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For Opera Powerhouse Dolora Zajick, 'Singing Is Connected To The Body'

The mezzo-soprano discovered opera as a 22-year-old pre-med student. She took "a crack at a singing career" and has been at the Metropolitan Opera for 25 years. Now she's helping emerging singers.


Other segments from the episode on March 19, 2014

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, March 19, 2014: Interview with Dolora Zajick; Review of television program "Doll & Em."


March 19, 2014

Guest: Dolora Zajick

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Something I couldn't have predicted happened to me recently; I fell in love with opera. Honestly, I wasn't prepared for it. I'd always avoided opera. That changed after I saw the 2011 film "Margaret" that included a scene where the characters go to the Met to see an opera. The opera excerpt in the film was so moving I decided I had to see one myself.

It took a while, but eventually I went to the Met in HD, the live Metropolitan Opera Performances shown by satellite in movie theaters around the world. I've been hooked ever since. My guest, Dolora Zajick, has sung with the Met for 25 years. She's best known for singing "Verdi." I love her voice, and she has interesting things to say about singing and teaching. She's the founder and director of the Institute for Young Dramatic Voices, which is designed for young singers with big or unusual voices.

She didn't figure out that she could sing opera until after she was a pre-med student. Let's start with some very dramatic singing featuring Zajick as the gypsy Azucena in Verdi's "Il trovatore." It has one of those great opera plots. Her mother was burned at the stake on the orders of the count, who believed she bewitched his children. To avenge the murder, Azucena throws the count's son into a fire only to realize that in her blind frenzy it was her own son she'd burned alive.

In this tormented aria, she confesses the truth to her adopted son. This was recorded at the Met in 2009.


DOLORA ZAJICK: (As Azucena) (Singing in foreign language).

GROSS: Dolora Zajick, welcome to FRESH AIR. I love your singing. I'm very new to opera, and I think a lot of our listeners probably haven't heard much opera. So I'm going to be asking you to explain some things that you might take for granted.


GROSS: But I want you to describe what it feels like physically when you're singing that because there's so much going on. You've got these power chords behind you that the orchestra is playing. You're duetting. You're getting higher and higher notes. It's really big and really deep and dark.

ZAJICK: Well, you know, 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 that expression comes from a kinesthetic awareness. And it's - that's one thing that I think people identify with, and of course there's the moment that you're in, and 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.

GROSS: But I'm thinking that there must be almost like physical soundwaves that you're feeling because...

ZAJICK: No, no, no, you don't feel that.


ZAJICK: No. The audience hears something entirely different than what you feel.

GROSS: Really? So what are you hearing different than what we're hearing in the audience?

ZAJICK: Well, a singer is listening for focus. You're being expressive. You are - there's sensations that you're feeling physically. It's a very visceral thing. Kinesthetic empathy is a very interesting ability. There was a famous Russian choreographer who went blind, and he was able to tell by how they sounded when he put his ear to the floorboards exactly the positions where their arms and their hands and their feet were.

And he could tell exactly what their posture was because he had heard that sound so many thousands of times through the course of his years. And he was able to tell by how it sounded what they were doing with their bodies to achieve that sound. Singers have the same thing. You have to have that to be able to learn a vocal technique. We use - in fact that's one of the tests we use for younger singers when we're testing to see their ability to absorb a vocal technique.

And it involves putting a blindfold on them and having - you sing a vowel and see if they can duplicate it. Like perhaps you sing an E. And then you do something different. You tighten the upper lip. You go - or you jut your jaw out. So let's say we tighten the upper lip. You start out on E, and then I go E, there's a little bit of difference in the sound.

And someone with kinesthetic empathy is going to figure out what you did without seeing. And 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.

GROSS: From the very little that I know about opera, I think of the dramatic mezzo-soprano and the parts that I've seen you in as being kind of like a character actor. Most of your roles in opera, you're not the girlfriend, you're the jealous woman. You're not the lovely nymph; you're the witch. You're not the woman having the affair with the king; you're the fortune teller who that woman goes to. You're Lady Macbeth.

