Elena Doria spent almost fifty years working at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. She spent half that time as a Chorister, and 23 years as the chorus director of the famed Met Children’s Chorus. Her tenure finished as the end of one era ushered in a new one. Pavarotti was gone, Peter Gelb had stepped in, and the Met Opera had a newly expanded audience as it moved on to the big screen. Elena’s unique style of choral direction influenced a few generations. Through her students and her stories, Elena’s legacy will live on.
ELENA DORIA: Where was I on the day of April 16th, 1961?!
CHRISTINA LESSA: Not sure….
ELENA DORIA: Cuba! During the invasion of the Bay of Pigs, floating right there on a cruise ship as an entertainer. For three days we watched and waited while someone named Fidel Castro led a military coup!! Hah..imagine.
CHRISTINA LESSA: Where were you born?
ELENA DORIA: Providence, RI. I’m a New Englander. The truth: 1926.
CHRISTINA LESSA: Your parents?
ELENA DORIA: My father was born in Poland of Russian Jewish parents. My mother was born in Providence of German parents.
CHRISTINA LESSA: How did you get the name Elena Doria? What’s your real name?
ELENA DORIA: Elsie Goldberg. When I debuted in opera in La Traviata in Rome. I couldn’t use Elsie Goldberg. Here was La Traviata with Guido Malfatti… I can’t have the name Elsie. But my singing teacher thought about it and we decided Doria. Oro means gold. I could have done Doromonte, which means Goldberg or Montedoro. But it’s too long. So we changed that to Doria and my first name to Elena.
CHRISTINA LESSA: When did you decide to become a singer?
ELENA DORIA: Early on. I started private lessons at fourteen but we sang, my sister and me, all our tiny years. Because not only did we sing at places like the American Legion and schools but my mother taught the junior choir at the neighborhood church that we attended. I was brought up Christian. I sang from tot-hood up. My first job was for five dollars on Sunday singing solo in a neighborhood Baptist church in Cranston, RI. Five dollars, I thought I’d hit the jackpot.
ELENA DORIA: Guess where I was in 2000, also floating in the ocean, but with a famous rat pack crooner?
CHRISTINA LESSA: Frank Sinatra’s dinghy?
ELENA DORIA: No! My former agent sent me on the Q.E. II to prepare the children passengers for a show the last night out. Eddie Fisher was on there. It was 2000. I wasn’t singing anymore, I was teaching the kids. Eddie Fisher was on the boat selling his book, “Been there Done That.” He was there with his fifth wife. Our cabins were adjacent and we became good friends. At dinner we sat at the same table. The morning we left the ship all dressed and ready to go, we laid on the bed just like we belonged to each other. I have a very famous picture on the bed snuggling up to him. Fun times!
CHRISTINA LESSA: You once told me a story about a contest in Coney Island…
ELENA DORIA: Oh, The greatest story of my life! I tell children this story to show that they should never give up. I was in the chorus of Radio City Music Hall and it was 1961. This audition was for Jones Beach Marine Theater, which would keep us in New York. It used to be that they’d do the show at Radio City and we would work that and then the movie would play, which was at least two and a half hours long and we were free to come and go. So during a movie, twelve of us girls got together and went to an audition. The show was called Paradise Island, which was supposedly to be set toward Japan somewhere so it was oriental. All of us girls put mascara on our eyelids to look oriental. I sang the last sixteen bars of “This is My Beloved” from the show Kismet. We all auditioned, 11 girls were asked back one week later to the finals. Elena Doria was eliminated. I didn’t cry because I don’t cry easily. But of course I was upset. Halfway through that week on Monday morning, the show business newspaper came out announcing that Jones Beach wanted to hear more sopranos. The girls said Elena you are going to do it again, and I said, “You’re darn right I’m going to do it.” One week after the original auditions, I left off the ridiculous eyeliner, changed my dress and changed the tune to “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess and I signed in as Elsie Goldberg. One verse through, they stopped me and said “Miss Goldberg would you come back on Thursday?” Somehow or another I knew I got the part. Eleven were eliminated and Elena Doria got it! Elsie Goldberg got it. Then I went to sign my contract, now I’m nervous. When I signed I said I have a professional name. They said what name is your social security under, so there I was, Elena Doria again.
