February 8, 2012

The García Lineage: Judith Doniger

Judith Doniger (1912-2007)

It was December of 2002. I had been researching the García School - my studies with Margaret Harshaw providing the impetus, and had interviewed Risé Stevens and Kitty Carlisle Hart, both students of Mme. Anna E. Schoen-René, Miss Harshaw's teacher. Casually mentioning the search for other surviving students to my friend Roberta Prada (the translator of Tomatis' The Ear the and Voice), she replied that a friend's grandmother had studied at Juilliard with Schoen-René, or at least she thought so. She could put me in contact with him to find out the details. I almost fell off my chair. In a matter of days, I was sitting in an apartment overlooking the East River interviewing Judith Doniger, who had just celebrated her 90th birthday. I was in the right place at the right time: Bill Ecker informed me that his grandmother had only recently begun to talk about her illustrious past, one which she had been reluctant to discuss. What got her talking? Mr. Ecker gave his grandmother a CD of her radio performances for her birthday.

Manuel García I
Pauline Viardot-García  Manuel García II
Anna E. Schoen-René
Margaret Harshaw  Kitty Carlisle Hart  Judith Doniger  Risé Stevens

Most people knew Judith Dongier as Judith D. Lipsey, the assertive Chairman of the Board at the Miller Theatre at Columbia University. But long before she made her mark in philanthropic pursuits (a product of her savvy investing), Doniger was a superbly trained soprano with a world class instrument. Graduating in 1935 from the Juilliard School of Music, Ms. Dongier had a busy career during the 40's and 50's in radio, concert and opera. Raising a family, however, eventually brought her career to a halt. We talked about this, her teacher and vocal technique on the 8th and 10th of December, 2002, a portion of our conversation appears below.

Judith Doniger, a native of New York, was born in 1912. Her stage debut took place at the age of four, on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House dancing in the Isadora Duncan troop. Her first voice teacher was the great Italian baritone, Pasquale Amato. Upon graduation from high school at the age of 16, Ms. Doniger accepted a full scholarship to the Sorbonne University in Paris, where she continued her vocal studies with the renowned Russian soprano Anna el-Tour. She also spent several summers in Salzburg at the Mozarteum, working with the famed Austrian mezzo-soprano and regie, Marie Guthiel Schöder. Ms. Dongier's talent led her to several lead roles in opera productions in Vienna, at the Staatsoper. Ms. Donger returned to the United States, where she was awarded a fellowship at the Juilliard School of Music. There, she studied with the famous vocal pedagogue, Anna Schoen-René. While at Juilliard, she sang in the World Premiere of Richard Russell Bennett's Malibran. Ms. Doniger's professional career combined opera, oratorio and song, in both opera houses, symphony halls and the concert stage. She worked with several American composers, premiering songs of among others, Ned Rorem and Virgil Thompson. Famed conductors such as Arturo Toscanini, Wilhelm Furtwaengler, Bruno Walter, Vladimir Golschmann, Fausto Cleva and Fritz Mahler also led performances which featured Ms. Doniger. As she felt family was paramount, she negated a contract with the Semper Oper in Dresden and continued her career locally in New York on the concert stage and radio.  - Liner notes from a private recording made by Bill Ecker in 2002.

"No. I loused her up! I had three children!" I wasn't expecting this answer to my question as to whether she realized her dream of singing the role of Brünnhilde in Wagner's Ring. Schoen-René expected her to sing this role as well as many others. Family responsibilities, however, prevented the career trajectory that Schoen-René had foreseen, which may have been why Ms. Doniger didn't talk about her past very much. Of course, we live in a very different time. Women keep their maiden names, have careers and children, fathers staying home in some cases. The Renée Fleming's of the world bring their daughters up while maintaining a very active performing schedule. But such a thing was hard to pull off during the 40's and 50's, gender roles being much more rigidly defined. This is why Schoen-René was particular about who her students married, even if they married at all. Schoen-René would invite Ms. Doniger to dinner from time to time, which was as much a social occasion as it was a way for Schoen-René to keep tabs on her student.

"Did you enjoy your career?" A question that needed to be asked: the answer forever set the record straight.

"I loved it!" She nodded with emphasis.

Ned Rorem and Virgil Thompson wrote songs for her. She had a Town Hall debut and traveled quite a bit until the approaching war put a stop to that, singing the role of Marzelline in Fidelio at the Vienna Volksoper as well as the Marschallin in Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier just before the Anschluss.

"What was Schoen-René like?"

"She was an amazing woman. I am very grateful to have worked with her. I had five years with her. She was my best teacher." Doniger later studied with Vera Schwartz who also taught Risé Stevens after Schoen-René died in 1942.