So do you think of yourself as a character actor in that respect?

ZAJICK: I've become one, and I have enjoyed it. The thing is that mezzo-soprano usually gets the designation of that kind of character in an opera. Usually the soprano is the pure ingénue, and then you've got the, you know, the noble tenor, and it's usually the baritone and the mezzo that have the evil parts. And sometimes it's the bass.

And you get to do all these twisted and interesting people. And that's - I like doing those kind of people. There's an interesting evolution when you're acting a part like that, and it's - you know, it takes a lot of in-depth delving into your own self and finding what's in you. And it takes a harsh, objective look at yourself to be able to come to grips with those kinds of roles in the right way, I think.

GROSS: So what about your range as a dramatic mezzo-soprano?

ZAJICK: Well, dramatic mezzo is very - not quite but almost a soprano in terms of range. It's a high mezzo. But you have to have low notes.

GROSS: And you do.



ZAJICK: I've been very fortunate.

GROSS: So I want to play something else, and this is you with the Metropolitan Opera recorded in November of 2012, and this is from the Verdi opera "Un ballo in maschera," which translates to masked ball. I asked for everybody's forgiveness with my pronunciations.

ZAJICK: I'll stop you.



GROSS: You're not forgiving me, I can see.

ZAJICK: No, no, no, no. It's - I'll do it slowly, "Un ballo in maschera."

GROSS: "Un ballo in maschera." No, that was terrible.

ZAJICK: No, that's OK. Say maschera.

GROSS: Maschera.

ZAJICK: Now say maschera.

GROSS: Maschera.

ZAJICK: But you want the accent on the ma, maschera.

GROSS: Maschera.

ZAJICK: That's right.

GROSS: Do I have to do this in order to love opera?


ZAJICK: No, you don't.

GROSS: Because I'm going to be hopeless if I have to...

ZAJICK: No, you're going to be fine.

GROSS: If I have to learn how to pronounce things to love opera, I'm going to be in trouble.

ZAJICK: No, you're going to be fine. I'm doing it slow so you'll get it. OK, so it's maschera.

GROSS: Maschera.

ZAJICK: Yeah, you got it.

GROSS: Did you have to go through this when you started singing because you didn't speak all the languages?

ZAJICK: Oh yeah, we all do.

GROSS: Yeah, uh-huh.

ZAJICK: We all do. You know, we all - in fact the biggest chunk of operatic training is in linguistics and musicianship. It's not in vocal training.

GROSS: No, really?


GROSS: Do you understand everything you're singing? I mean, like...

ZAJICK: Absolutely.

GROSS: I mean word for word, as opposed to here's the English translation?

ZAJICK: Word for word. Not only what I'm singing but what everybody else is singing.

GROSS: So you have to know a lot of languages but mostly Italian, right.

ZAJICK: You have to know enough to know - I sing in Italian, Czech, Russian, French, German, English.

GROSS: Wow. OK, so back to - I'm not going to say the title again.


GROSS: So in this, like you're a fortune teller, and introduce the aria we're about to hear.

ZAJICK: Well, this is a very interesting aria because you can play this part one of three ways, and it depends on the slant of the stage director. You can play her as a woman who really believes that she is contacting Satan but isn't, she's just a dingbat; or you can play her as someone who really is cahoots with Satan; or you can play her as a fraud, and she's just part of some intrigue.

GROSS: How do you see it?

ZAJICK: Well, it depends on the stage direction. You see, that's the wonderful thing about opera is when something can be interpreted differently, there's a different take. As long as - that's what's - when I say that's what's great about the role, it means that each one is equally valid.

GROSS: And in this version we're about to hear, how are you singing it?

ZAJICK: As a dingbat.


GROSS: How come?

ZAJICK: Well because she thinks she's connected with Satan, and she just got lucky.

