On Sunday, Yelena Dyachek will step on the Metropolitan Opera stage in New York for the first time. It could be the step that catapults her into the very top rung of the most promising young and talented opera singers.
For a budding star, performing at the famed opera house is a singular moment, akin to a hopeful ballplayer getting a big-time tryout at Yankee Stadium.
The 24-year-old Oak Ridge High School graduate will join 22 semifinalists from around the nation who have already survived a string of regional auditions. Success Sunday would move Dyachek onto the finals of the Metropolitan Opera Council’s auditions, which would bring her national attention.
Since 1954, the competition has been a hunting ground for new talent, with finalists building top careers, including sopranos Jessye Norman and Renee Fleming and baritones Thomas Hampson and Ben Heppner.
“It’s going to be a dream come true for me to sing on that stage,” Dyachek said by telephone from Los Angeles.
“I don’t expect anything. I want to do it for the experience, to perform on stage in front of people.”
Getting to the semifinals was no easy matter. Dyachek had to ace three audition stages against hundreds of singers: districts, regionals and the first stage of the semifinals. Hundreds of singers compete year after year in the hopes of making their careers.
After Sunday, 10 semifinalists will be chosen to perform in the March 13 finals, also held at the Met as a ticketed event. The five best are then awarded a grand prize of $15,000 and the remainder $5,000.
The Met semifinals cap what has already been a promising year for Dyachek, who recently gave her master’s degree performance at the University of Southern California’s Flora L. Thornton School of Music. She has also been accepted into the San Francisco Opera’s prestigious Merola Opera program.
Prior to USC, Dyachek studied under Daniel Ebbers as an undergraduate at the University of the Pacific, in Stockton.
“It was fairly obvious from the first audition that she had a unique talent,” Ebbers said. “She had a larger voice than most singers we hear. It’s a tremendously powerful voice.”
Dyachek could also use her “instrument” in flexible ways – a rare skill for singers with commanding voices.
“She was able to move it very fast in coloratura passages,” Ebbers said, referring to more ornamental vocal melodies. “That indicated she wasn’t just sitting on a powerful voice.”
Ebbers said the most important plan for his student was learning how to do less, not more.
“She’s Ukrainian and has this very strong personality,” he said. “She’s very goal-oriented and very driven and wanted to get everything done right away. Couple that with a large voice, and that can be tricky.
“We wanted to make sure we were slowing her down and make sure we were really talking about specific areas of technique. We wanted to make sure she did not overpower her own instrument.”
USC vocal teacher and mentor Elizabeth Hynes said it’s not easy for young singers to fully embody the range of emotions of characters in the operatic repertoire. “Voices reflect life experience and that takes time, and life experience,” Hynes said.
“Yelena has a voice of size and ringing presence, but for me the truly special quality is Yelena’s innate musicality and how this gift guides her to a depth of expression rarely heard in a singer of her age.”
At age 3, Dyachek was already singing in a church choir in her hometown of Vinnytsia in west-central Ukraine. A year later, she began taking violin lessons. Her brother is a pianist, and her sister earned a degree in piano performance.
Despite the music, her family suffered persecution under a Soviet system that clamped down on religious freedom, which made the family a target due to their Protestant faith.
Her mother’s dream had been to work as a doctor, but upon completing entrance exams for a medical program, she was told she could not continue because she came from a Christian family and refused to repudiate her beliefs.
“This is just one of the examples of imposed limitations that our family, as well as many others, had to face during the Soviet regime,” Dyachek said.
When she was 9, the family finally moved to the United States after her father’s death, joining the Sacramento region’s large community from the former Soviet Union.
“The move to the U.S. was a way to make sure that the future generations would have the opportunities that our predecessors were not as fortunate to experience,” said Dyachek.
Her first voice teacher, Alina Ilchuk, who also grew up in the Ukraine, said she has never had a student quite like Dyachek.
“Yelena came to my studio when she was 10 years old. I remember our first meeting very well since she sounded much more mature than most of the kids her age,” she said. “I realized her voice might become something very special in the future, so we agreed to set up private lessons and work systematically for eight years.”
At first, Ilchuk started Dyachek on Ukranian folk songs but advanced her to the standard classical repertoire for young singers, which typically includes works by Johann Sebastian Bach, Franz Schubert and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. She then entered Dyachek in competitions hosted by a national opera teachers group.
The first year, Dyachek didn’t even place. After lots of hard work and focus, she placed second the next year and won the top award a year later.
A defining moment for Dyachek came at age 13 when Ilchuk took her to a Sacramento Opera performance of “Aida.”
“That was a transformative experience for me,” Dyachek said. “I had never seen an opera live and never experienced all this emotion that was put into singing.”
In New York, Dyachek will sing Fiordiligi’s turn in the aria “Come scoglio” from Mozart’s opera “Così fan tutte.” In the aria, Fiordiligi boldly rejects the advances of a suitor, a song that requires handling musical and dramatic outbursts.
She said the role has become her trademark, but she holds no illusions about locking in the finals.
“It will be exciting just to hear the other people perform,” she said. “For me it’s already an amazing opportunity to perform at the Met Opera stage at this point of my career. In the long run, it will give me more experience.”