Giving Voice to Dolores Claiborne

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SAN FRANCISCO—The world premiere of a new opera is always an important occasion, one that merits our attention and gladdens the heart of anyone who loves the art form. This is certainly the case with Dolores Claiborne, which had its first performance at the San Francisco Opera on September 18.

Dolores Claiborne was commissioned by the SFO's general director David Gockley, who has a long record of supporting new American works, first at the Houston Grand Opera and now in San Francisco. Its creators, starting with composer Tobias Picker and librettist J.D.McClatchy, are all practiced hands and did an excellent job of translating this story from Stephen King’s 1993 novel into a work that is fully viable on the opera stage.

I very seldom write reviews, for a couple of reasons. First, because I don't care to keep my senses and perceptions in "critical mode" while seeing and hearing a performance. I prefer to be in the moment and to not feel compelled to analyze. I get much more out of an opera if I just let it seep in and then reflect on it after. Secondly, I often know—and in some cases am friends with—people involved in a particular opera production. I could not fairly review people I know and might have worked with.

So I do not plan, in strict terms, to review Dolores Claiborne. The new opera had an excellent conductor (George Manahan), production team (director James Robinson, set designer Allen Moyer, costume designer James Schuette, lighting designer Christopher Akerlind) and a strong cast led by Patricia Racette.

Bringing a new opera into the world is a daunting task at any time, but this particular one faced a challenge, potentially fatal, that few works do. Dolora Zajick, for whom the opera was composed, withdrew from the production on August 25, a decision reached mutually by the American mezzo-soprano and David Gockley. In a statement, Zajick wrote that "the opera proved to be more challenging physically and vocally than I had anticipated and, exacerbated by my knee problems, I feel it is best to withdraw at this point rather than push forward.” Losing the star is tough at any time, but especially when a role was created to her specific talents.

From Mezzo to Soprano

The protean soprano Patricia Racette stepped in to play Dolores. This in many ways seemed like an ideal choice. Racette has a long and happy history with the SFO. She created roles in Emmeline and An American Tragedy, two other operas by Tobias Picker. This is no small consideration when talking about contemporary opera because finding a singer and composer who understand one another's abilities and sensibilities is often key to a new work’s success. And there is the added plus that Racette grew up not too far from Dolores Claiborne’s Maine setting and could imbue it with local flavor and inflections.

And yet there was one obvious question that struck me when I heard the announcement of the cast change: Dolora Zajick is a mezzo-soprano whose rich, powerful voice lies much lower than Racette’s spinto soprano. Racette certainly has vocal power and sings and acts with drama and intelligence, but her sound is very different from Zajick’s. The mezzo was in Tobias Picker's mind and ears as he composed the role of Dolores Claiborne. How, I wondered, could a soprano, even one with all of Racette’s gifts, assume a role that had been composed for a singer whose voice’s centrality is much lower, even if Zajick commands secure high notes? I sent an e-mail to find out.

On September 10, I received an answer from a representative at the opera who consulted with Jon Finck, director of communications and public affairs at the SFO. I quote from it in part (the emphasis is his):

"Tobias Picker is currently in rehearsal with Ms. Racette and with Catherine Cook (the mezzo who will play Dolores at two of the performances), working with them individually and responding to their separate questions about the score. For both artists, he is truly tailoring the score to meet the individual needs and comfort levels of their respective vocal abilities. He is providing modifications to some measures, or a phrase here and there, but all of this is minor and he is absolutely not rewriting the vocal parts or re-orchestrating the opera. Tobias composed the score with Dolora Zajick’s powerful voice and vocal range in mind: incredible low notes and high notes alike. With that in mind, the role can be assigned to both mezzo or soprano, and yes, with some alterations.”