GROSS: And what are you singing in this? Translate it for us.

ZAJICK: I'm calling up the devil.


ZAJICK: I'm calling up the devil.

GROSS: Well, I love your, like, warm, dark tone in this. So let's hear it. This is my guest Dolora Zajick, singing with the Metropolitan Opera in 2012.


ZAJICK: (As character) (Singing in foreign language).

GROSS: That was my guest, Dolora Zajick, singing with the Metropolitan Opera, November 2012, an aria from Verdi's "Un ballo in maschera," in which she played a fortune teller.

ZAJICK: Un - no, it's un.


GROSS: You're going to correct me again.

ZAJICK: No, no, ooh, ooh, as in hoo, like an owl.

GROSS: I think you should just give up on me, honestly. I just...

ZAJICK: I'll say masked ball.

GROSS: Yeah, the masked ball, right, because that's what it translates to. Thank you.




GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Dolora Zajick, and she is a dramatic mezzo-soprano who has sung with the Metropolitan Opera for over 25 years. Let's take a short break, and then we'll hear some more singing and talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest, Dolora Zajick, has sung with the Metropolitan Opera for more than 25 years. So do you have a favorite or a most calamitous moment on stage that you would like to share?

ZAJICK: Probably the most calamitous incident was the first time that we did "Rusalka," and there was a mechanical cat on my shoulder. And I'm trying to find a motivation for saying hop my cat, hop my cat a thousand times. So we thought, well, it's digging its claws into your shoulder, and so - and I've got a spoon, and I'm mixing stuff in the cauldron, so I hit it on the head.

And the head would stop for a second, and then it would continue moving, and the tail would keep moving. Well, one day I hit the head too hard, and the head fell off.


ZAJICK: But the tail kept moving. So I had to do this - I had to finish the scene with this headless cat, and the tail kept - with a moving tail. And I didn't know what to do with the head. So I just picked it up and threw it in the cauldron with the rest of the stuff. And that got a lot of laughs.

GROSS: That's funny, because you're the witch in "Rusalka."

ZAJICK: Yes, yes.

GROSS: Now it's really an interesting story how you became an opera singer because you didn't even start singing until you were 22.

ZAJICK: Almost 22.

GROSS: Yeah, so I thought that opera singers were supposed to start singing when they were very young, and even if they weren't training in opera per se that they were getting some kind of training.

ZAJICK: I think that you will find, if you went around and asked all the opera singers at the very top of their profession how old they were when they started, who they studied with, where they studied, you would get so many different answers that there is no one rule fits all. Singers actually used to begin singing at a much younger age than they do now, but I would say for me, I started late, but it's not unusual.

I discovered I had a voice. I wanted to be a pianist when I was seven, and circumstances didn't allow that I studied it. So by the time...

GROSS: What does that mean?

ZAJICK: Well, I just, you know, I didn't have access to a piano. So by the time I got to high school, I knew it was too late to be an instrumentalist. So I decided, well, I'll become a doctor and just, you know, sing for fun, you know, or do something for fun in music.

And when I was in college, I was in pre-med, and that's when I discovered I had a voice and that I actually had a crack at a singing career, and I decided to take the chance, and this is where I ended up.

GROSS: So when you realized you had a voice, as you put it, and you started studying voice, what appealed to you about opera?

ZAJICK: For me it was just simply that I finally had a venue where I could be in classical music. If I had started when I was really young, I probably would have pursued the piano, and I probably would have been a coach or a conductor or something - or a composer, although now I'm starting to compose anyway. So I ended up where I might have ended up anyway. So it's all been some - an interesting return to the beginning.

GROSS: Could you demonstrate for us one of the vocal exercises or techniques or something that you learned early on that has helped guide you and helped discover the best qualities in your voice?

ZAJICK: Well, here's a vocal exercise. It's very old. It's called - it's one of the vedal(ph) exercises, and the purpose of it is to connect the support with the focus because they're inextricably linked. So it's a very strange exercise, but it works. So it goes something like this...


