Encounter with a New York opera specialist – Article in Toronto Star, Feb 27, 2015

Published in TORONTO STAR on Fri Feb 27 2015
By: William Littler, Music Columnist

Joan Dornemann, the Metropolitan Opera’s assistant conductor, heads to Toronto in March to guide Canadian singers.

Strictly speaking, a career need be no more than a course through life. Where performing artists are concerned it can get more complicated.

That is where Toronto’s International Resource Centre for Performing Artists comes in. Founded by veteran artists manager Ann Summers Dossena, the centre mounts projects designed to help singers and instrumentalists navigate their career paths.

The most recent of these projects will take place next month, the first a two day “encounter” for singers with Metropolitan Opera assistant conductor Joan Dornemann, March 27 and 28 at the Canadian Opera Company’s McLaughlan Studio; the second a March 29 panel discussion on the music industry at the Centre for Social Innovation on Bathurst St.

If Dornemann isn’t exactly a career fixer, her decades of experience in the music business are what young artists seek to tap into during her occasional visits to Canada. On one of them the University of Montreal recently awarded her an honorary doctorate.

Most opera lovers know her work without realizing it, not only through her guidance of many of our performing artists but through her years at the Metropolitan Opera, both as a coach and as the person hidden in the prompter’s box during performances to rescue singers from faulty memories (she is the first woman to have taken on that job).

In fact, she rescues them from more than memory slips. On a recent visit she recalled a performance of Verdi’s Aida in which the ancient Egyptian set caught fire and she had to quietly cue a couple of stage hands disguised as priests to put out the flames while Dolora Zajick was still singing as Princess Amneris. At the end of the act, the noted mezzo-soprano asked, “Joan, was something going on while I was singing?”

Nowadays many opera houses, including Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre, prefer to avoid a prompter’s box when possible, a decision Dornemann says works best when there has been plenty of rehearsal and an attentive conductor. Otherwise, she says, it is like performing without insurance.

Ah, but what of the additional insurance of amplified sound? Not at the Met, the lady insists: if a singer needs a microphone he or she should head for Broadway.

Soprano Beth Hagerman and mezzo-soprano Emily D’Angelo, both of them Toronto-based, are two of the singers looking forward to participating in Dornemann’s forthcoming encounter. As Hagerman explains, “Both of us have reached the stage where our technique is more or less secure. Now we are looking for feedback from someone of Joan Dornemann’s experience on the development of artistry.”

“This kind of guidance is important,” echoes D’Angelo. “When you go to an audition, someone on the panel may find your singing ugly and someone else may find it glorious. You need to have confidence in yourself to face this the kind of thing.”

“What some people do not realize is that the audition panel is usually rooting for the singers. They want them to succeed,” suggests Rachel Andrist, a veteran Canadian Opera Company coach who will accompany the singers performing for Dornemann. “But if the singer brings something wacky to perform they will wonder if she can really sing the Countess (in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro).”

Back in the 19th century the composer Rossini insisted that the three requirements for a singing career were first, voice; second, voice; third, voice. Dornemann argues that we have moved into an age of great visual orientation. A suitable voice is not enough.

“Canadian singers are definitely coming up in the world. But Canadian singers can be overly polite onstage. They don’t want to be pushy or aggressive. They should see what is happening in Mexico. Being a tenor in Mexico is like being a bullfighter.”

Trained initially as a keyboard player, Dornemann insists that she is not a voice teacher. She addresses the development of the person who owns the voice. How did she nonetheless learn so much about singing.? “I was at the New York City Opera at the time when (conductor) Julius Rudel and (soprano) Beverly Sills were there. How could you not learn?”

Having learned, she is now devoted to helping the next generation reach its potential, mistake by mistake. “I once made a mistake when Marilyn Horne was singing The Italian Girl in Algiers,” she recalls. “So I wrote her a note of apology. She replied, ‘Welcome to the human race.’