On a typical Sunday, opera singer Yelena Dyachek steps away from the bright lights of the performance stage and retreats to her family’s country home in Elverta. The house bustles with activity in the afternoon as family members swing by after church to spend quality time together over a meal of cucumbers, tomatoes and zucchini grown in their own backyard.
It was here that Dyachek began her incredible journey fueled by her extraordinary soprano voice. Earlier this year, Dyachek was picked as one of five top finalists in the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, a prestigious competition that began with 1,500 singers across the United States and Canada. She is currently training with the Merola Opera Program at the San Francisco Opera and will perform as Fiordiligi in the upcoming performances of “Così fan tutte” on Aug. 4 and 6 at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. She will then join the Houston Grand Opera as a studio artist for the 2016-17 season, playing the roles of First Secretary in “Nixon in China” and Dominique de Menil in the world premiere of “Some Light Emerges.”
“Everything that I do, I do it for the experience,” Dyachek said during a recent visit home. “Thankfully, most of the things have worked out for me.”
Theodore Huffman, who will direct this summer’s productions at Merola, said Dyachek’s star was sure to grow brighter.
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“Yelena is a really rare talent. She has an incredible voice and really incredible musical and dramatic instinct,” Huffman said. “She’s someone you want to watch and listen to.”
Dyachek’s gift for music was evident as she grew up in her native Ukraine. She recalled singing her first church solo at age 3 in Vinnytsia, about 200 miles southwest of Kiev. She grew up surrounded by talented musicians such as her older sister, Diana, who studied piano performance.
“My uncle plays the guitar, another one plays accordion and a third one sings,” Dyachek said. “And they were all self-taught.”
Educational opportunities, in fact, had been limited for Dyachek’s family. Getting a higher education under Soviet rule would have required renouncing their Christian faith. They left for the United States when Dyacheck was 9 and settled in the Sacramento area’s thriving Slavic community. Her father died a year before they migrated.
Dyachek had little time to dwell on the past. She was soon busy learning English and keeping up with her pre-medical school coursework.
To reinforce her singing at church, Dyachek started voice lessons with music teacher Alina Ilchuk. Like many her age, Dyachek wanted to sing popular music, but her instructor insisted she explore opera and brought Dyachek at age 13 to see “Aida” at the Sacramento Opera.
“It was truly life-changing because I had no idea that a person could portray so much on stage and deliver that with their voice,” Dyachek said.
Her first major victory came at the Mondavi Center Young Artists Competition, where she captured the Vocal Prize in 2009. Dyachek graduated later that year from Oak Ridge High School and, rather than pursue medicine, launched herself into a singing career.
Dyachek earned her bachelor’s degree at the University of the Pacific where she studied with Daniel Ebbers, with whom she spent countless hours mastering arias and other work. Ebbers’ discriminating ear paired well with Dyachek’s tremendous work ethic.
“She was a shy person when she first came here,” Ebbers said. “For maybe the first two months of our lessons, she couldn’t stop giggling.”
Dyachek had a stellar voice, Ebbers said, but she developed stylistically and dramatically. She went on to receive her master’s of music degree and a graduate certificate studying with Elizabeth Hynes at the USC Thornton School of Music’s Vocal Arts & Opera program.
“She likes to be perfect with everything,” says Dyachek’s mother, Nataliya.
At USC, Dyachek also introduced classical singing to a wide range of students, primarily non-performance majors more interested in Beyoncé than Beethoven. Dyachek’s only request was that they keep an open mind.
“With my students, it’s not about making them pursue classical music, it’s about exposing them to something they’re not used to hearing,” she said.
She entered the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions during her last year at USC, originally content just to receive constructive feedback from the audition panels. Yet she advanced quickly in the early stages and became one of 20 singers invited to New York for the semifinals. The field then narrowed to 10 who would be further narrowed to five top finalists.
Before a performance, Dyachek does her best to eat healthy foods, exercise and get enough sleep. In spite of all the preparation, she says it’s rare for singers to have all the parts of their voices functioning at peak efficiency.
“The chances of your instrument being that full 100 percent is maybe two days out of the year,” she said. “Every single time you just do your best and try to be flexible with everything else that’s going on.”
For years, Dyachek told her family and teachers that she wanted to sing at the Met, opera’s biggest stage, before age 25. She was 24 when that dream became a reality. Reaching the winners circle now turns her into a hot young talent to watch all across the opera world.
“I had zero expectations,” said Ebbers, who attended the Met auditions with several students and alumni from the University of the Pacific. “For her to have won is, of course, amazing.”
Participating in the Merola program for the summer has let Dyachek spend more time with her family, a rare opportunity in the often nomadic musician’s life. Dyachek enjoys a particularly close bond with her sister, Diana, who although 15 years older, could be mistaken for the 6-foot-tall soprano’s twin.
Spending time together offers Dyachek an opportunity to unwind and exercise her creativity in other ways after a long week of rehearsals, whether it means going out shopping or staying in to bake in the kitchen.
“When we’re together,” Dyachek said, “it’s the perfect balance.”