Since she was a little girl, Joan Dornemann has been stripping back layers of accomplishment to lay bare the kernel of perfection. She's not all the way there yet, but she knows a great deal about the way she has come, and the way others must go who want to succeed in the big, tough world of singing opera.
Dornemann, assistant conductor and coach at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, will be in Salt Lake City on July 10 and 11 to dispense some high-powered coaching of the sort she gives at the Met, to participants in the third annual International Vocal School, July 10-22 at the Promised Valley Playhouse. (For information about other prestigious visitors, workshop programs and concerts, see the accompanying article.)From a two-week workshop such as the International Vocal School, what can a singer expect to gain?
"We hope to make singers aware, to help them assess what level they are on, and what they still need to learn," she said. "We can give them an overview of the goal and recommend places where they can learn what they need."
During the Metropolitan Opera's 1989-90 season, September through April, Dornemann will be responsible for musically preparing 10 productions. Then she usually jumps into the prompter's box to be sure all goes as planned.
From that vantage point she's seen a bat flying in time to the music in Minneapolis and a fire started on stage by a match carelessly tossed away in "La Boheme." (She had to call firefighters on the prompter's telephone.) She's learned first hand that stage horses are unpredictable critters, so are flying objects, and sickness can strike singers down in a flash. She's even miscued the infallible Marilyn Horne, who took the whole thing in stride.
Coaches sometimes find themselves being psychologists, too. "World-class singers have amazing confidence on stage, but they are so human and vulnerable," she said. "Coaches can build up that necessary confidence and give them comfort."
During the summer, Dornemann fares forth on her own, to pursue a number of exciting projects on the seminar circuit.
In mid-May she was in Toronto at the Canadian Resource Centre for Career Performing Artists, giving workshops for singers, coaches, pianists and conductors. June 11-22 she participated in the fifth MCA (Musicians Club of America) Opera Center in Franklin, N.C., then spent a few days at Indiana University in Bloomington for a master class before taking off for New Zealand June 26-July 9 to judge the Mobil Song Quest.
After her two days in Salt Lake City she will fly to Tel Aviv, to head the second Israeli Vocal Institute, July 16-Aug. 24. A powerhouse faculty from the States will accompany her, including sopranos Renata Scotto, Martina Arroyo and Mignon Dunn, vocal teacher Rita Patane, conductor Paul Nadler and stage director Frank Corsaro.
"I always miss the people I just left, but I have hundreds of friends all over the world," she said. "And I work the whole gamut, from singers just starting out, with the exciting breaks they get, to the big international stars with established careers."
Working for many years with the greatest singers in the world has given Dornemann a sense of the qualities that lift them above the ordinary.
"People like Domingo, Scotto, Milnes have such well-developed personalities. They have talent, instinct, a kind of integrity, a dramatic oneness with the music and the text that is really compelling," she said. "Artistry like theirs doesn't just happen, it's hard won. They stop to think over a tone color, question themselves, examine, try different things.
"They have great intensity, ferocious dedication to their work. They give enormous attention to every tiniest detail. Sherrill Milnes, born a farm boy in Illinois, received honors from the Italian government for his gifts to Italian opera. His Italian accent is flawless. That didn't come about because he just sat around. Such artists avail themselves of first-class information and then work incredibly hard."
This beehive of activity all began in a home on Long Island, in a family mildly but not passionately interested in music - no different than the surroundings of a million other American kids.
"I was learning violin in school, and then one day my mother had a chance quite suddenly to buy a piano. I came home and there it was, so I had to learn to play it," said Dornemann, speaking via telephone from North Carolina.
She credits a "wonderfully stimulating" music teacher in high school for encouraging her to join both the choir and orchestra. "Maybe it was playing the glockenspiel in our widely toured marching band that really capped my understanding of the discipline and hard work as well as the joy involved in making good music!"
Studying piano under scholarship at Long Island's Hofstra College, she became interested in the "incredible" drama department, where she played incidental harpsichord music in Shakespearean productions. She also accompanied all kinds of musical theater rehearsals, crossing paths with the young Francis Ford Coppola (later a famous movie director), among many other talented students. But she still kept her sights set on teaching music therapy.
Dornemann passingly considered a career as a concert pianist, but found the concert stage a lonely place. "I liked the rehearsal atmosphere," she said.
During the next 10 years of school teaching and increasing involvement in coaching, she amassed an operatic repertory with the requisite languages, studying with teachers like Ludwig Donath, "a wonderful acting coach," and recently deceased conductor Giuseppe Patane.
Then Dornemann was chosen to join the Metropolitan Opera's studio touring company, for two years of bus and truck touring that further developed her expertise in working with singers.
Next stop was the New York City Opera, with then-general director Julius Rudel. NYCO's great ensemble at the time included Beverly Sills and Norman Treigle, at the height of their powers, singing their bel canto revivals. An encounter with Carlos Caballe (brother of Montserrat), an artist manager associated with the Barcelona Opera, led to her spending much time during the next five years at Barcelona Opera and Spoleto Festival in Italy.
There she found that working with international singers such as Caballe, Jose Carreras and Alfredo Kraus and with all kinds of conductors opened up a whole new level. "I was always learning one brand new wonderful thing after another. I'm indebted to conductor Juan Masini, who showed me a more profound way of coaching and analyzing. And it was Caballe who suggested I prompt as well, at a time when there were no lady prompters! But no one saw any reason why not, and they were patient with me.
"There are two ways of getting good at things," she said. "You can study a style or technique with a master, or you can keep doing what you do until you figure out how to do it! Most of my learning has come the latter way, though I now have five students, learning to be wonderful coaches.
"One day, a voice from the Met came over the telephone saying, `Maestro (James) Levine would like to talk to you.' I thought, what kind of joke is this, but he did come on the wire and explained that several singers had recommended me as a coach, and would I come down for an audition.
"When we got together he was so wonderful, he put me at ease. We talked about music, then sang, then talked some more for three hours. So on my birthday, I went to work for the Met."
Like her associates on stage, Dornemann has made "sad and difficult" sacrifices for her art _ not being with parents, giving up close friendships and even love, turning her back on the fun times. "People in our line of work pay an enormous price, but the work is such joy, moving on a level so intense and so highly creative," she said.