I thought of several important roles in opera that have been performed by singers in different voice categories. Most of these are for women, although Massenet’s Werther, composed for tenor, has also been played on rare occasions by baritones. Carmen, and Rosina in Il Barbiere di Siviglia, were written for mezzos, but the roles are irresistible and many sopranos have performed them with considerable modifications. Mezzos such as Christa Ludwig (one of the greatest of all, it should be noted), have sung both the Marschallin (a soprano) and Octavian (a mezzo) in Der Rosenkavalier. She also sang the soprano role of Leonore in Beethoven’s Fidelio.

The roles of Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni and Adalgisa in Norma have been sung by both sopranos and mezzos. Many Rossini roles seem to work for special singers, whether their voices sit higher or lower. Two of these are Elena in La Donna del Lago and the title role of Semiramide, both of which were soprano parts but have been sung by “high mezzos” such as Joyce DiDonato and Cecilia Bartoli.

Norma was originally composed for soprano Giuditta Pasta but was later "tailored" for the lower range of Maria Malibran. This was the template for the version Bartoli recently sang in Salzburg. In Finck’s message to me, he noted that when Giuditta Pasta wanted to sing the title character in Rossini’s Tancredi, "...which was originally written for a contralto, Rossini happily obliged and tailored the score appropriately. Picker’s upcoming Claiborne proves to follow the historical precedent already established. Just call Tobias the ‘opera tailor.'"

Patricia Racette was vocally and dramatically convincing as Dolores, a remarkable fact given that she stepped into the role less than a month ago, had to learn music, words, staging and develop a characterization. All of this while rehearsing and then appearing at SFO in the roles of Elena and Margherita in Boito’s Mefistofele. In some performances of this opera she will only sing Margherita, although she is scheduled to sing both roles in the performance I will attend Friday evening. There were certain moments as Dolores when lower notes were beyond her reach, but that would be expected in this circumstance. Racette saved the day and the opera.

Susannah Biller (Selena), Elizabeth Futral (Vera Donovan) and Patricia Racette in 'Dolores Claiborne' (Cory Weaver)

Original Intentions, Future Performances

What I have been thinking about, since hearing the opera, is what Tobias Picker’s original ideas might have been. There was a beautiful trio that included Dolores and the characters of Selena (her daughter) and Vera (her employer). Both roles were written for high soprano and were sung by Susannah Biller and Elizabeth Futral. Clearly, Zajick’s earthy voice was meant to contrast musically with the two higher voices. As heard on opening night, the trio was sung by three sopranos and the effect was very different.

The orchestration was such that it was often meant to contrast with Zajick’s particular voice. I think this was lost with a soprano voice in the lead. Mezzo-soprano Catherine Cook, who is popular locally and was the cover for Zajick, will sing the role on October 1 and 4. I do not know her voice well enough to envision it in this opera, but I look forward to hearing what operagoers here have to say about how it sounded in this music.

This leads to a further question: Did the circumstances surrounding the premiere of Dolores Claiborne change the way it will be performed in the future productions it deserves? By that I mean, will it be cast for a Dolora Zajick-type voice (Stephanie Blythe comes to mind, and she would be fantastic) or will it be seen as a role for sopranos too? My feelings are still mixed on this. It is a great part. Its creators refer to it as an American Tosca, which is a bit of a stretch because Tosca has innate glamor while Dolores is lumpenproletariat. But the range of emotions and challenges she faces certainly rival those of Puccini’s heroine.

I think that certain rare, special, sopranos might be able to bring something to the part, but the totality of the music—vocal and orchestral—seems to want a gutsy mezzo, one who can be sympathetic to the audience even as she changes bedpans, spews profanity, endures spousal abuse and murders her husband.

Opera history is full of momentous premieres whose circumstances forever affected a work’s survival and acceptance. Verdi’s La Traviata survived a disastrous opening with a miscast soprano. Others were not so fortunate because the prevailing opinions did not understand the worthiness of the operas. Dolores Claiborne will always have an asterisk and a question mark attached to it. I hope that it will find, in future performances, audiences who respond to special singers, whatever their vocal categories, who give it voice.