"Schoen-René was a volatile character, and a very, very strong opinionated lady. When she told you to do something, she expected you to do it right away. She was tough! All those German ladies were tough!"

Schoen-René was considered the greatest teacher of her time, and ruled the roost at Juilliard. Ms. Doniger had two lessons a week with her, singing scales for the better part of a year before being allowed to sing any repertoire.

"An open [a] was not her style. I sang a whole lot of scales, and most were covered, and all of them forward." She gestured with her hand towards the "mask" of the face and then indicated "covering" by raising her right hand, crooking her forefinger and placing it at the center of her head while simultaneously lifting—one might say—crinkling up her nose as though smelling something bad, or signifying marked disapproval. (Readers of this blog will, of course, recognize this as the "imposto" of Lucie Manén, who studied with Schoen-René in Berlin and wrote: The Bel Canto: The Teaching of the Classical Song Schools, Its Decline and Restoration.)

"This is where you make most of your tones!" Doniger said, tapping her finger.

When I mentioned that I had seen this very same expression in lessons with Margaret Harshaw, Ms. Doniger replied: "Now there was a great singer! We're from the same fount of knowledge."

Her voice deep and rich at the memory, Doniger said Schoen-René taught her that the tone had to be big, no matter what dynamic you were singing. Loud or soft, it didn't matter. 

"She didn't like small voices. It was a big resonant sound!" 

Schoen-René would place her hand on Ms. Doniger's abdomen to make sure the "support" was adequate. Her highest praise were two words: "Not bad." Ms. Doniger laughed at the memory. Schoen-René was very quiet if displeased. 

"Bright. Solid. Not lovable. She was what she was." 

Doniger went on, saying emphatically: "Schoen-René wanted you to stretch. She was of the school where you did the hard thing so that you had no difficulties." The Garcías? "Schoen-René talked about them as if they were gods."  

"Low larynx?" 


"High notes?" 

"Every high note you sang was with Ah." We were speaking singer's shorthand now.

Schoen-René, while Germanic, taught an Italianate tone. It was bright, chiaroscuro and highly resonate. Juilliard begged Doniger to join their faculty and teach Schoen-René's technique, but her life had changed course, and she didn't think teaching her strong suit. 

We talked about singing today, who was good and not so good, and how the world had changed. Ms. Doniger thought that students today were in an awful hurry. A few years after we spoke, I found a video of her appearance on a TV show called "Okay, Mother" which was broadcast in 1948, during the dawn of live television, eight years after the death of her teacher. Ms. Doniger appears at the end of the show, her Juilliard diction very much evident, talking about her Town Hall appearance. I heard that some kind of diction when I spoke with her, a testament to her training with Anna E. Schoen-René.

Listening to Judith Doniger sing is listening to another age and a way of singing that is being lost today. Hers is a voice that is undeniably resplendent, rich and colorful, the top notes soaring. Her singing in English is noteworthy: you can understand every word. The observant listener will hear that Doniger's vowels are different than what is heard today, being oriented towards Italianate tonal values, the [o] and [u] notable in this regard. You don't hear Americans sing English like this today, a casualness having invaded our stages and diction. Vowels of this character - one might say purity- would be considered affected. Doniger's diction does, however, give the student an aural example of how Italianate vowels were taught: one sound at a time, there is no hint of a diphthong.

The reader will want to click on the link to Margaret Harshaw's singing during her mezzo days and compare her singing to that of Ms. Doniger. The voices are remarkably similar, the technical approach identical. This is the García School.  

Special thanks to Bill Ecker for the generous use of recordings, biographical material and photographs which appear in this post. 


  1. Fabulous and very engaging article! I am enriched by knowing this one more link to my/our vocal heritage. I don't suppose there is one of that generation left. I'm a bit jealous that talked with Doniger, Stevens, and Hart. I worked with Mrs. Hart once, and remember the initial reading of the opera in question (she was narrator), her arrival at Richard Marshall's apartment, and extreme graciousness to all of us.

    1. Thank you for your comment, kavbar! I met Mrs Hart singing in a production of Lady in the Dark at City Center. She was dressed to the nines and gracious as can be.

  2. As someone who's done a small amount of blogging I really appreciate the care and attention to detail you put into your excellent blog. Your efforts and research are much appreciated by myself (and I'm sure others) fascinated as I am by this subject (my interest in the Garcia family came by way of Chopin).

    1. Thank you for your comment Jack Gibbons! Your kind words are much appreciated.

  3. I just discovered her recordings!! They are absolutely marvelous! I love the article too!

    1. Thank you for your comment! Doniger was a wonderful singer!


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