In February 1977 the Utah Symphony faced a dilemma. Their guest artist, Roberta Peters, famed New York Metropolitan Opera diva, had flown into Salt Lake City to perform a program including the challenging Berlioz song cycle Les Nuits d'Ete. Her previous appearances with the symphony regularly sold out, and Utah audiences adored her.
However, Miss Peters arrived in a state of ill health, and her doctors immediately ordered her back to New York. What could the symphony do at this late date? Not only had they lost the marquee value of one of the world's leading sopranos, but the unavailability of orchestral scores made it impossible to substitute other works. Symphony officials had no choice: find a replacement for Roberta Peters.
JoAnn Ottley was already heavily involved in Stravinsky's opera The Nightingale when the call came from the Utah Symphony. Although unfamiliar with the Berlioz, and certainly realizing the extreme pressures of substituting for Roberta Peters, Mrs. Ottley accepted. She sang the last Stravinsky performance that night, learned the Berlioz score a day later, and performed three concerts for Utah audiences over the next three days. Critics declared she "sang the Berlioz with the warmth and ease that are her trademark. . . . It was the emotional high point of a most pleasant evening."
She developed this remarkable musicianship early on. Raised in Salt Lake City, she began studying piano for a dollar a lesson at the age of nine. Others quickly noticed her talent and asked her to accompany choruses at school and congregations in church. At age 15 she began singing lessons--cleaning house for her instructor to help her parents pay the lesson fees. Her teacher became a major influence in her vocal development, emphasizing freedom and a natural, flowing, balanced sound--training that helped shape and later define the patented JoAnn Ottley sound. Competitions and extensive performing followed, along with continued attention to development of technical skills and repertoire.
A blind date arranged by a mutual friend significantly changed the lives of JoAnn Smith and Jerold Ottley. At that time JoAnn worked as secretary to the executive vice president of KSL Radio and Television while Jerry attended Brigham Young University. The years that followed included their courtship and marriage, school at BYU, Jerry’s service in the U.S. Army, more school, more lessons, and more performing.
This pathway led to another dramatic change for the couple, who now had a son. In 1968, they received a joint Fulbright grant to study at the Staatliche Hochschule fur Musik in Cologne, Germany. With scant resources and a tiny living space, the Ottley’s struggled, but they nevertheless discovered their musical horizons expanding in significant, life-changing ways.
The time spent in Germany helped JoAnn recognize that she could hold her own with the best sopranos. She observed, “There comes a time when you have to know what kind of talent you have. Is it enough for a city, a state, a region? Is it a national or international talent?”
Faced with the reality of a promising opera career in Europe, she and Jerry had a decision to make: Take the plunge or return home. She reasoned, “So many opera singers lead lonely lives, and many seem driven to fill emotional voids in their souls.” She also feared for the well-being of her family. “An opera singer has to fulfill a contract no matter what, possibly leaving a sick child or the household in an uproar.” After prayerful consideration and extended, deep soul-searching, the young couple decided to return home, where they felt their work was to be.
Upon returning from Germany, JoAnn Ottley took charge of her professional destiny, managing her solo career so as to balance professional and personal obligations. She became known for her uncompromising musicianship, familiarity with standard and avant-garde repertoire, and a distinctive, almost unbelievably controlled pianissimo in her high range. She amassed an impressive portfolio rich with performing and teaching experience. Having sung dozens of symphonic concerts, including more than 35 solo appearances with the Utah Symphony, she has also performed with other major American orchestras in Dallas, San Antonio, Portland, and San Diego. She has sung other concerts with many noteworthy civic and community orchestras, chamber groups, and festivals.
JoAnn has been heard around the globe as a frequent soloist with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir during CBS broadcasts and on world-wide concert tours. She has lent her expertise to that world-famous choir by serving as its vocal coach for two decades. A highly sought-after pedagogue, she held an adjunct professorship of voice from 1986 to 1994 at the University of Utah and has conducted workshops, seminars, and master classes in many areas of the United States and in the British Isles.
JoAnn’s singing life has included major opera experiences, having played Mimi in La Boheme, Lucia in Lucia di Lammermoor, Violetta in La Traviata, and Gilda in Rigoletto, as well as several other leading roles in major productions of standard opera repertoire. Her dozens of oratorio and orchestral performances have included Handel’s Messiah, Mendelssohn’s Elijah, Mahler Symphonies 2, 4, and 8, and requiem masses by Mozart, Verdi, Brahms, and Rutter. It is difficult to name a major sacred work that she has not performed.
Critics have proclaimed her “Utah’s leading soprano soloist,” whose gifts include her “soaring high voice, rich middle register, smooth legato, and lightsome agility.” Of her performing they have said, “The honesty and courage of her vocal technique and the beautiful, unforced simplicity of her interpretation make her performances outstanding,” and “Her round resonant tone that makes its point without being pushed, impeccably balanced from top to bottom; her clear diction and fluent command of languages; her relaxed approach to the most difficult music; and her unfailing freshness and sense of discovery in song—all add up to an imperishable, flourishing artistry that illuminates new corners of the singers’ art and repertory.”
Bearing that in mind, one cannot overstate the historical importance of preserving, archiving, and recording her interpretation of the masterworks. This collection is a start. With it, we can capture once again the thrills that her voice has brought to her audiences, her students, and to the divine art of music. Bravo, JoAnn.