It sounds something like that.

GROSS: It sounds like you're doing it more nasally first and then more through your throat second.

ZAJICK: Yes, it teaches you the difference between nasal and - nasality, nasal resonance, which are two different things, and it also helps you isolate what you really need from one thing to the next so that the focus and the support are connected together so that you get a supported sound.

GROSS: Is there another example, too, of something that, like, opened up your voice?

ZAJICK: Well, opening my jaw. One of the things that I was taught is that a lot of modern singing today is people use their jaws and their lips more than they used to. And they used to more with their tongue in the past. And so I was taught the older method. And the difference would be if you go - I'm going to do it the wrong way first or what some people consider the right way today, and then I'm going to sing the way I do it, which is an older school.

So the first way is (singing). And then my way would be (singing).

GROSS: Wow, that's a really big difference. And the second way, the way you do it, is darker, fuller, more resonant.

ZAJICK: Well, the second way, I don't use my lips. I use my tongue to make - create the vowels.

GROSS: Now, you know, I've been asking you to demonstrate a couple of things. You actually direct a vocal institute for young people. It's called the Institute for Young Dramatic Voices. Who are the young people that you're seeking out for this institute?

ZAJICK: Well, we're looking for singers that can sing - that have the potential to sing Wagner, Verdi or unusual voices which we would consider basso profundos, true basses, contraltos. And we would take a dramatic coloratura if one came along, but we haven't really heard one yet.

GROSS: So why are you focusing on unusual voices?

ZAJICK: Well, because 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 discovered where some of those places are.

And 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 capella choir.

We had a young man who is a spectacular young bass who, when he auditioned, he had hardly any sound at all until he hit a low note or a high note. And I said wait a minute, there's something wrong here. So I said why don't - why don't you try this again, and I found out that there was an actual demarcation as to when it started sounding good again.

It turned out the range where he had shut his voice down and was singing out of tune and singing through his nose was where he was trying to fit in with his a capella choir. His voice was simply too big to fit in with adolescent voices. We told him you just can't sing in that choir anymore. And we got him into an adult community choir that doubled up with the university every year to do "The Messiah."

He got to do a solo, and he got to sing with voices that had a comparable size to his. It made all the difference in the world because it gave him an outlet. He learned how to sing coloratura that way, and it was a much more pleasant experience for him.

GROSS: Dolora Zajick will be back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Dolora Zajick, a dramatic mezzo-soprano who has sung with the Metropolitan Opera for more than 25 years. This year, Zajick sang the role of the witch in Dvorak's "Rusalka," which was telecast live in movie theaters around the world as part of "The Met in HD" series. She's also the founder and director of the Institute for Young Dramatic Voices, which is designed for young singers with big or unusual voices.

I've seen you in "The Met in HD" in "Rusalka," you know, it's kind of like a show on public television in the sense that at intermission there's an interviewer, usually somebody who is with or have been with The Met who interviews the leads and then they interview the conductor and the director. And so like you're walking off, it's like you've just sung an aria, you know, it's the middle of the opera and suddenly like you're being interviewed. And I'm thinking, god, that must be so hard to be in your like analytical, reflective frame of mind at the same time that you're in the middle of a performance, because it's just intermission.

ZAJICK: Well, it's all part of the job.

GROSS: Well, what happened...


GROSS: What happened in "Rusalka" is that you're asked the question and your answer was something like this...


ZAJICK: Well, that's because I was sick.

GROSS: Yeah, you were sick. How did you sing?

ZAJICK: Well, if your vocal folds - if the vocal folds themselves are not affected and you can keep your lungs functioning, you can sing. You can have a, if you've got all the rest, you know, stuffy nose, runny nose, if you've got, you know, all the other things - you can even have a - you can have a really bad sore throat but if your vocal folds are not affected or only slightly affected, you could still sing.