CHRISTINA LESSA: How did you come to New York?
ELENA DORIA: My father came to New York. He’d heard about a woman soprano who was a voice teacher. Her name was Ms. Mario. She was first female singer on the Met Opera Saturday afternoon broadcast. It was 1948-9 and my dad took me down and I always remember I sang her something and my father said very excitedly, Ms. Mario will you take her? She said, “I’d be very happy to.” The price for an hour long singing lesson was $30 at the time. I started taking two half hours for $15 What killed me was, sure she’d take me, but for $30 an hour I could have sung like a dog and she would have taken me! Anyway, I began to take two, half hour lessons a week. I noticed that maybe 5 or 7 minutes of each session she would talk and so forth. So I changed it to 3 ten-minute sessions so she would get straight to the lesson. Can you imagine? You don’t vocalize in ten minutes.
CHRISTINA LESSA: Your father really believed in you?
ELENA DORIA: Oh yeah, he did well to believe in me. After I have taught these hundreds of children, I know their parents believe in their kids. Only 5 percent of the children succeed. I’m throwing out that 5 percent. Name the most fantastic sopranos in the whole world, maybe 10. The other 98 percent, their parents believed in them also. My father heard me do Traviata, in 1955 in Rome, and somebody seated next to him whom we knew called me and said, “Your dad cried at the end of Act One.” My father wasn’t prone to crying.
CHRISTINA LESSA: He had lived a long life, I understand.
ELENA DORIA: Three months short of 107. Born in 1900 and he died in December 2006. He had a full brain, frail, but walked by himself. Full intelligence. He’s been to the Met when I had charge of the children, when David Stivender was chorus master. He was a very close friend of mine. He put the cherry on my musical cake. David told my mother and father something, I forget the words, but essentially he said, “It’s a blessing that Elena has a position like this after 20 years in the chorus.” “It wouldn’t have been the same without her”.
CHRISTINA LESSA: What year did you start at the Met and what year did you start with the children?
ELENA DORIA: I opened the building in 1966 with Anthony and Cleopatra. I spent 20 years in the chorus. Then switched over (I wanted it) to the children’s chorus. I was there for 23 years. 43 years total.
CHRISTINA LESSA: Any stories from your days at the Met you can share?
ELENA DORIA: I was very good friend of Montserrat Caballé in Italy. I sang an aria we auditioned for San Carlo in Naples. That was 1955. The opera was Novita. Novita in Italian means, something brand new. It was an opera Le Caprice de Mariana. I got it, and did 5 performances during Christmas in 1955. She didn’t get it! Of course, she became world famous…
CHRISTINA LESSA: You were in Italy for a long time.
ELENA DORIA: I won a Fulbright scholarship to Italy in 1952 and in ’53 I met the man who would become my fiancé. He owned a hairdressing salon and one of his clients, a woman, asked her husband who was in the Ministry of Spectacles, if there was anything available for me. He fixed up an audition at the theater. With a piano, I sang the whole role of Violetta in La Traviata. Sure enough they pulled the womanoutwhowastodoitandIdidthe last two performances and then I went to Sardinia. That was 1955. I did five Traviata’s in ten nights in the open air.
CHRISTINA LESSA: You did a lot of voiceover work.
ELENA DORIA: I dubbed movies from about ‘55-’57. From Italian to English for early American television. My voice was always very low. I dubbed Tina Pica. Ingrid Bergman stood right beside me when we did a party scene from Viago en Italia (A Trip Within Italy) with Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders. She was lovely. We were at a party, dubbing the scene. She took a sip of a drink on the screen. Of course she didn’t have a drink in her hand, but she did her part in English and took the sip and went on talking. She was perfection.
CHRISTINA LESSA: What was it like with the children?
