized in 1622, forty years after her death. In San Jose, Zajick performed the solo spot herself, and she will do so again when the work is reprised this October with the Orquesta y Coro de la  Comunidad de Madrid. 

Zajick’s new creative path began with a trip to her hairdresser in Reno, Nevada, where she lives. “Don’t give me a Carmelite hairdo,” she said with a laugh, which prompted him to tell her about a community of Carmelite nuns living nearby, one of whom was his regular customer. Zajick got to know several of the Carmelite women. (She dabbled briefly with Catholicism in her teens but initially found it “too dogmatic, in all the wrong ways.”) Zajick found in her new Carmelite friends “an informality and iconoclasm that attracted me. The nuns didn’t wear habits, but they were strict about certain things. They began inviting me to eat with them. They live their lives in a kind of group therapy, because everything is a group decision. They have incredible, deep introspection — and an incredible library. One nun came out with a book and said, ‘Do you want to know the real story of Eboli?’ Because apparently Teresa of Ávila and Eboli were bitter enemies. Eboli was trying to stamp her out; that’s why she was under house arrest. And now that I’m doing the Old Prioress, the nuns are giving me all of this literature to read.” Since Teresa of Ávila’s anniversary was looming, some of the nuns encouraged her to compose a piece. “They felt I had a calling for it,” says Zajick.  

She got her principal inspiration for Roads to Zion while perusing the Internet, where she came upon a recording of Spanish nuns chanting. “It had this Arabic/Sephardic feel to it that was very haunting,” remembers Zajick. “I thought, ‘That’s what it should be, because Teresa had Jewish roots.’ Then I got inspiration from Teresa’s word — the longing to be with God, even though you’re not yet. I thought about the person who has accomplished the act yet has to deal with the doubts and fears of getting to that point. So I wrote the piece with her encouraging other nuns onto the same path she went on. There’s a leader, and a cantor, and I do it in this sort of Sephardic/Jewish style. Sparse orchestration. In the church, it has a haunting effect.” (Since then, she has written another work, The Blackbird Song, from the famous World War II cycle of poems by Jewish children imprisoned at Theresienstadt, I Never Saw Another Butterfly; CHANTICLEER performed the piece in a March concert at San Francisco’s Davies Symphony Hall.) 

Zajick, now sixty-three, can see the end of her performing days. She’s still singing Amneris, Ulrica and several of her other staple roles with the major theaters. But she has always possessed a driving intellectual and artistic curiosity that can’t be satisfied fully by singing, and she has finally decided to allow herself the time to pursue other avenues. She loves talking about her many passions — ornithology, biology, the history of medicine — but she becomes especially animated when she discusses the Institute for Young Dramatic Voices, the Reno-based organization she founded some years ago to help develop the Verdi and Wagner singers of tomorrow. 

“We have discovered that a dramatic voice can reveal itself as early as fifteen,” she says. “By the time a person is twenty, you pretty much know what they are. It’s a mistaken notion for people to think, ‘Well, I’m twenty-four now, so I’ll become a dramatic when I’m thirty-five. Doesn’t work that way. Some of our young ones become full lyrics. If they look like they’re going to have careers, we still help them on the side, but they can’t come to the regular summer workshop when it’s obvious that they have another kind of voice.” She praises several of the faculty members who have joined her at the Institute, among them DARRELL BABIDGE, JACOB WILL, SARAH AGLER, and LUANA DEVOL, who runs the Wagner division. While searching for viable young talent, Zajick has noticed certain socioeconomic trends as well. “Many of our best talents come not from music and art schools but math and science schools. They come from economically disadvantaged homes. [There’s] hardly anyone from the middle class. It’s either people of means who have the arts in their lives, or people with no access at all but who are in love with the arts and must have a life in it. You have to ask all kinds of questions — ‘What’s driving this person? Is this person doing what’s necessary to have a career?’ Sometimes you have a great talent who doesn’t want to do the work. I don’t have time for that.” spacer 

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Current Issue: April 2015 — VOL. 79, NO. 10