GROSS: Well, first of all, when I have a cold of any sort my voice sounds completely different - and I'm talking about speaking. And second of all, usually when I get a cold, I get horse or laryngitis. That doesn't happen to you?

ZAJICK: Well, on occasion. Singers are experts at keeping things from dripping on their throats. Believe me, they're experts.

GROSS: How do you do that?

ZAJICK: Well, anti-histamines, you know, making sure that what, you know, the position you sleep in. I mean these things, they become habits and you learn all the tricks. And usually, those things are the oldest thing, like hot steam.

GROSS: Inhaling hot steam?

ZAJICK: Hot steam before you sing, tea with lemon and honey.

GROSS: Let me just ask - inhaling hot steam, I don't want to give the wrong impression. You're, you're not...

ZAJICK: You just turn on a shower, you know.

GROSS: Right. I don't want people to like burn their respiratory systems.

ZAJICK: No. You just turn on a shower on hot water and eventually steams up the place and you just breathe it in and it helps clear things up very quickly. And also, a lot of vocalizes clear out a lot of phlegm. You know, when I do that Vidal exercise, it basically cleans out my sinuses and it also, it pushes out phlegm from my lung. And so you basically hack the phlegm out and you get the nasal congestion gone by draining and, you know, and then you after, you know, the antihistamine is like when you sleep so it doesn't drip on your cords when you sleep. But when you're singing, you can't sing with an antihistamine, so...

GROSS: And what position do you sleep in to prevent post nasal drip?

ZAJICK: On my stomach.

GROSS: No, really?


GROSS: Wow. That seems so uncomfortable.

ZAJICK: Well, not if you have a pillow.

GROSS: OK. Still seems really uncomfortable.


ZAJICK: Singers, you know, it's amazing what can become a habit or what you're willing to put up with if it's part of your job. It's amazing. I mean I've sung with a broken shoulder and broken ribs.

GROSS: Really?

ZAJICK: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: Like a broken - how could you breathe if you have a broken rib?

ZAJICK: It's easy. You get that...

GROSS: I mean breathe in the kind of way you have to breathe.

ZAJICK: Well, the adrenaline shoots through your body and you don't feel it when you're performing. After is whole another story but...


ZAJICK: But a lot of singers get injured on the job. I remember trying to get some insurance once and they - and I asked, well, why is the insurance so high? And they said, well, opera singers are listed under circus performers.


ZAJICK: Because it's - apparently there is a high injury rate for opera singers.

GROSS: Did you injure yourself on stage?

ZAJICK: Oh, yeah. I fell in the prompter box at the dress reversal of " Rusalka."

GROSS: Oh, god.

ZAJICK: The first time we did it. And I broke two ribs and tore a ligament in my leg and...

GROSS: That wasn't this time around, was it?

ZAJICK: No. No. No. No. This is the first time we did it.


ZAJICK: And then fortunately I had a cane in the - a stick in the show so it didn't matter.

GROSS: Right. Yeah, you had a big stick as a cane in the one earlier this year.

ZAJICK: Yeah. So that works fine.



GROSS: My guest is Dolora Zajick. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Dolora Zajick. She's a dramatic mezzo-soprano. She's sung a lot of Verde over the years. She's been with the Metropolitan Opera for over 25 years.

Let's hear some more music. I want to play something from your album "The Art Of the Dramatic Mezzo-Soprano." And I thought we could hear from the Verde Opera "Don Carlo," the aria that you sing, "O Don Fatale." Tell us something about this aria.

ZAJICK: Well, this is basically where she curses her fatal gift that got her into trouble, her vanity and her beauty. And she basically is and bemoaning the fact that she's got to go to a convent. She's been given the choice of exile or the convent. And the reason for this is that she incriminated the Queen by putting a portrait of Don Carlo in her jewelry box, which her husband Philip found and accused her of infidelity. And for her punishment she has been given this choice by the Queen.

GROSS: OK. So this is Dolora Zajick and we'll hear Charles Rosecrans conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.


