A Soprano's Tale: Juliana Gondek

Interview and write-up: @EmerNestor

Photographs: @FMarshallPhoto

California’s Juliana Gondek has enjoyed over 35 years of success as a mezzo-soprano and vocal pedagogue. Her critically-respected international career has involved collaborations with such formidable musical figures as Herbert von Karajan, Aaron Copland, André Previn, and Yehudi Menuhin. Juliana’s impressive catalogue of performances includes appearances in the opera houses of San Francisco, Houston, Seattle, New York, Dallas, and the Netherlands. Her recording artistry has been recognised by Gramaphone and Poland’s the Fryderyk.

Juliana’s musical story begins with her grandmother, who, following the death of her parents at an early age, became part of the American social welfare program, the 'Orphan Train Movement'. Following her adoption into a Midwestern farm family, Juliana’s grandmother lived, in essence, as an unpaid servant. As a teenager, she sang solos in her local church. However, a career in music was not to be. Juliana recounts the tale:

One summer, a neighboring farm family had a relative visiting from New York — a prominent Society matron — who happened to hear my grandmother singing in church. The grand lady approached my grandmother’s adoptive parents and told them: "your daughter could become a great opera star...If you will allow me to take her to New York as my ward, I will get her the best training and help her launch her career." My grandmother’s adoptive parents replied: "Oh, no! It’s almost harvest time, and we need her here in the fields to pick crops." That was the end of my grandmother’s musical aspirations.

Despite this twist of fate, the talent for singing was passed down through the generations. At the tender age of 3 Juliana realised that her neighbour, Mrs Trusty "possessed two things that no one else on the street had: a dog, and a piano." She became obsessed with both:

I'd walk across the road to her house every day to play with Pee Wee, the dachshund, and sit at the piano and play thirds with two index fingers, up and down the keyboard for what seemed like hours, because it sounded pretty. Then Mrs Trusty would feed me pine nuts and send me home. After 2 years of putting up with me in her living room, Mrs Trusty tactfully told my parents: "You know, this seems to be an abiding interest...You might want to get her a piano of her own!".

For her fifth birthday Juliana's parents purchased a piano which came with a set of free piano lessons from the dealer. The teacher on the company’s payroll was Milan Zirovich — a former opera coach at La Scala. The lessons were a success and at the age of 7, Mr Zirovich invited Juliana and her mother to attend a performance of Così fan tutte that he was conducting. The soprano remembers the event warmly:

The Fiordiligi was the lovely opera star Mary Costa, who had provided the voice for Princess Aurora in Walt Disney’s 'Sleeping Beauty'. I was enthralled with her beauty, her fairy princess ballgown, and her singing. After the performance, Mr Zirovich introduced me to Miss Costa, and as we left the auditorium, I whispered to my mother: "Some day I want to do that." I got my wish!

Juliana's childhood was filled with music. She fondly remembers the voices of Nat King Cole, Harry Belafonte, Xaviar Cugat, Dave Brubeck, Doris Day, and the original cast album of My Fair Lady, with Julie Andrews and Rex Harrison, playing on the hi-fi in her parents’ house. The classical soundtrack of these years was captured in an array of works such as: the symphonies of Beethoven and Tchaikovsky, the piano compositions of Chopin, Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty, Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade, Grieg's Peer Gynt, Grofe’s Grand Canyon Suite, Copland’s Rodeo and Appalachian Spring, and Stravinsky's Petrushka. Juliana and her younger brother would dance nightly after dinner under the family room spotlight to these recordings. It was her love of these pieces that inspired her decision to pursue her studies in classical music — a love that she kindly shares with us today.

Following your enthusiasm for pursuing piano studies, why did you then move towards violin and singing?

Singing was something my mother, brothers, and I did together daily, and it was hereditary. Every car ride was filled with songs and harmonizing, and we spent a dozen years singing in the children’s choirs at our church. My public elementary school offered band and orchestra training starting in the 4th grade (age 10), and I chose the violin. After a couple of years in the school orchestra, the Director of Music Education for the Pasadena City Schools recommended that I begin private violin lessons with her friend, famed violin pedagogue Alice Schoenfeld, who, together with her sister, cellist Eleanor Schoenfeld, were responsible for creating an army of child prodigy string players. I was too interested in boys and being a 'normal' teenager to become a child prodigy — and I was devoted to singing in my junior high school choir. But I’m proud of the fact that I won a competition to perform the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto with the Glendale Symphony Orchestra when I was 17 yrs old, and spent 7 summers playing in orchestras and string quartets at the Idyllwild School of Music and the Arts.

Even though I was singing throughout high school in a semi-professional musical theatre singing-dancing group, led by my junior high school choir director, James Coday (who had been Marilyn Horne’s best friend in college), I was most serious about classical music and my violin playing. I spent my first 2 college years as a violin major, while also studying music composition and conducting, until a rock climbing accident forced me into a decision.

