At first glance Dori Smith ’08 looks much like other college students, wearing her jeans and shirt, a water bottle and music book in hand. But then she straightens next to the piano in Given Auditorium and begins, not just to sing, but to fill the room with her soaring, soprano voice.
Though Smith’s vocals seem full, this is a read-through, or first practice, of a piece Smith will perform in February with the Colby College Chorale. Professor of Music Paul Machlin and Smith stop and start as they discuss and refine the solo, “Laudate Dominum,” a movement from Mozart’s Solemn Confessor Vespers.
They work out the tempo, and Smith wonders if she should change her approach. After discussing the piece’s structure, Machlin tells her, “Your sound is gorgeous. I want you to have the sound you think is good, and if you’re really off, I’ll tell you.”
From the beginning, Smith has rarely been far off.
“Dori auditioned for the chorale as a freshman ... and I was instantly aware of the capacity of her voice, the gift she had for interpretation, and her really fine ear,” recalled Machlin, the Arnold Bernhard Professor of Arts and Humanities. Machlin says Smith is among the most outstanding performers he’s worked with in his 33 years at Colby.
“I became aware of [her potential] at her audition. … Over the years she’s been in chorale, she’s sung in the chamber choir,” he said. “I’ve heard her recitals. These gifts she has have grown and matured. The quality of her voice is rare.”
Now a senior, Smith is fully immersed in musical endeavors, especially opera. She spent this summer transcribing 17th-century Allesandro Grandi motets for Professor Steven Saunders, preparing for her chorale solo as well as a senior recital and honors projects, applying for a Fulbright grant to study in Milan, and identifying graduate programs.
What may be even more remarkable is that Smith did not grow up steeped in the arts, nor in a particularly musical family. The eldest of four children, she says she started singing before she could talk, but her musical activities were largely limited to piano lessons and musical theater in Pownal and Presque Isle, Maine. Her father, who acted in high school musicals and a college production of Carousel, is employed by the Veterans Administration and her mother is a social worker who runs her church’s youth ministry program.
How, then, does a teenager from northern Maine discover opera?
By inheriting her grandfather’s opera albums as a high school sophomore, at least in Smith’s case. “They had been sitting in the toy closet gathering dust,” she said. “He had an amazing collection. Some were still shrink-wrapped.”
She found herself listening to the old LPs, then slipping into a stairwell—the best acoustics in her home—when she was alone in the house. Smith started by trying to mimic what she had heard on the old records.
“My voice just naturally fit in a way it hadn’t before with musical theater or jazz. I developed vibrato at a very early age,” Smith said, jokingly.
Soon Smith’s family tracked down a voice coach in Caribou, 20 miles north of Presque Isle, and Smith began private lessons. Instead of applying to premedical programs, which was once her plan, she put together audition tapes for colleges and conservatories.
“I was up against kids who had been studying with private instructors, and been to camps, and had diction instruction,” Smith said. “I had never seen an opera or a DVD [of one].”
Nevertheless, Smith was invited to audition at the prestigious New England Conservatory, and, although she had not brought her own accompanist like some of the hopefuls, Smith was offered a place.
But after talking to Colby’s music faculty, Smith was convinced Colby was a better fit. The liberal arts school has provided a more diverse education than a conservatory could, she said, offering double majors, conversational Italian, and a semester abroad at a conservatory in Milan, where both her musical and language skills proved up to the task.
And where else would Smith be able to participate in synchronized ice skating, too? (Being from northern Maine proved no advantage here. Smith had to take skating lessons.)
Smith’s interest in opera is increasingly unusual in an age where opera companies are fewer and ticket prices steeper. And opera isn’t a particularly accessible art form, Machlin noted, because it’s a medium where characters sing a story to each other, usually in a language other than English. So why is Smith so passionate about opera?
“It’s a combination of many things that I love—language, acting, singing,” Smith said. “I don’t know if I can describe [what it feels like to sing opera]. The music just sort of envelops you and you’re in a different state.”
Though pursuing a career in opera is more difficult than ever, Machlin believes Smith has what it takes. And Smith won’t easily be deterred. “I want to give it my best shot,” she said. “Otherwise I’ll always be wondering and guessing.”