GROSS: That's Dolora Zajick from her album "The Art Of the Dramatic Mezzo-Soprano." And that is dramatic.


GROSS: I think one of the things that makes your singing so dramatic is the very kind of dramatic rhythms that you sing.

ZAJICK: Well, I did play percussion in high school.

GROSS: Oh, that makes sense.

ZAJICK: So I have a - and I have a good sense of rhythm. And I think that there's a lot that can be expressed in a tempo change and in a tempo itself. And I really believe that rhythms can help create a big presence. You know, sometimes a musical imagination is as important as singing itself, you know, the voice, what you do vocally, the vowels. So there is a percussiveness that can sometimes be quite energizing and useful in singing as an expressive device.

GROSS: One of the things you have to do when you sing, especially singing that kind of powerhouse stuff that you do, you have to learn how to relax your tongue and your jaw. And it's almost counterintuitive because I think usually if you're doing something that requires a lot of effort, you just kind of naturally tense up. I'm not saying you should tense up, but it's kind of what people do. And probably for untrained singers it's the same thing, that you just kind of like tense up. How did you learn to not tense up and to keep...

ZAJICK: You just don't.

GROSS: Sure, that's easier said than done.

ZAJICK: It is easier said than done, but that's exactly what you do. You learn to let go and stop trying to do too many things and figure out, isolate what you really need in order to function. A perfect example. If you look at a - if you compare an amateur weightlifter with a professional one, the amateur one, his neck is straining and he's using all these extra muscles and he's grunting and all kinds of things. And if you look at a professional, his whole body is relaxed. Even the hand that is holding the weight, and yet, but he will be exercising only the muscles that are meant to be worked. And that's the difference that you find - because they're very specific because they want to develop that particular set of muscles over, say, this set of muscles. So what they do is they've learned how to isolate. And that's the real key.

GROSS: Is there an exercise that you give your students to help them learn how to relax and only use the muscles that they need?

ZAJICK: Well, there's two approaches. One is to replace it with something else. And the other one is just to get them to let go. And, you know, and different personalities require different things. You know, for a control freak, getting them to let go is hard but it's essential. I remember when I finally figured out how simple one aspect of singing was, and I looked at my voice teacher and I said, is that all it is, and he put his head on the piano keys and he said, why do I do this to myself?


ZAJICK: And then the next time I had a lesson, there was a sign on the piano; it said thank you for not singing.


GROSS: What was the thing that you figured out?

ZAJICK: Oh, I just figured out I just had to just open my mouth. Now, that is easier said than done. But just to relax your mouth and open it the right way, just let it drop open. I mean that is more difficult for more people than you would think. Another one is just relaxing the tongue. Now, if your jaw is in the right place, it automatically puts the tongue in the right position, and then just learning to figure out what your tongue is really doing when it's relax. The best way to tell somebody how to figure out how to relax the tongue is to just say, well, notice where it is when you aren't doing anything. That's the relaxed tongue. It's not about putting it somewhere. It's about letting it be where it wants to go.

GROSS: One of the exercises you give some of your students is, it kind of sounds to me like Mongolian throat singing.

ZAJICK: Yeah, it is. It's the khoomei style. And what we've discovered is because it focuses on isolating resonances, is it teaches them about focus - focusing resonance and performance and connecting that with support immediately. It speeds up the learning process tremendously. So we teach - we are now teaching it to all of them and the results have actually been actually quite remarkable. I had no idea it would speed things up so quickly. Now, there are many schools...

GROSS: Can you demonstrate for us what it is, because not all of our listeners will know.

ZAJICK: Sure. Well, what you do if you have a fundamental pitch. And then with your tongue - the middle of your tongue - you bring out different resonances, different pitches. So an example would be this.


ZAJICK: Anyway, that a sample.

GROSS: No. That's wonderful. And the overtones that you get from that are so unusual and eerie. And so what does that teach you and do you want overtones like that when you're singing?

