As far back as her memory serves – from high school musicals to performing on international stages and on through the unexpected but rewarding challenge of running a regional opera company – music, and especially singing, has always been a part of Dawn Wolski’s life.
“It was just something you did, like breathing or walking or brushing your teeth before bed,” she said.
It came naturally, and – according to her parents – perhaps a bit too frequently.
“Each of us has certain rules growing up, certain things you expect every child is taught like ‘don’t talk with your mouth full’ or ‘elbows off the table,’ ” she said. “The rule in my house was ‘no singing at the dinner table,’ and I was well into my 20s before I discovered this was not a rule for everyone.”
Wolski sang in choirs and musicals throughout high school.
“Anyone who says they don’t like musicals because ‘no one just walks around breaking out into song’ … well they haven’t met me,” she said.
But it wasn’t until college that her vocal studies began in earnest.
St. Mary’s College of Maryland, a tiny liberal arts school, offered her – and the other five music majors in her graduating class – plenty of one-on-one time with “some of the most incredible music faculty.”
Wolski started undergrad intent on becoming a high school choral teacher. But as she went on walking through the various doors that opened to her, another path emerged. Before college, opera had never been much of a consideration.
“Then suddenly there I was, realizing it was the best fit for my voice,” she said. She lost her heart to the high notes, and the stage seemed unavoidable.
From there, doors continued opening, “and I just kept walking through.”
After undergrad, Wolski went on to the Manhattan School of Music in New York City where she would earn her master’s degree and – while tackling a particularly tricky set of Polish art songs by Frederic Chopin – meet her husband.
The music came naturally, but the Polish text called for a little more help.
“Enter Mateusz Wolski,” she said. A violinist with a sense of humor and the kind of rigor and attention to detail you would expect from a professional musician, she knew he’d never let her get away with anything less than perfect. “He was so funny – so intense – and I loved it.”
With her master’s degree in hand, Wolski’s path took another turn when on Sept. 6, 2001, she joined the military. After completing boot camp at Fort Jackson in South Carolina, she traveled with the U.S. Army Field Band performing with the London Symphony, Boston Symphony, National Symphony and the Cincinnati Symphony and sharing stages with artists including Wayne Brady, Wynonna Judd and Chris Isaak, not to mention several U.S. presidents.
After marrying in 2003 and completing her second enlistment two years later, Wolski left the Army and returned to New York where she joined the vocal faculty at NYU.
Then in 2007, Mateusz Wolski accepted the role of concertmaster with the Spokane Symphony, and the couple was off to the Inland Northwest.
Once in Spokane, Wolski continued to travel for opera jobs but also established her own voice studio and quickly became involved with Inland Northwest Opera – previously Opera Coeur d’Alene.
The artistic and general director at the time, Aaron St. Clair Nicholson cast Wolski in several productions, including Giuseppe Verdi’s “Rigoletto.” Nicholson was stunned when he heard Wolski singing “Gualtier Malde … Caro Nome” – the character Gilda’s first act aria from the same opera – during an unrelated event months before.
“He said, ‘You know, that might’ve been the slowest ending I’ve ever heard – and it was incredible,’ ” she said.
When the performer he had originally cast as Gilda dropped out, he quickly brought Wolski on board.
Wolski continued performing with the company until 2017 when Nicholson announced he would be leaving the opera to direct elsewhere and asked her to take over after him.
Performing? Yes. But running an opera company? “It had never even crossed my mind,” she said.
Still, the door was opened. And Wolski wasn’t one to back down from a challenge, even with a toddler running around.
Stefan, now 6, is already following in his parents’ footsteps, studying violin with his father and answering his mother in song – only, of course, not at the dinner table. “We just sing all the time,” Wolski said.
Diving in at the deep end with Inland Northwest Opera, Wolski gave herself three to five years. During that time, the company rebranded, taking a new name to reflect the opera’s wider-spread patronage. Since 2017, the operating budget has tripled. Productions continue to draw audience members from larger cities.
After five years as general and artistic director at Inland Northwest Opera, Wolski is stepping down this year to continue her career in vocal pedagogy and spend more time with her family.
“Prior to INO, I thought everything was about making the best music you could, but what INO taught me is that music is just our vehicle for bringing more beauty into the world, for bringing the community together and connecting one person to another,” she said. “I’m addicted to that sense of giving … of bringing beauty to life in some form or another. Music is one vehicle, but there are so many others.”
Splitting Wolski’s former role at the company into two part-time positions, Inland Northwest Opera is currently interviewing candidates for general director and artistic director.
In the meantime, Wolski has joined the vocal faculty at Eastern Washington University.
“I just love those kids – watching them grow and being a part of that growth,” she said. “Every second of it makes me happy.”
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