I was climbing up the face of a sheer canyon wall with a girlfriend one Saturday when my foot dislodged a tiny pebble that hit her on the back of the head, knocking her out cold. She slid about 8 ft down the wall and had to be airlifted by helicopter to the closest hospital. I flew in the chopper with her, in utter panic that I’d almost killed my best friend. From that day forward, I developed a severe case of acrophobia, as well as a crippling case of performance anxiety on the violin. While I was fine playing in orchestras and string quartets, I could no longer play violin as a soloist. However, this problem did not exist when I sang. I had the Chairs of four departments at my college, USC, asking me to major in their discipline (violin, voice, composition, and conducting), and I settled on Voice. This was mostly because I thought it provided me with the least chance of success. The challenge was invigorating!

What was your time in the University of Southern California like?

My performance activities at USC centered primarily on the USC Symphony Orchestra, led by the great orchestral pedagogue Daniel Lewis. It was a sort of golden era there — I sang in Chamber Singers under legendary choral director Charles Hirt. I played in a string quartet with Oscar-winning composer David Newman; my Theory classmate was Oscar-winning composer, James Horner ("Jamie” to us); my Theory teacher was “Skip” (Morten) Lauridsen, several of whose solo vocal works I premiered or commissioned; I studied art song repertoire and style with Gwendolyn Koldofsky (aka “Madame K”), who also mentored Marilyn Horne and Martin Katz; my grad school classmate was Tom Hampson; I sang for Peter Pears in Master classes there which resulted in his bringing me, at his own expense, to Aldeburgh, England to study with him. My roommate in Aldeburgh was Marie McLaughlin, and my pianists there were the very young Roger Vignoles and Graham Johnson.

My time at USC taught me how to forge my own path as a performer. Because of my start there as an instrumentalist, I was rarely tapped for performance opportunities until I started to create my own: being the only vocal soloist in the inaugural concerts of the Schoenberg Institute; becoming a founding member of the USC Contemporary Music Ensemble, which led directly to my singing Aaron Copland’s 'Emily Dickinson' songs for Aaron Copland on the occasion of his 75th birthday; learning Baroque interpretation and ornamentation and performing on violin, treble viola da gamba, rebec, fidel, portative organ, and voice with the American Early Music Consort.

Did any interesting chance opportunities alter the trajectory of your career?

There have been so many. Having studied undergraduate Music Theory with Morten Lauridsen, and having premiered his songs on his doctoral recitals, he recommended me for a Teaching Assistantship in the Theory and Composition Department to pay for my grad school education. This was the first step on the road to a long, fruitful collaboration between myself and great living composers.

As a Young Artist at the San Diego Opera Center, under Tito Capobianco, we received intensive Stanisklavski Method acting training from Lee Strasberg himself.

My father, a Polish-American medical doctor, was close friends with another Polish doctor in LA whose wife, Wanda Wilk, happend to be a musicologist. Together, the three of them founded the USC Polish Music Library. Wanda provided me with access to a treasure trove of Polish art song which I presented, with the help of the National Endowment for the Arts Solo Recitalist Prize, in two series of concerts in New York and Chicago. A chance meeting of Dutch pianist Reinild Mees in Barcelona at the Francisco Viñas Singing Competition (where I won the Gold Medal again) marked the start of what has become a 30-year close personal and professional friendship. I introduced her to my favorite cycle of Karol Szymanowski songs, which in turn led to our Channel Classics recording, along with Piotr Beczala, Iwona Sobotka, and Urszula Kryger, of the complete songs of Karol Szymanowski, winning the Polish Grammy.

As a fresh-off-the-boat-from-LA singer in New York City, I met a distinguished older gentleman named John Zinsser, who enjoyed assisting as a volunteer for the NY Regional Met auditions. He became a fan and one of my favorite people, and he attended many of my NY performances. I decided to take a stab at auditioning for European opera houses. I had some time to kill in August before audition season began, so, on a whim, I entered the Geneva International Singing Competition. Much to my amazement, I won a Unanimous Gold Medal, as well as the Prix Patek Philippe — an award given to the person selected as the top international gold medalist of that year. In addition to a European recital tour that kicked off at Teatro La Fence in Venice, and a beautiful Patek Philippe watch, my prize included a full-length LP recording of songs and arias with the pianist of my choice (I chose Roger Vignoles) that I could use as a calling card.

Some time later, back in NYC, I gave John Zinsser my LP as a thank-you for his continuing interest in my career. John asked “Have you met my son?” I knew no one else named Zinsser. One afternoon my phone rang. A deep voice said: "Hello. This is Stephen Wadsworth. My father tells me you are the only singer in NYC who doesn’t need me." Of course I knew who Stephen Wadsworth was — every singer I knew who could afford it was taking acting lessons and coaching their auditions with Stephen. I just had never been able to afford his fee. I sputtered: "Thank you, but who is your father?" He replied: "John Zinsser." The penny dropped! I could hear my Patek Philippe recording playing in the background — a Verdi aria from Giovanna d'Arco. Stephen went on: "I’ve been listening to your recording...You made me put down my pen." I asked: "Is that good?" He replied: "Yes, very good." Next thing I knew, I’d been cast to cover the soprano lead in Leonard Bernstein’s A Quiet Place at La Scala and The Kennedy Center, which in turn led to my singing on the Bernstein West Side Story recording and several operas directed by Stephen.

