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Opera

Opera made to look easy

The rise, fall and proud return of a Detroit diva

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Published 3/31/2010

Kimwana Doner is sitting in a lounge atop the Detroit Opera House, and her posture is perfect. She's talking eloquently of a whore and a stalker. The city's northern skyline is splayed out below, juxtaposing the park where the Tigers play and the barren expanse just beyond it. 

"Take Flora," she says. "She's a ... well you couldn't call her a prosti ... she's a kept woman. That much we know. In my head, I built a back-story: she's a typical, somewhat reckless, party girl. She has fire. It helps me express who she is through the songs. Or look at Donna Elvira. Now that is one crazy lady, but she's dramatic in that she's strong-willed. I mean, not only does she love her man but she feels entitled to him." 

Becoming gradually more animated, Doner continues: "You know how it is: I hate you but I love you! Why are you doing this to me? I have to have you! I hate you, get away from me! I love you, come back!' So many layers, that girl. She's religious, sure, but she could be looking for Don Giovanni because he knocked her up. Who knows? She's crazy and I love her." 

And you thought Lady Gaga got to have all
the fun. 

Opera might be not be coming to an arena near you, its stars don't have their own line of perfumes, their affairs aren't made public. Still, they are some of the world's greatest singers, even if you can't name a single one. Opera vocalists tour like Broadway theater actors, yet are revered by fans in manner more suited to classical music virtuosos. And not unlike pop music's Mariah Carey, Celine Dion and (queen diva) Aretha Franklin, some operatic equivalents (Luciano Pavoratti, Maria Callas) retain fans en masse and boast fat discographies. 

Theater star, arena rocker and operatic diva — all own the stage, vying night after night for that singular experience of the standing ovation. 

The budding opera star Kimwana Doner will receive that honor when she makes her homecoming prima donna (that's first lady, not pretentious bitch) debut at the Detroit Opera House in Don Giovanni. It won't be the first time her voice moves a crowd to its feet. It will, however, be the most momentous. 


Homegrown soprano

Through the 1980s and into the '90s, LaTonya Sykes single-handedly raised her only child, Kimwana, on Detroit's turbulent east side. She did it while working full-time at a local health care provider, where she's clocked in more than 30 years and counting. Her daughter was not starved of the culturally enriching opportunities that kids from the affluent suburbs could afford to take for granted. Mom Sykes constructed an impromptu subsidization program of sorts because there wasn't a blueprint for building the artistic foundation that public schools had failed to create. Instead, she arranged buffers to keep Kimwana from boredom, because free time in a city famous for vacancy and vagrancy breeds unnatural disaster. 

So Mom's was a self-directed program of study: When Kimwana wanted ballet lessons, she got them. When she wanted tennis lessons, Sykes found the time and money for those too. And when her daughter mentioned an interest in piano, no time was wasted in booking an introductory lesson. On paper it sounds like a list of demands from a prepubescent prima donna. Kimwana was anything but that. She was a solid student, a creative and curious child who lacked the archetypal dramatics common to kids without sibs.

Kimwana Doner (she uses her father's surname) grew to be a woman of natural beauty, and you can see the amiable kid inside her — a smile gives that away. Beyond her oak-colored eyes and easy grin there's a speaking voice so downy it could slow a listener's heartbeat, a polar opposite to the effect of her onstage vocal prowess. She can clear the rafters with spirit. All she has to do is sing. 

"I found opera by accident," Doner says, with a toothy smile and steady eye contact. "Since I was a little girl, I was singing all the time — singing pop music. When I was really little, I went Natalie Cole crazy, but then fell in love with Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson and, of course, Prince." 

In those formative years, Doner also fell hard for obscure singers while watching PBS operas, including Leontyne Price, Kathleen Battle and Maria Callas.

Doner: "Remember those United Negro College Fund commercials: The mind is a terrible thing to waste? I remember seeing this gorgeous, statuesque African-American woman step up to the camera and say those words, then she let out an [voices a sustained operatic note]. That hit me. I was like, 'Oh, my God.' Who is that? What was that?" It was legendary soprano Leontyne Price doing what she did best. 

