Dorothy Renzi brought to Fresno a life of song

The Fresno BeeFebruary 13, 2014 

Dorothy Ohannesian was born in Fresno in 1924, and she good-naturedly fled the city a couple of decades later, taking her gorgeous lyric soprano voice with her. It's a familiar pattern that carries through to today: the young artist chafing to get out of town, hoping to excel in the cultural capitals of the world.

She did both. The singer — who married her husband, the noted Fresno sculptor Clement Renzi, in 1950 — immersed herself in music at Mills College in Oakland, won an impressive year-long scholarship to study in Vienna and Paris, then launched impressive career runs first in San Francisco and then New York, including a recording contract with MGM Records.

But Fresno would always be home. Mrs. Renzi returned to Fresno in 1963, young family in tow, and became an integral part of its cultural scene.

She died Wednesday just shy of one month past her 90th birthday.

"She had a nice big party last month, and friends she hadn't seen for a long time all came," says her daughter, Jennifer.

Clement Renzi died in 2009.

Mrs. Renzi leaves behind an enduring legacy not only as a singer — her Mimi in the Fresno Opera Association's "La Boheme" in 1966 opened the new Saroyan Theatre — but as beloved vocal teacher, professor, church choir director, arts activist and devotee of the intimate art of the classical song recital.

"She came back to Fresno with a reputation, with a record behind her," says Nicola Iacovetti, founder of the Fresno Opera Association, who cast her in a number of high-profile local productions.

Mrs. Renzi dove into teaching with gusto. She started giving private lessons when she returned to Fresno, then a few years later accepted a faculty position at Fresno State in the music department. (She had studied at Fresno State College for two years, then enlisted in WAVES, the U.S. Naval Women's Reserve, during World War II.)

Her daughter remembers her mother's commitment to her students. Among many hundreds, such well-known local names as Vicki Shaghoian, Barbara Wilkinson-Vlymen and Earl Meyers studied with her.

"She was very dedicated," her daughter says. "The students got free lessons. They had rehearsals and concerts at our house. She was like Mom to all of them."

Mrs. Renzi retired from Fresno State after 16 years in 1985, but after taking a brief "vacation" plunged back into the local scene.

"Singers have to sing," she told The Bee in a 1986 interview.

She didn't confine her talents to traditional opera. Contemporary works appealed to her, as did jazz and theater.

Roles included the fortune teller in Fresno Community Theater's "Blithe Spirit," and for Good Company Players as the mayor's wife in "Bye Bye, Birdie" and as an officious secretary in "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying."

In later years, she devoted much of her time to the arts community. Mrs. Renzi was president of the Fresno Musical Club, the Fresno Arts Council and the Fresno chapter of the National Society of Arts and Letters.

Through it all, says her daughter, she managed to retain the gentleness of character for which so many people remember her today.

"She picked up old ladies at bus stops and took them home," her daughter says with a laugh. "And if a restaurant was busy, she'd get up and bus tables. That's the kind of person she was. She made me tired, she'd work so hard."

For Iacovetti, that drive always came through in her singing. He remembers her voice for its "incredible pitch — always" — but also for the passion she had for music.

"Every time she sang a phrase," he says, "it was though she was singing it for the very first time."

Dorothy Renzi

Born: Jan. 14, 1924

Died: Feb. 12, 2014

Occupation: Singer, teacher, arts activist

Survivors: Daughter Jennifer Renzi of Fresno, two grandchildren

Services: pending

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6373, and @donaldbeearts on Twitter. Read his blog at

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