Soprano Sheri Greenawald cancelled a string of engagements when she was pregnant with her daughter, and serendipitously, I picked up almost every one of them, starting with the four heroines in the US premiere of the Oeser edition of The Tales of Hoffmann at Opera Theatre of St. Louis, and continuing with the title role in Handel’s Alcina. I’ve often told her how grateful I was for the boost.

As such a celebrated mezzo-soprano, how have you attained longevity in such a difficult profession?

Primarily by acquiring a vocal technique that has allowed me to sing just about anything I might have wished — Handel, Mozart, Rossini, Wagner, Verdi, Puccini, Strauss, contemporary music, music from the court of King Alfonso X El Sabio, jazz, musical theatre, world music...It’s kept my voice in order throughout the physical changes brought about by aging, pregnancy & childbirth, transition to academic life, more aging!

I spent the first 25+ years of my career as a soprano with a strong lower range that allowed me to sing certain mezzo or zwischenfach roles alongside the soprano roles I was best known for. As I’ve aged, I’ve reinvented my career repeatedly by adjusting my repertoire as my voice dropped. I’ve felt a mix of nostalgia and excitement every time I’ve debuted a mezzo or alto role in a work for which I’d previously sung the soprano role — for example, with my first Verdi Requiem in the mezzo-soprano role (under conductor Segiu Commissiona), where previously I’d always sung soprano. Retooling my repertoire like this has likely added 15 years to my active singing life.

What personal challenges have you faced along the way?

My husband actively opposed my having a professional career, which was a significant factor in the ultimate failure of the marriage.

What has been the best advice given to you as a performer?

From my beloved teacher Kathleen Darragh: "Unhappy birds don’t sing". This has kept me mindful of maintaining my emotional health.

Having sung on some of the most amazing stages in the world, do you have a favourite performing space?

I have a few: 1) The Metropolitan Opera, for the esteem in which it holds its artists; 2) Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, for incomparable acoustics and a sense of history reverberating in its walls; 3) NYC’s Central Park, because singing to an audience of 20,000 is pretty thrilling!; 4) Aldeburgh’s Snape Maltings, Geneva’s Victoria Hall; 5) and Barcelona’s Gran Teatre del Liceu — the theatres that launched my international career.

What have been your most challenging and beloved operatic roles?

Most challenging: Dede in Bernstein’s A Quiet Place. It was musically complicated, and psychologically wrenching.

Most beloved: It’s a toss-up between Verdi’s Giovanna d’Arco, Mozart’s Vitellia [La Clemenza di Tito], and Carmen — from saint to sinners!

Do you have a preference for any particular style of opera?

My favorite is whatever I’m working on at the moment. I love it all — Baroque, Mozart, Bel Canto, Verdi, French, Strauss, early 20th century, and contemporary!

What have been your career highlights to date?

Winning the Unanimous Gold Medal and Prix Patel Philippe at the Geneva International Competition.

Working with Leonard Bernstein at La Scala, the Kennedy Center, and on his West Side Story recording.

Working with directors Stephen Wadsworth and Colin Graham at the Met, the Edinburgh Festival, and Opera Theatre of St. Louis.

Coaching all of my Mozart repertoire with Herbert von Karajan in Salzburg.

Le Nozze di Figaro in Amsterdam during 'Siberian Winter'.

Singing four seasons at the Göttingen and Halle Handel Festivals with conductor Nicholas McGegan, and then teaching alongside him as his co-faculty at the Pacific Music Festival in Sapporo, Japan.

Singing the title role in the US premiere of Rossini’s Bianca e Falliero with director Francesca Zambello.

My New York Philharmonic debut on 2 hours’ notice, with Sir Andre Previn conducting.

Creating new leading opera roles by composers David Diamond, John Corigliano, David Carlson, Bright Sheng, Stewart Wallace, Paul Chihara, Jonathan Sheffer, Ian Krouse, and Roger Bourland.

If you had to choose between performing and teaching, which would you choose, and why?

This is a Sophie’s Choice! I’m passionately fond of both, and the excitement each elicits in me is completely unique!

As an adjudicator what do you look for in a performance?

First, the quality and distinctiveness of the voice; next, technical facility and command of the instrument and the ability to effectively communicate a text.

How has the voice faculty at UCLA changed since your appointment in 1997?

By happenstance, at a certain point I found myself in the enviable position of being able to hire in all of my Voice faculty colleagues. I packed the roster with the very best of my colleagues from over the years — people whose professionalism and international credentials were well-known to me, who were intimately familiar with the international standard of excellence, and who I knew could be counted on to teach to that standard.

What are your hopes for the future of opera?

I hope for an infusion of energy and vision from younger audiences who will bring a taste for technological innovation to the art form while still appreciating the primal appeal of opera — and its unique dependence on the unamplified human voice — on an emotional and psychological level.

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