Doner's infatuation with vocal dexterity flourished, helped along by her middle-school music teacher's immaculate singing. The teacher's trained ear soon caught Doner's crude talent and she suggested the piano lessons. 

The teacher's impact on the impressionable pre-teen would last years. "For me to see an African-American women singing classically, to have someone doing it right in front of me, was a huge influence," Doner says. 

Mom and daughter lived near Detroit Denby High School, but good grades afforded the singer a better alternative: Detroit's Cass Technical High School. A college preparatory magnet school whose alumni include Lily Tomlin, Diana Ross and Kwame Kilpatrick, Cass Tech's reputation is that of an ability incubator. Under the guidance of renowned harpist Patricia Terry Ross — who conducted the group for 30 years and is now principal harpist for the Detroit Opera Theatre — Doner joined Cass Tech's nearly 90-year-old Harp and Vocal program. 

Though her mother wanted her daughter to pursue something like pre-med or pre-law — Doner admits that if she hadn't gone into opera, she'd have been a lawyer — but it shouldn't have been a surprise when Kimwana finally muttered, "No, mom, I'm going into vocational music." 

It was as hard a program as any Cass Tech offered, and Ross' reputation as a demanding, pitch-perfect stickler was decades-old. "She was hard, Doner remembers. "But it wasn't like Ross was some sort of taskmaster, she was a true perfectionist. The difference is care."

Any doubts raised by Doner's choices thus far were quickly erased upon a chance encounter with a longtime hero. 

"I met Leontyne Price when I was 17," Doner says, her eyes tracing lines of a slate-gray stratus outside. "She came to Detroit, to the Fox, and I got to go. I was starstruck, having listened to her voice for years. That night, I got to go backstage and meet her. If I wasn't nervous enough, I was asked to sing for her." Doner's eyes come alive: "She told me I had beautiful presence, which, coming from her, left me speechless. And she said if I ever lose the joy in singing, to stop." 


Higher learning, harder singing

Doner's post-high school plans involved moving to New York, not much else. "But being an only child, my mom wanted me close by. Part of me wanted that too," Doner says, admitting that her "fear to leave was backed by a hidden fear to succeed. 

"I grew up watching Fame," she continues, "and when I thought of New York I instantly thought of dancing and singing up and down the street. I just didn't know if I could cut it, all that New York is."

But there was trepidation, and she enrolled at Wayne State University. There, Doner sang in vocal workshops but had yet to sing proper opera, and felt stifled in a program that didn't provide industry-standard orchestral accompaniment. She became frustrated.

Eventually Doner got a break when Wayne State department chair and assistant professor Norah Duncan heard her sing and suggested she study at the University of Michigan. Duncan knew all the right people there. 

U-M was a thrilling new world, with new challenges. Doner found a guiding light for her years there in prominent opera singer and recitalist Shirley Verrett. 

"I took two years off before starting at U of M, and was in a rush to make up for time," Doner says. "Ms. Verett saw that right away and said, 'Listen, honey, you do not need to make a career at school. We're going to straighten your voice out first. In your last year here, you can audition for operas." 

And that's exactly what happened.

In her last year, Doner auditioned for and sang in Mozart's The Magic Flute and Verdi's La Traviata. The young singer was "amazed" to have a full orchestra, the talent and a stage set of that caliber. 

She wanted more, and was willing to work hard to get it. Sometimes she worked too hard. "Verrett always told me, 'Honey, don't flagellate yourself.' That's something I'm still working on," Doner says. 

"What I think of as checking myself comes off as a lack of confidence. I know when I need to fix something, vocally, and it gets to me. I don't want to be one of those singers who think they have it all together, but really it's like, "No, baby, I'm sorry, but you still have a lot of work ahead of you.' I'm pretty good at letting go of most everything else — or at least I'm good at pretending to let go."

