Dawn Wolski is leading the Inland Northwest Opera through the coronavirus with passion and some creative planning

click to enlarge Dawn Wolski performing in Don Giovanni in 2014. - INLAND NORTHWEST OPERA PHOTO
Inland Northwest Opera photo
Dawn Wolski performing in Don Giovanni in 2014.

In trying times, art is often a way humanity can connect over a shared experience. And live music is one of the best ways to make that connection.

Of course, that's a lot harder when a global pandemic forces audiences apart and performing groups like the Inland Northwest Opera to cancel months' worth of shows. That's why the INO, under the leadership of General and Artistic Director Dawn Wolski, is getting creative when it comes to replacing its traditional programming with new ways to get the region's opera artists heard.

New events including Opera Grams, delivering arias right to your door, and an Opera Truck taking the opera's artists to the region's streets, are helping keep the organization alive and in the public eye even during trying times. Wolski was hired in 2017 to lead the organization formerly known as Opera Coeur d'Alene, with the goal of leading INO in new directions and enlarging the local opera-loving community. COVID-19 is a serious obstacle, but Wolski is determined to keep pursuing her mission.

"Everyone deserves access to incredible art," Wolski says.

Raised near Washington, D.C., with a father serving as a director of the National Security Agency, Wolski's early path led straight toward the military from a young age.

"I tend to walk through doors that open," Wolski says. "I also bang down some that don't."

After joining her high school choir, she pursued music at St. Mary's College of Maryland, intending to be a teacher. Instead, she discovered a talent for performing and went to grad school at the Manhattan School of Music in New York City to pursue this passion. Performing at venues like the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., she met a lot of singers and actors who were part of the U.S. Army, and discovered her childhood military dreams and new musical ones could coexist. She joined the Army and eventually performed in 49 states and for four presidents.

Wolski's first time seeing Les Misérables was what really got her interested in singing live, and after the Army she pursued a career in opera and as a voice teacher. Her passion for inner growth and trying new things has allowed her to excel because she is a very driven and motivated person.

"Opera was an exciting challenge to work through," Wolski says. "It takes a lot longer to hone that instrument because it's not just about the color or the range. It's actually about the physics of the sound."

Opera uses no microphone, so singers have to perfect the art of voice amplification over an entire symphony while harnessing emotion and articulation like other genres of music.

"You have to let your bones rattle so they magnify the sound," Wolski says. Her own voice is categorized as a "coloratura," or a voice that sings very high and oftentimes very fast.

Opera intertwines the emotional, intellectual, and physical connections to music into one performance. Wolski says live performances are typically done in such a way that "everything is sort of drawn out to give you that suspension of time." There is no right way of interpreting the art being presented to audiences.

After her husband, Spokane Symphony Concertmaster Mateusz Wolski, received a job offer in Spokane, Wolski moved across the country with him. She's worked with INO for a little over three years, and her main role as the general and artistic director is to raise money, hire the singers for opera performances, and propel the INO's vision forward. She is ultimately the face of the organization, but Wolski says she could never do it alone without the help of her board and the mentorship she receives.

click to enlarge INO's Dawn Wolski.
INO's Dawn Wolski.

"Art is a great unifier," Wolski says, "and we should never turn down an opportunity to learn from people around us."

During the coronavirus pandemic, INO created innovative ways to bring live opera performances to the Inland Northwest this summer.

Opera Grams allow people in the area to purchase live opera experiences for $100.

"They pick a window of time, and then I give them a couple of choice dates," Wolski says. "The artist will call you 30 minutes before they're showing up so you can be prepared."

The pop-up opera events will all be held outdoors to align with COVID-19 restrictions, and the Opera Grams can even be sent to friends or family as a surprise.

The Opera Truck, scheduled to start this August in both Washington and Idaho, is a flatbed truck where opera artists will sing to the public as it moves through different neighborhoods.

"Think of an ice cream truck," Wolski says, "You don't get a route for where the ice cream truck is going to be, but when you hear that sound, you get excited and run outside. That's kind of what the Opera Truck is going to be."

The goal is to hit a variety of parks, neighborhoods, retirement communities and other public spaces to reach as many people as possible. It's a completely free experience for people of the Inland Northwest. "You bring people together outdoors," Wolski says.

The previously scheduled events for the summer season have shifted into future years. The launching of CODA, a new young professionals branch of INO, the "interlude" luncheon and concert with acclaimed NFL player and opera singer, Ta'u Pupu'a, educational outreach to local elementary schools, the sunset cruise-set Opera on the Lake in Coeur d'Alene, the annual August gala at the Hayden Lake Country Club, and INO's full show at the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox, La Traviata, were all effectively canceled for 2020 by the pandemic.

With all the national unrest right now, Wolski and her work with the INO reminds us that introspection and stopping to take a breath are perfectly healthy things to do.

"There's always uncertainty in the arts, and there's always a curveball," Wolski says. "We spend our entire lives trying to grow and expand our crafts and examine ourselves."

For Wolski, the coronavirus is just another hurdle to get over. Wolski says, "it's just natural for us [artists] to look at ourselves and be willing to be humble enough to make changes even when it doesn't feel great." ♦

For more details on Inland Northwest Opera and its programming, visit inlandnwopera.com.

CORRECTION: This article has been corrected to properly reflect job titles and clarify a quote.

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