Local singer graced world’s stages with rich, classical voice
By Dana Delgado
As young small-town girl from Mexico, Missouri, Donna Precht had big dreams — to sing on the world’s biggest stages.
It was a grandiose vision that would require a masterful plan, absolute confidence and undeterred persistence, but she was up to the challenge.
Precht isn’t quite sure what drew her to music originally, but her meteoric rise as a performer, first training and then singing with some the world’s elite classical talents, was a most improbable but remarkable journey to some of the world’s musical meccas — France, Italy and New York City.
“It was a dream come true,” she said humbly with a subtle sparkle in her eyes and an unending smile.
Longtime friend Louine Noble said that her friend’s signature voice says it all.
“Some comments I remember hearing following Donna’s performances at Tanglewood, different recital and concert venues, and church services are: ‘Donna is an incredible musician; her voice is rich and full; she has great stage presence; she is a dedicated singer and is always prepared; she has a beautiful voice, we love to hear her sing.’”
What sparked that dream, however, remains a mystery to the 87-year old who sings every Sunday with the church choir at Liberty Hill United Methodist Church. In high school, she played clarinet in the school band, sang in the church choir, and her mother, an avid piano player, regularly filled the home with music. She was an only child and her parents both worked; her father was a mail carrier and her mother was employed at the local Acme brick plant, the nation’s first such production plant.
While her early life seemed for the most part to be relatively ordinary, the aspiring singer was awestruck when listening to the radio. Weekend broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera, in particular, entranced her. So inspired, she sought and obtained a music degree from the University of Missouri, which would serve as a springboard to a life that had possessed her since childhood.
Upon graduating from college, Precht applied and was granted a fellowship from the French government to study at both Paris and the prestigious American Conservatory at Fontainbleau.
“My parents were appalled but excited and proud of me,” she said.
Her appointment to the American Conservatory, which was founded to introduce the best American music students to the French musical tradition of teaching, composing, and performing, was the beginning of some extraordinary training and performance experiences that would follow.
She appeared in recital at the Salle de l’Ecole Normale. In Paris, she studied with widely acclaimed opera singer, Germaine Martinelli who 66 years ago in 1950 selected her to sing the French National Anthem as part of the Bastille Day celebration. Afterwards, Martinelli approached Precht to congratulate her on her singing, but was startled to find that Precht could not speak French. When asked how she could sing the anthem so well, she said, “I’m a good mimic.” Precht recalls Martinelli later complementing her “beautiful voice with some weight to it” and encouraged her to get into opera.
By the time she returned to the states after training and performing abroad for nearly 10 years, she was fluent in both French and Italian.
After two years in France, Precht studied in Milano, Italy with Signora Mafalda Favero and Signora Del Vigo, two classical singers known for their dramatic expression. She performed in concerts at the Palazzo Litta and Conservator G. Verdi where she sang roles of Mimi in “La Boheme” and Micaela in “Carmen”. Her performance in “La Boheme” was her opera debut. Concert performances followed in Bologna and Paris.
Precht returned to the United States after eight years in Italy to accept a scholarship to the Academy of Vocal Arts of Philadelphia with studies in New York.
“New York was an exciting place to be,” she recalls. “There was so much to see and going on.”
She performed with the New York City Opera and sang chorus at the Metropolitan Opera and had the opportunity to meet renowned singer Beverly Sills.
It was in New York that she was chosen by Edgard Varese to sing his “Offrandes,” and the world premiere of “Nocturnal”, in Town Hall, music she would later record.
In an unidentified New York news article of the time, a resident of New Jersey described Precht’s voice as “lively” and said that the Missouri native, “Sang with so much ease, natural grace and beauty of expression” that it gave everyone the impression that “she loved what she was doing.”
With an additional scholarship award conferred by William M. Sullivan Musical Foundation in 1964, Precht performed on the Composer’s Forum for Gunther Schuller and did four additional opera readings with Erich Leinsdorf. She went on to perform as a soloist in the “B Minor Mass” by Bach, which was presented by the Washington University Camerata Singers. In the summers of 1966-68, she was chosen to participate with the Boston Symphony at their summer home in Tanglewood as a vocal fellow.
She also sang as a featured soloist at the Kiel Opera House with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in “Carmina Burna” by German composer Carl Orff. In addition, Precht taught for a year at the St. Louis Institute before relocating to Texas where many of her musical friends lived.
Needing employment, she put in an application for an undergraduate advisor position with the Geological Sciences Department at the University of Texas. Upon entering the building for her interview, she found all the exhibits very interesting and shared her amazement with the professor, Dr. Folkes, who was interviewing her. Impressed by her interest, he hired her on the spot. For 22 years, from 1973-95, she served as an advisor until her retirement.
Reflecting on her musical career, Precht described her opera debut in Italy as “exciting, scary, lots of butterflies, and guarded confidence all rolled into one”, but added that all the “hard work, dedication, and enjoying rehearsals with talented musicians” were her keys to success. She said that her life has been enriched by “singing in beautiful places and meeting wonderful people.”
She now calls the Liberty Hill area home and church members her family.
“I’ve been very lucky,” she said. “My friends in the church have been wonderful.”
While gracing everyone with her voice, be prepared for her quick-wit, charm, and wonderful sense of humor.