Doner has always excelled at pretending; hers was an over-active imagination born of being an only child. So there was an underlying penchant for straight acting. 

"At Michigan we had to take an acting class, and my professor there asked me — knowing my passion to be wanted to be a singer — if I had considered straight theater," Doner says. "And I had, it's something I would love to do, but opera takes up an incredible amount of time." For now, there's enough drama in opera to satisfy her hankering for acting. "I fall in love with every character I sing," Doner says. Not unlike a method actor's preparation, Doner makes up backstories about the characters she transforms, building off the provided subtext. 


Shoreline tragedies

A single interjection — an obvious question, really — can paralyze the singer. She closes her mouth and throws her eyes back. The query (What did you do after graduating from U of M?) got a rollercoaster answer: The next seven years of her life brought lows she didn't know existed, and peaks she'd only dreamed of. 

In 2000, before setting off for her first stint in an opera-sponsored young artists program (a paid, hands-on internship for promising operatic talent found at almost every national opera company), Doner got engaged to jazz trombonist Vincent Chandler (now her husband), a rising star in Detroit. The two set out for Los Angeles. Chandler was enrolled at the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, which had just moved from Boston's Berklee College of Music to the University of Southern California, and Doner, eager and naïve, set up her first audition at the Sante Fe Opera House. 

"At the time, I didn't realize how big of a deal the audition was," Doner says, shaking her head in disbelief. "It was an audition I wasn't too late to apply for, and they weren't asking for a headshot or the other essential things I didn't have together yet." She left the audition feeling good. Things got better when Doner got a call from a woman connected to the opera company who told Doner she was going to give her a special recommendation, which should get her accepted into the program. 

"I was beyond excited," Doner says. But the callback didn't come. "I thought it was a sure thing. Turns out there's no such thing." 

Doner lost her spirit from the news. She'd have to make other plans. For Chandler, things in L.A. weren't much better. To quell her blues, Doner found work singing professionally in a church choir, though she spent the better part of their year in Los Angeles "knocked out with a terrible flu virus." 

So things didn't go exactly as planned in Los Angeles. The couple moved back to Ann Arbor so Doner could be close to her vocal coach, but it wasn't long before the Opera Theatre of St. Louis called. Her first young artist program, in St. Louis, saw Doner in her first traveling gig, featured as Muzetta in the touring production of La Boheme. It was the break she was waiting for. 

Her stint in St. Louis led to a series of young artist gigs and roles in productions from Seattle to Montgomery, Ala., over the next few years. If L.A. saw Doner stumbling out of the gate, what happened after that first summer in St. Louis had made up for it. Doner was in full stride. Or so she thought. 

By 2004, Doner and Chandler had married and the singer felt she'd finally "figured out how to be strategic and make it work." Not only had the couple unlocked the secret to their long-distance marriage — "be best friends and own good cell phones" — but Doner had seemingly "made it" when she was offered a two-year program with the elite San Francisco Opera company. "It's one of the top programs in the country," Doner explains. "There's the Met in New York, then Chicago, San Francisco and the Houston Opera Studio. So you'd think that if you get into one of those, well then you must be ready for the big time, right? Not so much, not for me." 

Doner's voice type is unique for opera. She knows this, and shrugs it off. ("Hey, you either really like it, or you really don't.") In opera, singers, from high to low, are classified as soprano, alto (mezzo soprano or half-soprano), tenor, baritone, bass baritone, bass and common tenor — the later born out of the ancient castrati sect. Those are guys who, due to nature or seriously emasculating surgery, can sing incredibly high. Doner is a soprano. The question was, however, what kind of soprano was she? Perhaps she was a lyric soprano — a singer whose voice has warm quality with a bright, full timbre that can be heard over an orchestra. Lyric sopranos often see roles as Pamina or Lorina (the Magic Flute), or as the prima donna in Gioachino Rossini's Adina (as Adina). 

