Irene Dalis, a Metropolitan Opera mezzo-soprano turned artistic director, runs the San Jose Opera after the European model, and she wishes there were more companies in America that did the same.
Dalis was in Salt Lake City recently to judge finals of the Utah Metropolitan Opera auditions.Rather than hiring professional singers production by production, as in most regional companies, San Jose Opera engages career-level artists for a year to sing all leading roles. "Our bylaws say this company is for career-level singers," she said. "I understand the needs of the singer. Our main purpose is to develop singers.
"When I first said we would do this, people laughed; they could only visualize a regional company as functioning with guest artists. But now they follow our young singers avidly and are so excited when they move on out and up in the operatic world.
"You can make a singer in the studio, but you must produce a performer on stage," she said. "So our singers work on stage constantly with resident and guest stage directors and sing 40 performances a year on our main stage, the Montgomery Theater, which seats 500. They go into the schools for outreach programs and sing programs of arias for festivals and cultural groups. Each singer sings about 100 times a year."
All it takes to make a singing career is hard work, talent and luck, she said. Oh, yes, and courage. "Someone once said that you must have the hide of an elephant and the heart of mimosa," she laughed.
Of all these assets, perhaps luck is the most important - that and preparation, she stressed. "Opportunity will always come; the trick is to be prepared, ready to take it. And a singer must be able to be alone, she must have space around her. I was never bored or sad, I didn't mope when I was alone. I used the time to develop. I found too that there is nothing so difficult as success, it is a tightrope for a singer."
In 1977 she retired from her Metropolitan Opera career. "I always said I would quit at 50, so I would have time and energy to do something else," she said. Beginning in 1978 she commuted to San Jose State, her alma mater, where she was appointed a professor of music.
"I soon discovered that I was not a voice teacher," she laughed. "But then there was the opera workshop, which I took over. At first we had no sets, no costumes, no house, but I went into the community and raised some money. We still have the opera workshop but also our Opera San Jose, which became professional in 1984-85."
Dalis was spurred in her efforts because "I saw the talent of those who came to audition, and I knew it must be trained and nurtured," she said.
This year's four productions are Puccini's "Madama Butterfly," "Vanessa" by Samuel Barber, "L'Elisir d'amore" by Donizetti and Cavalli's "L'Ormindo." Next year's repertory will be Donizetti's "Lucia," "The Turn of the Screw" by Britten, Puccini's "Il Tabarro" and "Gianni Schicchi," and Verdi's "Un Ballo in Maschera." Over the years San Jose has done three world premieres of modern operas.
Dalis is skeptical when she sees the name of a stage director attached to an operatic production (Sellars' "Don Giovanni," Zefferelli's "Turandot"), in recognition of their far-out or overly elaborate interpretations. "When people walk out primarily praising the sets and costumes, you know something is wrong," she said.
She's concerned about the plight of young singers, many of whom must wait on tables or run computers to eke out a living. And she believes that singers should never perform free. "Wherever I speak, I bring up that it takes as long and costs as much to produce a singer as a lawyer, a doctor or an engineer," she said.
Dalis took her first degree in piano, voice and music education in her hometown, at San Jose State. She also holds a master of arts in music education from Columbia Teachers College.
"My family believed in me, and my sister was my first piano teacher," she said. "All five of us children played a musical instrument. My family always helped me. I couldn't have made it without them.
"I took my first serious lessons in New York with Edyth Walker, a very old lady who taught only four students. She had sung Amneris to Caruso's Radames in `Aida.' She charged $35 a lesson, and I took three a week - a fortune in those days. But I had been advised to study with a master or not at all, and I think that's good advice."
She studied in Italy under a Fulbright grant, working with Otto Mueller at the Verdi Conservatory. She made her debut as a house soprano with the Oldenburg Opera of northern Germany in 1953, singing Princess Eboli in "Don Carlo." There she mastered 10 principal roles. "I sang only principal roles in my entire career," she said.
After two years at Oldenburg, she went to the Berlin Opera for two years and made her Met debut in 1957.
"Luck followed me," she said. "I was lucky in finding Edyth Walker, in studying with Mueller, and in his cousin, Roberto Bauer, who heard me sing and watched my career. He became an impresario in Germany and Switzerland and helped me get my job at Oldenburg."
She was lucky also in her debut at the Met, again as Eboli. "Such a cast I had with me! Cesare Siepi as King Philip, Ettore Bastianini as Rodrigo, Jussi Bjoerling as Don Carlo, and Delia Rigal as Elizabeth," she said. "When a cast is great, you can do your best. But if you are surrounded with mediocrity, you too will seem mediocre."
Dalis' roles at the Met were rather few but substantial ones from the dramatic repertory, which required upper extension and some crossover ability. Besides Eboli, she sang Amneris, Azucena, Lady Macbeth, Santuzza, Ulrica and Wagner's Kundry, which she also sang at Bayreuth. "I did Isolde at San Francisco Opera, but mostly I sang Brangaenes," she recalled. "A well-trained mezzo should have a high C, it's not the range but the timbre that's important. I didn't do Carmen, or the lighter things."
Besides the Met, she sang at Berlin, Hamburg, Covent Garden and San Carlo, also at San Francisco Opera every second year.
"I never had professional management. I took care of my own engagements, which was good and bad. Without representation, I made no records," she said.