ZAJICK: What it teaches you is that resonance is all manipulated between the middle of the tongue and the hard palate. That's where all the work takes place. Now, you can use sensing devices but they're not, it's not going something. I mean some people say sing in the masks, put out in front of your face. There are many different - sing like there's a spot between your eyes. These all focus on sensations. And they're useful but it's only part of the process and people have different sensations. I mean somebody might not feel it between the eyes but they might feel it in a different part of their body. And they're not always reliable. They shift around on you. But hearing focus is always - you always hear it the same way. So when it comes to focus, you have to shift the gyroscope to the ear. When people say that someone is listening to themselves too much they're usually talking about other things, like they're slowing it down and they're not keeping up the beat.

Or they are - they've gone into the back of their mouth and it sounds big on the inside but there's no size on the outside and it's actually got less focus. So focus is something you have to hear in a very specific way.

GROSS: So you're in your early 60s now. How long do you think you'll be able to sing professionally?

ZAJICK: Well, I've probably got five years of major roles at this present level and then maybe some featured medium sized roles for another five to 10 years after that, if I choose to do that. I mean Mother Nature is definitely going to take a big chunk. I mean that's just inevitable. I mean we all age and, you know, I can see it. I can see it coming. And then I will gauge my downsizing accordingly. That's just the nature of the beast.

It's not happening now. I don't want people to think that all of a sudden it's happening now. I just see the approaching line coming. That's all.

GROSS: Right.

ZAJICK: And I want to leave in my prime. I don't want to leave a sorry spectacle before people. I want to leave at a respectable level.

GROSS: Yeah. When you're singing onstage at the Met, what is the importance of the conductor for you during the performance?

ZAJICK: Well, of course a conductor is terribly important. He has to be really good at what he does. But to me the most important person is the audience and the composer. The rest of us - and even the composer is a servant to the audience. And of course the audience is a servant to the higher art. So, you know, you can argue about that. But the thing is, is that the bottom line, we're serving the audience.

So the conductor is serving the audience, the singer is serving the audience, the stage director is serving the audience, even the composer is serving the audience. That's who he wrote it for. And so that is the most important person.

GROSS: Well, Dolora Zajick, it's been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.

ZAJICK: Thank you. It's been a great pleasure.

GROSS: Let's hear Dolora Zajick in a scene from the 2011 Metropolitan Opera production of Verdi's "Aida." She plays Aida's jealous rival, a role she's performed many times.


TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. HBO has done very well in the past with comedy series that explore and expose the inner workings of show business, from "The Larry Sanders Show" starring Garry Shandling to "Extras" starring Ricky Gervais. Tonight, HBO presents its newest entry in that self-obsessed Hollywood genre. It's called "Doll & Em."

It's a six-part comedy series starring Emily Mortimer from HBO's own "The Newsroom." Our TV critic David Bianculli has this review.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: "Doll & Em," a British comedy series imported and presented by HBO, is a vanity production in the most literal sense of the word. It stars Emily Mortimer, the lead actress from HBO's "The Newsroom," as an exaggerated version of herself. Her co-star is another British actress, Dolly Wells, who has been one of Emily's best friends since early childhood.

In "Doll & Em," Dolly plays one of Emily's best friends since early childhood. She's named Dolly. And after an emotional romantic breakup, she calls Emily in tears, and Emily impulsively pays her way from London to Los Angeles so Dolly can serve as Emily's personal assistant on a movie she's filming.

From the moment Dolly sets foot in the States, "Doll & Em" is all about vanity - and ego, and insecurities, and the unwritten but fairly rigid Hollywood class system. Late at night, only hours before Dolly begins her new job, the two old friends are lounging around drinking wine, and Dolly asks her best friend what her duties will entail. That's when the power shift slowly, but very surely, begins.


DOLLY WELLS: (as Dolly) So what does an assistant do? Like, do I make you breakfast?