Some coaches thought Doner's voice presented a more mature sound, that she had the vocal weight to be heard over larger orchestras. If so, she'd be a natural fit for the full-lyric repertoire, which includes several works from the masterful Giacomo Puccini (Tosca). Others argued she was moving towards Verdi's more vocally rich operas (Atilla, Il Trovatore). Doner didn't have an absolute answer. No one else did either. This was not acceptable. 

"Things fell apart, piece by piece. Things just fell apart," Doner says. San Francisco was a big deal. Doner, still in her early 20s, was on salary, instead of weekly stipends, and she was singing roles on a stage with world-renowned talent to packed houses. If she wanted to continue to that outside the world of young artist's programs, she'd have to figure out where she belonged. The stress of not being able to find her place on the vocal spectrum led to a mental and physical breakdown. 

In opera, you are your voice. 

"I can't blame anybody for it," Doner says with a forced smile. "One of the reasons you have real divas in opera is because most singers cannot be everything that everybody wants them to be, though all singers, myself included, want to be everything to everyone. It makes you a little crazy."

After the first nine months in San Francisco, Doner succumbed to acute stress and developed acid-reflux. 

"As a singer, to have your cords burning from acid is not fun," Doner says. "Then I started to get cluster headaches, which I had never had before, so I thought I had a brain tumor and had an MRI."

Digging to discover the source of her ailments, Doner kept coming back to the malice of marketing.

"That was the root of my stress. I constantly asked myself: 'What are you and where do you fit in?' I kept singing until my voice told me it was done. I went from trying to sing everything to being able to sing nothing. My voice shut down."

Crediting prayer, yoga and Starbucks lattes as go-to coping mechanisms, Doner made it through her second year in San Francisco, barely. She saw a doctor who gave her a prescription to help with stress, "but they just sat there in the container on my counter," Doner says. "I couldn't go out like that." Doner pauses to let a genuine grin return. "I was just unhappy, so it was hard to sing. Who can sing an aria if they're depressed? You just can't do it."

When things were at their worst, Doner thought back to her teen meet-and-sing with Lyontyne Price at the Fox Theatre. "I realized that I'd lost all the joy. Singing had become a job. Why should singing ever be a job?" So she moved home, stopped singing and began thinking about what was next. There was only one move that seemed at all rational to reboot her career: "Fulfill the dream, move to New York City." 

After a gig in Boston and a short stay in New Jersey, Doner and Chandler, who had left a job with benefits and a slew of regular jazz gigs in Michigan, moved to Manhattan, just above Washington Heights. 

"We went there with some money, but money drains very fast when you're in New York City," Doner laughs. "And when you're not working, you're on the subway, and when you're home you're living in a small box with rodents." 

When she was able to save up a little money, it'd go to the vocal coaches she couldn't see often enough. She had a mission: In New York she was intent on finding management, but managers are in the business of marketing their talent, and to do so they have to know what they're working with. Once again Doner found herself in the tormenting predicament that left her broken in San Francisco. "Who is she, stylistically? What's her specialty?" She still had no answer. The Met might be operatic Mecca, but Manhattan was no Promised Land. 

To make matters worse — because tragedy must compound in any operatic narrative — Doner confronted harsh truths of racial bigotry on a trip to Europe, during production of Gershwin's controversial American opera Porgy and Bess. "In opera, people see color immediately," Doner says. This is a topic that comes up a lot in the genre, but no more prevalently than with Porgy and Bess. Ann Midgett's recent review in the Washington Post is fresh in Doner's head. "Midgett wrote that "[Porgy and Bess is] 'still evolving and still difficult to define. It uneasily wears the mantle of a totemic work of or for African American culture. It continues to represent opportunity for artists of color in a field that has been unfortunately slow to create such opportunities; yet it also depicts its protagonists through the use of a bag of racial stereotypes that remain both uncomfortable and all too familiar.'"