ELENA DORIA: Hard work for all of us, and the most rewarding. There’s absolutely no yawning, no looking at the clock or scratching of noses, that’s for sure..I just wanted them to be the finest singers they could be for the Metropolitan Opera, If they couldn’t hack it I’d say, ‘Go play tennis. I don’t care.’ They hack it, though, and they know its worth it. Imagine, being on stage singing at The Metropolitan Opera in New York City, the greatest opera house in the world, at the age of maybe 7? Now with children the key was not to exhaust them, but to teach them to do it correctly the first time and to respect everything about the process involved. I worked outside the Met with the children sometimes too. I brought 25 boys to Carnegie Hall for Luciano Pavarotti’s only Otello under Sir George Solti from Chicago. It was to be a very grand event ending his 22-year career as music director of the Chicago Symphony, Solti wanted to give the world a spectacular concert performance of “Otello,I don’t remember the year but it must have been 1991. I was called from Chicago to prepare, so I did. We had a rehearsal. At the Met I held up a photograph of George Solti and I said we are going into Carnegie Hall, everyone on their best!! I was familiar with it.Isaidheisgoingtocomeupandgo through the music with you. When Maestro Solti comes in, you stand up, all twenty four of you stand right up. I said try it, now here he comes in the room. They stand up, but clomping on the floor, I said wait a minute. When I say stand up, stand quietly, elegantly and all together. I had them practice. Sure enough in Carnegie Hall., Maestro Solti walked in, I said here he is boys, stand up. They did it quietly! I ran a tight ship, but we always had fun for our hard work. I kept an autographed copy of Judge Judy over
my piano in the studio to remind them that they were being watched ( laughs). We often sang silly songs together the children and I, and I always remembered to thank them at the end of class from the heart of my bottom!”( laughs) If they were off key I had an authentic NYC license plate that I would hold up that read, “FUGEDABOUTIT”, that just killed them.
CHRISTINA LESSA: You’ve never been married… was that a conscious choice?
ELENA DORIA: I was engaged for many years in Italy. Didn’t work out, too different. With Italian men, you know there are always more than two of you in every marriage! I had a boyfriend here and there. My life has been about my work, the Opera, the children.
CHRISTINA LESSA: Did you ever sing in Las Vegas?
ELENA DORIA: That’s one thing I’ve never done. This I also tell parents. in 1960, I was in Jones Beach Marine Theater. Toward the end of August a musician in the orchestra said Elena, Fred Waring wants a soprano. Now Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians, way back in the 30s was on the radio with four men. And it grew and grew and was a travelling group all over the United States. He said, Fred Waring wants to hear a soprano. Are you kidding? Me go all over the USinabus?Aonenightstandinabus.But give me the number, because I’ll audition, because every time you audition, you learn from it and you audition better for a job you really want. I auditioned 6 songs with and without piano, standing and seated, with and without shoes, opera, everything. They said thank you and we’ll let you know. Two days later I’m called by his henchmen, Mr. Waring would like you to join the Pennsylvanians.
I said thank you so much. I went four years with them, on a bus, one night stands, from 1961 to almost 1965. It was broadcast on the radio several times and televised once. Of all the states in the contiguous US, the only state I’ve never been in, the bus didn’t even cross the line, was Nevada
CHRISTINA LESSA: You performed and toured during the 60’s and 70’s. Were you ever an activist?
ELENA DORIA: I was at the Ambassador Hotel where RFK was killed. We did Porgy and Bess, that was emotional and ground breaking. Equality, look, I believe in equality for all. I believe in a woman’s right to choose. And I believe in gay marriage, absolutely. Fifty percent of people divorce anyway, and I’m talking heterosexual marriages. Everyone should be equal..our society has a long way to go. I’ve seen big changes, but not enough!
CHRISTINA LESSA: How old would your oldest student from the Met be today?
ELENA DORIA: Many of them are now married with children. Maybe 50.
CHRISTINA LESSA: Have any of them gone on to become singers?
