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Horse of a Different Color

hoursofadifferentcolorLocal opera singer shines on ‘America’s Got Talent’

When Dorothy Donell was 21, she was gearing up for an audition at Juilliard, the prestigious fine arts university. But fate decided to step in. And so did her horse—it bonked her in the mouth and her tooth was chipped, prompting her to visit her uncle’s dentist, and there she met her husband, a recent dentistry grad. Life took a different direction for her at that point. While Donell’s dreams of studying opera at Juilliard went untapped, she didn’t stop singing. Many years later, another horse (and her exquisite voice) would open new doors for her—as in live television.

Last month, Donell drove to the heart of Hollywood and performed her original act of singing opera while riding her dancing horse, Hy-Glory, for the popular NBC reality television show, America’s Got Talent. Her big moment on stage, performing before an audience of 500, as well as judges David Hasselhoff, Sharon Osbourne and some cranky guy named Piers Morgan, will air on the Peacock Network at 9 p.m. Tuesday, June 26, during a two-hour episode. The competition is executive produced by acid-tongued Simon Cowell of American Idol fame. Its goal is to pluck out America’s most talented person and put $1 million in their hands. Not a bad deal. And why shouldn’t a dancing horse and its operatic rider/singer win? Or at least have a chance?

When viewers tune in on June 26, they’ll see if Donell makes it on to the next round. When GT caught up with her recently, we couldn’t get the soprano to budge and give us a notion of whether or not she indeed moves on to the next round of America’s Got Talent, or if her act was killed. But she did indulge us, briefly, and shared that the judges gave her positive feedback. Of course, we all know that in the world of reality TV, a good review can mean anything—think Jennifer Hudson’s fate on American Idol—she got booted from the show, but went on to win an Academy Award. In any case, Donell, a long-time Santa Cruzan, will have her talent showcased and critiqued in front of America.

And it certainly is an original talent that both Hy-Glory and Donell present. How often do you see a put-together, bigger-than-life persona like an opera singer gallivanting around on a dancing horse? It’s quite rare. But Donell and Hy-Glory are truly impressive. She is without the over-the-top diva antics, and simply possesses the voice. The horse keeps it real, too.

In a typical performance, like the one they did on America’s Got Talent, she shows up decorated in a costume of some sort. He (the horse) does the same. And then they begin. Donell’s powerful voice echoes on stage, throughout a stadium, or wherever she’s performing, while Hy-Glory does his own act, criss-crossing his legs in a dance accompanied by background music, bowing when it’s over, nodding yes or no and so on. Often, the crowd is won over. Donell got a, “I think we have an opera singer here on a dancing horse. I guess that’s what we have,” from Morgan.

“I don’t think I was quite his cup of tea,” Donell says. But she may have been more up the alley of the other two judges. Everything remains to be seen.

Getting to that point—that ultimate moment on stage—was something of a journey for Donell. Perhaps it all started when she was 3 years old and decided that she wanted to be a singer. At 4 she decided she wanted to be a horse trainer. And somewhere in those young years, she decided she wanted to sing on a horse. The culmination of these two dreams didn’t manifest until many years later.

Donell went on to study singing through junior high and high school. Her uncle was an opera coach and her grandmother was an opera singer, so it was clear that her family was in ‘tune’ with her pursuits. By age 15, it was clear that her niche was opera. By 18, she owned her first horse. As the years continued, the two interests were separate—singing and training horses. But then, about 10 years ago, for some reason, she decided to try and teach her horses some tricks, like how you might teach your dog to beg, or lie down.

“I trained horses and I noticed that certain horses do certain things … like stick their tongues out, that sort of thing,” Donell says. “I worked with the horses to teach them to bow and kneel and they seemed to be able to do it.” From there she taught them to shake (although she doesn’t recommend that trick because of their heavy hooves), to nod yes or no and dance.

But how in the world do you get a horse to perform a trick? Carrots—that’s how. Simple food rewards, and lots of trust between the trainer and the horse. In addition, Donell applies verbal cues, along with touch and hand signals. Typically, it can take a solid year for a horse to learn an array of tricks. But if the horse isn’t interested in learning the trick, Donell never forces them to do it.

After years of teaching Hy-Glory and her other horse, Princess Tula, to perform tricks, Donell began performing her routine at various conferences and such, including singing the national anthem at three San Francisco Giants baseball games.

Eventually, she landed an agent in Las Vegas, who books her for shows in the desert area. The agent submitted her to America’s Got Talent, and Donell attended auditions in San Francisco in October of last year. From there, she was whisked away to Hollywood where she performed for about five minutes last month, the results of which will be aired on June 26.

Before filming, host Jerry Springer conducted an interview with Donell, and afterward, Donell let him ride around on Hy-Glory throughout the sound stage’s parking lot. “At one point he looked at the camera and said, ‘Well, America’s Got Talent, adios. I’m going to the hills,’” Donell says.

The experience and opportunity were remarkable for Donell, who hopes that her stint on television might present more opportunities for her, and the horses. Whatever the future brings, she’ll keep on singing.

Santa Cruz’s Dorothy Donell will be featured on NBC’s national television show America’s Got Talent at 9 p.m. Tuesday, June 26. For more information about Donell, visit opening-ceremonies.com. For more information about the show, visit nbc.com/Americas_Got_Talent.com.
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