Four times in five days last November, soprano Inna Dukach ’94 performed the emotionally draining title role in Madame Butterfly for the Anchorage Opera; it was a schedule so grueling she compares it to “running a marathon three days in a row.” But her week was just beginning: From Alaska she hopped on a seven-hour flight to Georgia, where she spent hours rehearsing the same role with the Atlanta Opera before giving another performance two days later. A few days after that, she was in Florida, auditioning for yet another opera company.
Sometimes she even gets to go home to New York for a few days.
Dukach’s travel and performance schedule can be exhausting, but the rewards of being an opera singer, she says, are worth every cramped minute in coach and every heartwrenching scene onstage. She recalls a high school matinee performance: “People in the audiences were screaming, shouting, clapping. You just feel like a rock star.”
From her earliest days, Dukach connected with opera the way that most kids connect with pop songs. She found something beautiful, almost visceral, in the commanding voices and the dramatic stories they told. “In opera, you have to be as loud as possible,” she says. “It’s basically a controlled scream. It’s immediate, it’s primal, it’s emotional.”
Still, she took her time finding her way into the profession. At Smith she majored in psychology even as she spent countless hours working at the music library. After graduating, she was eager to pursue opera more seriously, but had a lot of catching up to do; many performers begin studying at 18, or even earlier. For graduate school, she headed to New York’s Mannes College The New School for Music and took voice lessons, holding a steady gig working on the internal website for HBO to pay the bills.
The early years were particularly tough, she says; a performance for a tiny opera company sometimes netted her just $10. For some, that check might have been dispiriting. For her, it was inspiring. “I thought, ‘Oh, people will actually pay me for this!’” she says. “My career has been about incremental growth, but I’m always thinking about what that next step looks like.”
Dukach’s first big role came in 2006 singing Mimi for a New York City Opera production of Puccini’s La bohème. Since then, she’s had several career highlights, including a debut as Musetta in La bohème at the Royal Opera House–Covent Garden in London and several years with the New York City Opera.
What has given her an edge, she says, is her liberal arts education at Smith, which allows her to add depth to her performances in a way that goes beyond notes and words. “I don’t just show up and learn the music,” she says. “I think about the character, the time context, the background story.”
Meanwhile, reviewers have raved, calling her characters and voice “spellbinding,” “charismatic” and “sensational.” And as she looks ahead, she sees even more opportunities to take significant roles, such as Leonora in Verdi’s Il trovatore, as she sharpens her technical skills, vocal strength and confidence.
Though she’s quick to admit that opera seldom leads to economic riches, Dukach says that’s not the point. “There are people who would say I’m nuts for what I’m doing, but anybody who goes into music has to be a little bit out of the ordinary,” she says. “Music is the way we express what’s within us.”
Erin Peterson’s writing appears regularly in the Smith Alumnae Quarterly.
Spring ’15 SAQ