ELENA DORIA: Monica Yunus. She comes from Bangladesh. Her father won the Nobel Prize several years ago, Muhammad Yunus. I anticipated the success of one girl who is now twenty, she has a scholarship in Austria right now, a beautiful singer. Jessie Euker. Her younger brother, Jarret, has a stunning voice also. Also I taught Emmy Rossum from Phantom, the movie version. She studied with me for years and then I coached her specifically for that role.
CHRISTINA LESSA: How has the world changed for you artistically?
ELENA DORIA: I think opera is growing. Technology has changed everything..it’s all about access! I have very close friends that I visit abroad each year. My friends in London, of whom I have many, they’ve seen a live broadcast from the Met. That’s a gift to the world, isn’t it?
CHRISTINA LESSA: Opera singers are like athletes because of the kind of training and virtuosity required.
ELENA DORIA: The opera is the highest form of expression. It’s the most difficult to do, to portray, to sing, it’s the most beautiful that you can go to see. The whole combination, the singing, acting, the orchestra is astounding. It involves years of training and the fact that there are so few in the world shows how difficult it all is. How many Rene Flemings and Debbi Voights are there? How many Lucianos and Placidos are there the world over. It’s because it’s so difficult. There are very few people who are the whole package, the acting and singing. It’s very difficult. You have to be born with the ear, with the instrument. I have coined a phrase. Music is the staff of life, not bread. You can live without bread, who needs bread? A celiac diseased person doesn’t eat bread. Not everybody loves opera the way we opera lovers enjoy it. They enjoy what? Even though I can’t name these jazzy and rock singers, that’s music too. The whole world loves music to one degree or another. But Opera..that’s food for the soul!
CHRISTINA LESSA: Who do you think outside of opera are the most talented musicians right now?
ELENA DORIA: I don’t listen , I have no idea. Susan Boyle is a top drawer. That’s the most astounding audition/trial I’ve ever seen in my life. Somehow or another I mistakenly deleted it. I fell in love with the three judges. I love Simon Cowell and Piers Morgan. I love him! I love his delivery. I watch his face, his mouth, everything. He’s got a lot to say. I love him.
CHRISTINA LESSA: You’ve lived a long life, you’ve made a lot of decisions, you have particular political viewpoints. If you could give three pieces of advice about life what would they be?
ELENA DORIA: DON’T EVER GIVE UP! That’s number one. Eat healthy. Don’t overdo it with a bunch of garbage. Drink healthy! Who would have ever thought you would get so old! Prepare! Those two things bring personal happiness. Seriously. Yeah and, if you are able to give back after having sacrificed, that’s a good thing. If you don’t have money you always have time. Go to a hospital and help out. Another thing, I’m a very big patron of St. Jude’s research hospital, because Memphis was one of our stops when the Met was on tour for 20 years. When St Jude’s was in the back of a hotel. We used to see the little kids without any hair having to go to chemotherapy. It always left a spot in my heart.
Much later on I started to become a patron and several summers ago, I brought my surrogate grandson to Memphis. He is very close to me and was one of my kids. I’ve made friends with one of the women that works at St Jude’s. We went a couple of miles away to the home where parents are put up to stay while their child is in the hospital. It’s an absolutely astounding place. Everyone in this country and the world should help and donate to St. Jude’s.
CHRISTINA LESSA: What was your greatest performance personally?
ELENA DORIA: Traviata hands down. When I could be on stage, I loved what I was doing, and if it went over the footlights, good for them. I did it because I loved it. If you love it and you are slightly talented that’s the most important thing. I wish I had the voice of a Renee Fleming. I was good, but I wasn’t the most glorious. I was a wonderful actress on stage. To this day, I teach a bit of acting to kids and I love it. I was a great actress. The voice teacher Ms. Mario, the voice teacher my father brought me to, she wasn’t the greatest voice teacher in the world by any stretch of the imagination, but she was the greatest opera acting coach I’ve ever had in my whole life. When I finished Traviata, no matter where, usually in Italy, and my body collapsed down on the right knee and “don’t come near me to hold me” was sung. I would linger in the misery…The audience loved me.