SAN DIEGO — In the heyday of radio, one of the popular soap operas asked the rhetorical question, "Can a woman from a mining town in the Old West find happiness . . . ?"
On the live operatic stage, mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajic of Reno, Nev., has found no small amount of acclaim in her short but rising vocal career. And, if her jovial countenance is any indication, at least a modicum of happiness has accompanied that acclaim.
"They say that people who laugh a lot live longer," Zajic said. "Laughing exercises the heart without overtaxing it."
Zajic (pronounced ZEYE-etts) has ample reason to be in a positive frame of mind these days. Critics apparently cannot throw enough bouquets in her direction, and later this season she will make her debut at a trio of prestigious houses: the Royal Opera Covent Garden, the Vienna State Opera, and New York City's Metropolitan Opera. She has made major recordings with both reigning tenor superstars, Placido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti.
The gregarious mezzo is in town to sing the role of Azucena in San Diego Opera's "Il Trovatore," which opens tonight at Civic Theatre.
Along with another classic Verdi mezzo, Amneris in "Aida," Azucena is one of Zajic's signature roles. In 1986, when she made her debut with San Francisco Opera as Azucena, the San Francisco Chronicle headlined a review by Robert Commanday, " 'Trovatore' is Zajic's Show."
Although Zajic got a late start on her singing career--she was already 22 when she began serious vocal study--she has made up for lost time.
"I was studying at the University of Nevada at Reno in a pre-med program. I thought I was going to be a doctor!" she said.
In Reno she studied with Ted Puffer, whom she still considers her vocal mentor, but she soon went to New York City's Manhattan School of Music to enter the mainstream. There she prepared for the 1982 International Tchaikovsky Competition, in which she won a bronze medal, the first American singer in 12 years to place in that grueling competition.
"1982 was the worst year of my life," she said. After her plans to participate in two different summer apprentice programs fell through, she found herself with nothing to do but prepare for the Tchaikovsky, which she had entered only half-heartedly.
"Then I found out I would need $1,500--which I did not have--to go to the competition." Fortunately, several members of First Presbyterian Church in New York, in whose choir Zajic sang, came up with the cash just in time for her to purchase her plane tickets and competition wardrobe.
The combination of her bronze medal and the recommendations of New York colleagues became her ticket to San Francisco and the opera company's extensive Merola training program. Although Zajic recounts a host of San Francisco anecdotes, her favorite deals with her singing the high priestess role in a production of "Aida."
"The conductor wanted a full sound that was still far away--in a temple somewhere. First he put me on side of stage, but I was too loud. 'Make her stand back against the wall,' he said. 'She already is,' replied the conductor's assistant. Ultimately they put me in a hall on a ladder behind a doorjamb to cut the sound down to make it sound far away and mysterious.
"So then the joke became, 'From where are you singing the high priestess tonight?' At first I said, 'From the parking lot.' Then they claimed that I was singing it from the (San Francisco) Bay, and finally rumor had me phoning it in from Reno, Nev."
Unlike many singers', Zajic's approach to opera does not involve an intense emotional identification with the role she is singing.
"I am not a Method actress--it's all external. As a singer, I am a technically oriented person. I don't feel anything (about my character). Rather, I work on a charismatic level."
She defined her use of the term charismatic as a kind of total artistic concentration that results in a high energy level.
"An audience picks up that energy, and they throw it back at you. I also try to bounce it off the people on stage. If they are charismatic and they share this energy, the audience is knocked off its keister."
In spite of her enthusiasm for opera, Zajic expressed reservations about certain contemporary trends.
"The art of opera has become the domain of the boldest--the people with the most outrageous or the most controversial idea," she said. "It may be the stage director, the conductor or even the singer. There's always some weirdo who wants to ruin things, someone who doesn't like a particular character and then turns it into something the composer never intended.
"What opera should be about it taking the limits and finding a way to make things work the way they were intended to work," she said.
In addition to her four performances in "Il Trovatore," Zajic will sing the mezzo-soprano solos in San Diego Opera's Verdi Requiem on March 9.
Other singers in the "Il Trovatore" cast include soprano Susan Dunn as Leonora, Hungarian tenor Janos Nagy as Manrico, baritone Jonathan Summers as Count di Luna, and bass baritone Jeffrey Wells as Ferrando. Thomas Fulton will conduct the San Diego Opera orchestra, and Briton Richard Gregson is the production's stage director. The opera runs through March 6.