When Dawn Wolski talks, her voice lifts and sways like a nightingale’s. The soprano with the big voice could be chatting about the weather, and you’d still take notice of that melodious voice.
“It’s kind of amazing when you think about how Dawn is not just an administrator (for Opera Coeur d’Alene), but also a major talent,” said the opera company’s board president Erika Grubbs. “I just watched her perform two weeks ago in Hayden, and her voice actually gave me chills.
“And then when she sings, she directs you to a place you want to go.”
Wolski does want to go places. She plans to use her new role as Opera CdA’s general director to help the company reach new heights. Wolski’s plans include doing away with the hibernation mode that the company goes into every winter by offering year-round entertainment. New audience-building events in the works include Opera On Tap, in which singers will perform in local beer halls.
“We are going to be more present in the community year-round, and not just surrounding our biggest performances which tend to be in the summer,” Wolski said. “We are not going to hide under a rock this winter.”
Wolski’s passion for education has her also focused on expanding the company’s “Opera-tunities” program, which takes live opera to thousands of schoolchildren at more than 20 elementary schools throughout the Inland Northwest region.
“In high school I intended to pursue chemistry or nuclear physics, but I had the most boring science teachers on the planet and the most dynamic music director,” Wolski said. “Perhaps that’s why I am so passionate about education…it makes all the difference.”
The arts nonprofit was founded as Opera Plus! in 2009 by a group of opera lovers intent on bringing live opera to the Inland Northwest. Over the years, it morphed into Opera Coeur d’Alene. Under the leadership of Aaron St. Clair Nicholson, who took the helm as both artistic and general director in 2012, the upward trajectory has continued with an invigorated donor base, a committed board, and some of the hottest names in the opera world making a stop in Coeur d’Alene.
Wolski’s voice is the instrument that launched her relationship with Opera CdA almost a decade ago. After she moved to Spokane in 2007 – when her violinist husband, Mateusz, became concertmaster of the Spokane Symphony – Wolski performed in several galas for Opera CdA. She was given her first meaty part for the company in 2012, as Frasquita in “Carmen,” a role which she will reprise this September in a collaboration with the Spokane Symphony. Since then Wolski has portrayed Gilda in “Rigoletto,” Mabel in “Pirates of Penzance,” and Yum-Yum in “The Mikado.”
The general directorship job offer came as a surprise to Wolski earlier this year. Nicholson moved to California last summer after his wife was hired to lead San Jose Dance Theatre’s professional training division. It was Nicholson’s idea to hire Wolski as general director, while he remained as artistic director.
Wolski was already a busy mom of a toddler with a slate of private vocal students and various performances. She figured Nicholson just wanted extra help with some administrative duties.
“When they asked me to be the actual general director, I thought, ‘Hello, that is much more interesting,” Wolski said. “That sounds fun.”
“When I first heard we were considering offering Dawn the job I knew I loved her singing, but I thought ‘What makes us think she can work in administration?’ ” said longtime board member Dick Cripe. “I learned fast that she can do it all.”
As an arts nonprofit, doing it all has meant everything from organizing files and leading efforts to makeover marketing and social media, to finding patrons willing to put up guest artists for free. When it comes to cultivating donors, Wolski is a natural.
“I have always been drawn to people who have been successful in their careers because they have interesting stories, and I love interesting conversations,” Wolski said. “Sometimes I get a little caught up in talking though. It’s the part of the job I love … my board knows the parts that make me want to stab out my eyeballs.”
The eyeball-stabbing part is the tons of work organizing documents that have piled up in boxes or been scattered in the computer files over the past 18 years. It’s not the glamorous lifestyle of an opera diva, but, as with most projects Wolski undertakes, she has attacked the tasks with gusto.
“She is just a force of nature,” Grubbs said. “It is such a huge job that no one has time to do, and Dawn just jumped in, demanded all of our files, and devoured everything in a two-week time span.”
Wolski is using the information she has gathered to create standard operating procedures for all things Opera CdA. She wants to take the company to the next level, with detailed plans and best practices for moving forward into the future.
“Sometimes I do get a little fiery because I can see how much potential we have for growth,” Wolski said. “My board sees it too and they work so hard. Hopefully the energy I bring is exciting.”
Wolski was born in Annapolis, Maryland, and her father was in the top echelon at the National Security Agency for 33 years, achieving the equivalent status of a 2-star general. She joined the Army five days before Sept. 11, 2001, and was stationed next door to the NSA just as her father was retiring. She spent a four-year stint as a singer in the Army Field Band. She was in grad school at Manhattan School of Music when she met Polish-born Mateusz, who coached her on some Polish songs of Frederic Chopin. He never charged her for the lessons.
While Wolski is excited to contribute to the administrative side of the arts, her first love will always be her music and her family, which often collide. A couple of years ago, she gave a rave-worthy performance as Queen of the Night in “The Magic Flute.” What many audiences didn’t know was that she was seven months pregnant. Nicholson directed the production.
“Aaron was like, ‘Can you just lounge on that rock, like a siren?’ and I was like ‘Ooookkkkaaaay, but I have to lift this belly and set it on the rock first,” Wolski said. “Then the baby would try to stand up every single time before I sang, and I’d mentally beg him ‘Please stop that before I hit the high notes, please?’ ”
In September, Wolski will share the stage with her husband when he plays principal violin for the Spokane Symphony’s collaboration with Opera CdA on “Carmen” at Martin Woldson Theater at The Fox.
“Frasquita is such a fun role,” Wolski said. “I get to run around and flirt with all the men, which is always fun when my husband’s on stage.”
“I’m just glad she has an official title so she can put that energy into directing others,” Mateusz Wolski said.
The opera company is doing what it can to keep her in that official title, and is seeking grant funds to extend her appointment to a permanent position next season. “We need Dawn,” Cripe said. “Our arts community needs her.”
“I’ll always be involved in the arts in both my Coeur d’Alene and Spokane families,” Wolski said. “There can never be too much arts. Never.”
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