EMILY MORTIMER: (as Em) No, no. You definitely don't have to make breakfast. They have it there on the set every day.

WELLS: (as Dolly) Shall I make coffee or get you coffee or tea or something?

MORTIMER: (as Em) You'd have to get up too early.

WELLS: (as Dolly) No, it's fine. I don't mind that.

MORTIMER: (as Em) Really, I don't need coffee.

WELLS: (as Dolly) You sure?

MORTIMER: (as Em) Yeah. I mean, I can tell you what kind of coffee I like just in case there's a time in the day that, you know - it's just a latte. You know that, it's just a latte, yeah.

WELLS: (as Dolly) (unintelligible)

MORTIMER: (as Em) Yeah, that's perfect. Really easy.

WELLS: (as Dolly) So what else?

MORTIMER: (as Em) But tell them to make it really frothy.

WELLS: (as Dolly) Really frothy. A frothy latte.

MORTIMER: (as Em) Just ask for loads of frothy milk.

WELLS: (as Dolly) Good. OK. Lots of frothy - frothy latte.

MORTIMER: (as Em) Yeah, that's it.

WELLS: (as Dolly) And then...

MORTIMER: (as Em) And three shots.

WELLS: (as Dolly) OK. I've got a latte, frothy latte, three shots. OK, what else?

MORTIMER: (as Em) In a medium sized cup. Because otherwise it gets too weak if it's in a big cup.

WELLS: (as Dolly) A frothy latte, three shots, in a medium cup.

MORTIMER: (as Em) Yeah.

WELLS: (as Dolly) OK. Cool.

BIANCULLI: Emily Mortimer, in this series, is playing a playfully unflattering version of herself, sort of like what Larry David does in "Curb Your Enthusiasm." Dolly Wells, though she indeed is close friends with her co-star, is playing more of a role. In real life, Dolly Wells is an actress too, though better known on British TV than here. I first noticed her in the satirical anthology series "Star Stories," in which she playfully impersonated such celebrities as Nicole Kidman, Gwyneth Paltrow and Heather Mills.

But in "Doll & Em," she plays a showbiz novice, a normal person quickly swept up by the trappings of Hollywood. As an assistant, Dolly is terrible. She's afraid to drive on American streets, she reveals way too many confidences, and she fuels Emily's insecurities rather than alleviates them. But on the set, Dolly is loved by everyone - and in a silent on-camera role as an extra, she shines so brightly that she becomes not only Emily's assistant but her potential rival.

The real Emily Mortimer and Dolly Wells created this TV series, are two of its three co-writers, and have left room for small stretches of improvisation. On screen they're wonderful together, and there's no problem believing them completely, whether they're fighting or laughing.

What weighs down this sitcom, especially at first, is its lack of subtlety. Plot points, like recurring jokes, are hammered home too hard and much too obviously. Even the closing theme song - "Why Can't We Be Friends?" - telegraphs that things will get worse before they get better.

Despite all that, though, if you stick with "Doll & Em," eventually it will stick with you too. And as the central dynamic shifts and the friendship unravels, you'll care about both of them, and what happens next. HBO is running two fresh episodes back-to-back each Wednesday. The fact that "Doll & Em" is shown Wednesdays, rather than on the network's long-established showcase Sunday night, infers something about HBO's own opinion of this import.

But it's worth seeing, not only for its story about female friendship, but because it allows other celebrities, including Susan Sarandon and John Cusack, to play slightly skewed versions of themselves. As a satire of Hollywood, "Doll & Em" isn't as sharp as "The Larry Sanders Show," as smart as "Extras," or as cocky as "Entourage" - all of which were HBO comedies.

Certainly, it isn't as biting as Fox's cult favorite Hollywood satire, "Action," or as delightful as Showtime's "Episodes." But even though it's easy to predict at every turn where "Doll & Em" is going, it still ends up being a pleasant enough trip. And it leaves room, the way things conclude, for a return voyage.

GROSS: David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching and teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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