Hinging on those irksome racist facets Midgett took issue with, Doner had, till the trip abroad, refused to sing any material from Porgy and Bess. She comes just shy of dubbing it an outright minstrel show. "I thought that my family had been through too much and that we had come too far to take part in that," she says. "I think my ancestors would turn in their graves." Doner briefly tries to defend Bess' character — "Well, she's a very complex character" — then says how she really feels. "Actually, no, she isn't, she's basically a drug-addicted whore." Doner pauses, smiles, and says, "There are a lot of African-Americans making a lot of money off Porgy and Bess. I don't want to be one of them."

The production was cloaked in racial tension when the play hit Poland and Russia. It was hard to say whether the citizens of those countries or the opera company itself were the greater evils. 

"We were supposed to go on to Greece, but I'd had enough after Russia and Poland," Doner says. "There were things said to me that would never be said in an American opera house, and not just to me but the whole cast." Doner has stories that include the African-American cast being left to wait in cold hotel parking lots while rooms were being booked, as they were not welcome to wait in the lobby. They only got worse from there.

"In Russia, they hated us when we walked down the street," she says. "Singers got shoved in the streets, people yelled out the N-word in public, and one girl got called a black bitch, right to her face, for no reason at all. Then, when we'd perform, they stand and clap. That freaked me out, how can it be one way on the street and this other attitude if we were on stage?" She bailed on Greece.

Doner couldn't depart fast enough. Not just Russia, but New York too. Says Doner: "I didn't just feel defeated, I felt deflated."


Redemption and discovery

Doner didn't have to time pack and move home quite just yet, as she was picked up by yet another touring production. But it tuned out that La Rondine would be making a stop with the Detroit Opera Theatre. Working back home, however temporarily, put in perspective the significance, or lack thereof, of geography as it relates to steady work in opera. Home had never looked so good, or at least so reasonable. But there was emotional healing to be had before she could come home again. Her confidence needed some remedy, and it came right away with a gig in Boston, a starring role as Donna Elvira in Mozart's Don Giovanni. Then came a more unlikely appointment: Doner was asked to sing selections from Porgy and Bess, this time as a soloist, at Opera North in Lebanon, New Hampshire. It was a difficult decision. "I wasn't performing the opera, just some of the music, which I cannot deny is beautiful. But, for me, the music has to be taken out of the context of the story." 

There was one last wound to repair — a gash she'd left open for too long. "Today I can sit here and tell you that I am a full-lyric soprano," Doner says, straightening her back, looking as assured as one can, "and I am very happy to fit this soprano style." As a full-lyric, Doner gets to tackle pieces by Verdi and Puccini, both of whom she adores, and can finally, albeit grudgingly, market herself. 

Just before relocating to Ann Arbor, for what should be her last move for a while, Doner had a series of confirming epiphanies — coming to terms with the full-lyric label being the most considerable. And aside from learning what she is, she also learned much of what she is not. First, though, she is a proud Detroiter. 

"It's weird, as a group of people from all sorts of backgrounds, Detroiters know what is good and what is not good, and they demand the best. You can't sell Detroit on something that falls short. No matter the musical genre, if it's crap, they'll let you know. Luckily, if it's good, they also let you know."

Regardless of current opera trends, which include full-on nudity, Doner is not meant to be model-thin, and when she loses too much weight, it affects the power of her voice, which cannot be compromised. She's not complacent as an African-American performer, happy to perform any material as long as it comes with a paycheck. She knows the color of her skin will most likely always be examined before the timbre of her voice, but she's confident her pipes will sway the minds of ignorant ears. The woman is not desperate for exotic locations; her success is not dependent upon them. In Michigan, she's not alone. 

To make good on a promise she made when at 17, Doner won't stop singing. 

Kimwana Doner makes her Detroit debut as a prima donna in Mozart's Don Giovanni, where she will sing the role of Donna Elvira on April 16 and 18. Soprano Kelly Kaduce sings the 10, 14 and 17. Robert Gierlach and Randal turner share the title roll. John Pascoe directs. Conducted by Christian Badea. Go to michiganopera.com or call 313-961-3500. The Detroit Opera House is at 1526 Broadway, Detroit. 

Travis R. Wright is the arts and culture editor of Metro Times. Write to twright@metrotimes.com.

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