Steal a Pencil for Me: Meet Inna Dukach
By Kelly Maxwell
Russian-American soprano Inna Dukach appears to have stepped out of another era. Her look is both modern and retro, with an enviable ease to it. In Steal a Pencil for Me, she appears without a wig (spoiler alert!) because her signature bob is such a perfect fit for the era. More importantly, though, is her stunning voice and expressive acting; it’s simply ideal casting. Today on the blog, we speak with Inna to discuss her role as Ina Soep in Gerald Cohen’s and Deborah Brevoort’s Steal a Pencil for Me, and her journey through the many tiny magical moments that make up a career as an international opera singer.
When it’s time to originate a role, as in this world premiere of Steal a Pencil for Me, where do you start? How do you develop this character?
Like with any piece of music, new or otherwise, you start with the music. Then you read the text and read the progression of the character, from the beginning of the libretto to end. For me, I start to sing and learn the intention of the composer and the librettist through how the words are formed. I start to feel where the emotionality of the character comes out through the intention of the composer and the librettist. Then I sing it with my colleagues, with our amazing conductor Ari Pelto, and with our director Omer Ben Seadia. Everyone comes together to give their ideas and their thoughts on where everything is going, and then we digest it. We execute it together. We find our voices and then I find my own.
Your co-stars, Gideon Dabi and Adriana Zabala, are both making their Opera Colorado debuts with their roles—but our audiences might recognize you!
I sang La bohème here in 2010. Then I came back the following season for Florencia en el Amazonas. I have a sweatshirt from Opera Colorado that I still wear around town.
Since you’ve worked with us before, what are your thoughts on working with Opera Colorado Music Director Ari Pelto again?
I first worked with Ari at New York City Opera. He conducted my first La bohème there. I thought he was just fantastic. He’s a wonderful conductor, a lovely person, so sensitive to the singer and so knowledgeable about the music. He really gives a lot of his heart and soul to the music, which I really respond to. It ups my artistry—and my trust—so much to have that in the pit. I look at him and he’s like, “I’m with you!” I’m like, “Oh my god, thank you!”
What’s your favorite part about singing the role of Ina Soep in Steal a Pencil for Me?
This role definitely has challenges. You’re in this really beyond-horrific place. You’re facing the worst that life can throw at you. As a performer, you have to go there mentally and emotionally. That’s been a challenge. At the same time, I’m a part of this romance. I have that sense of the initial giddiness with a new romance. You know that feeling, you’re just like, “Oh my god, everything’s new and exciting.” So you’re constantly at odds in some way. Part of it is life and death: You’re facing your own death, and you’re embracing life. It’s been challenging and wonderful.
Well, from the response so far, I think you’re cooking something awesome up with your performance. Any other thoughts on mounting a world premiere?
It is the most challenging experience in the best ways. You don’t want to be asleep on the job. You feel kind of like there is a sense of responsibility because the subject matter is so serious and so important. But yes, mounting a world premiere is not for the faint of heart. You’re in it. You’re doing it, you’re creating it, and that’s exciting.
When we’re talking about the rehearsal process and building something out of nothing, what’s your favorite moment?
That’s a tough one to answer, partly because it’s not a moment. It’s not a big moment. It’s the little, tiny things. A lot of it is working with the director. Omer is brilliant and fantastic. She makes something so difficult-looking seem easy. She’s unruffled. She has this vision and we are just part of that vision. The collaboration between us is sort of magical.
It’s also getting to know my colleagues who are incredible and wonderful and giving. Some of them I have known for a very long time, like Andrew Garland. I’ve known him for many years. We did a La bohème together in 2004 or so. We’ve run into each other in many different ways, and every time, it’s just like coming home. I feel like I’ve known Adriana (Zabala) forever, even though we’ve just met. We have so much in common. When you get up on that stage together, it’s “I see you, I know you.” You connect. And I just met recently Gideon (Dabi), who’s lovely and just so charming and so sweet.
The Opera Colorado Young Artists are incredible on stage. They’re true artists. Katie Beck as Lisette is just wonderful. Every time I encounter her on the set she’s just glowing with energy and has a fantastic voice. Nathan Ward, another of the Young Artists, who plays my lover, he’s just so… Well, when the energy of the people that are in the productions is so overwhelmingly giving and positive and warm, you feel like you can just do anything.
Let’s talk a little bit more about the life of an artist and your own path to the stage. How did you get here?
I would say I had an unusual trajectory. I didn’t start until I was out of college already. It was very gradual. I think I was afraid to say that I really wanted to do this because it’s such an extreme way of living and making a living.
Where do I even start? I got an undergraduate degree in psychology, I went to grad school, I got my music degree, I started singing, and I just loved it. It’s been so many ups and downs. I have had incredible jobs in incredible places, less-than-incredible jobs in some other places. For me, the journey has been coming into my own as an artist. People throw that word around lightly—or maybe heavily or too seriously—but it has coincided with my maturity as a human being. I think those two things have to come together to have fulfilling experiences in this career. And that’s what it’s been; it’s been a lot of ups and downs. It’s been a lot of challenges: travel, no travel. Work, no work. And it’s constant, and there’s an acceptance of that process. Part of that also has been that I have a family. I live in New York City and I have a husband and a nine-year-old daughter. They travel with me everywhere, and they’re going to come to Denver for the premiere.
Speaking of ups and downs, how do you personally deal with the overwhelming rejection that all artists have to face in this business?
What rejection? Just kidding. It used to be much harder on me. I think that’s the trajectory of the artist. It used to be, “Oh my god, they don’t like me, what’s wrong with me? I suck!” And thank god, really, that over time, I’ve realized that it has absolutely nothing to do with me. Artistic decisions are made on all sorts of reasons, and rejections used to be like “Ugh,” but now it’s just like, “Oh, okay. Next.” It’s not that it doesn’t bother me; I’m not impervious to it, I’m still human. But it’s just that it has nothing to do with me as a human being, as an individual, as a creator, as a mother, as a human. It just has nothing to do with it. It’s just life.
Oh yeah, practice helps. It’s just, the only person that can reject you is you. You can shut yourself down to the world, or you can take it, and you can open it up, and you can come back to it and be like, “Okay, here I am, bring it.”
What do you like most about being an opera singer? What keeps you going?
I get to play. I get to be a kid. I get to sing and yell and scream and be something I’m not. I get to play. And I get to live in this music. I love that feeling of being immersed and submerged in an ocean of music. Singing with an orchestra, there’s truly nothing like it. I cannot describe it. You can’t. Being in it, you get to just play in the ocean, that’s what I call it.
Going back to Steal a Pencil for Me, what do you hope you are able to convey to the audience?
The truth is, we can’t tell the story of the Holocaust. We can tell the story of individuals that experienced it. And the most I can do is be as truthful and as honest about an individual experience that I’m fortunate enough to try to relate.