Dolora Zajick discovered opera as a 22-year-old pre-med student. "That's when I discovered I had a voice," she tells Fresh Air host Terry Gross, "and I actually had a crack at a singing career. And I decided to take the chance."
That leap landed the mezzo-soprano at the Metropolitan Opera, where she's been for 25 years. Peter Gelb, the general manager of the Met, says she has "one of the greatest voices in the history of opera."
Zajick is best known for singing in Verdi's operas, including Il Trovatore, Un Ballo in Maschera and her signature role of Amneris in Aida. Offstage, she's the founder and director of the Institute for Young Dramatic Voices, a program designed to encourage young singers with big or unusual voices to develop healthy, expressive instruments for the stage.
On how operatic singing feels
"Singing is connected to the body. So there's a depth in the body that's necessary to perform this kind of music and a lot of the expression comes from a kinesthetic awareness and that's one thing that I think people identify with — you don't have time to think, you don't have time to dwell on anything because you're in the moment. You have to be concentrating on what's happening right then and there."
On 'kinesthetic awareness' and connecting to the audience
"The audience hears something entirely different than what you feel. Well, the singer is listening for focus. You're being expressive. There are sensations that you're feeling physically that the audience isn't feeling. There is a kinesthetic, sympathetic awareness that audience has if you are really using your body when you sing that they are feeling at the same time. A lot of the times the audience doesn't realize that's what's happening. Some of them do. It's a very visceral thing."
On teaching 'kinesthetic empathy'
"One of the tests we use for younger singers when we're testing their ability to absorb a vocal technique — it involves putting a blindfold on them and you sing a vowel and see if they can duplicate it. Perhaps you sing an E and then you do something different. You tighten the upper lip or you jut your jaw out and you go 'E.' Somebody with kinesthetic empathy is going to tell that there was a difference. You'll see an almost imperceptible flicker on their upper lip and then it's almost subconscious, and then they'll make the new sound. The more you have of that, either as an audience member or as a singer, the more you're going to connect in that way. There's always some amount of it that we do that we don't even realize that we do, but it's all done through sound."
On how to hit high notes
"You have to have support. You have to have resonance. People have to understand what you're saying. You have to be expressing the music. And you have to find a way to technically achieve that. There are some basics. The jaw has to be relaxed. The tongue has to be relaxed. Your mouth has to be in the right position. That just comes from doing it with the right person, the right teacher at the beginning, and then it becomes a habit and then you don't have to think about it anymore."
On singing in different languages
"The biggest chunk of operatic training is in linguistics and musicianship. It's not in vocal training. [I have to understand] not only what I'm singing, but what everyone else is singing. I sing Italian, Czech, Russian, French, German, English."
On why the Institute of Young Dramatic Voices focuses on 'unusual' voices
"I think they're often the most misunderstood during their development and we've got more people on the planet than we've ever had, why do we have fewer dramatic voices? Something is happening that's cutting them off at the pass somewhere and I've discovered where some of those places are. One of them — I think we lose the largest amount at the high school level and I think the reason for that is because they don't sing classical music as much as they used to, and the other reason is that when they do, the voice that matures and has a big sound usually does not fit into a high school chorus, a cappella choir ... Some a cappella choirs make room for [big voices], but most don't. If they're going for a choral sound, that voice is just going to be shut down to try and fit in."