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Interviews

René Barbera [Photo by Kristin Hoebermann courtesy of Askonas Holt]
08 Sep 2015

A Chat with Tenor René Barbera

American tenor René Barbera is fast making a name for himself as one of the top bel canto singers in opera houses around the world.

A Chat with Tenor René Barbera

An interview by Maria Nockin

Above: René Barbera [Photo by Kristin Hoebermann courtesy of Askonas Holt]

 

On September 19, 2015, he will be singing a recital at the Balboa Theater in downtown San Diego. Accompanied by Cheryl Cellon Lindquist, he will sing Alberto Ginastera’s Five Popular Argentine Songs, one of the most important twentieth century song cycles from South America, as well as a set of Tosti pieces, a bit of Bellini, and some operatic arias. Maria Nockin took the opportunity to have a brief chat with this exciting singer.

MN: Where were you raised?

RB: I was born in Laredo, Texas, and lived there until I was nine years old. Then we moved to San Antonio where I did most of my growing up. I lived there for the next ten years. Although I am a native Texan, sometimes people don’t realize that I am American because of my name.

MN: Where did you start singing?

RB: When I moved to San Antonio, in anticipation of my starting fourth grade there, my teacher from Laredo put a note on my papers that the new school should audition me for choir. As a result, I joined the San Antonio Boys Choir where I sang as a boy soprano* beginning at age 10. [N.B.: Most tenors start out as boy altos, René did not. ] I also took piano lessons for six years, which later helped me figure out how to learn a piece of music. Like most kids, I did not like practicing because I did not want to be in one place for more than ten minutes at a time. I tried guitar, too, as an adult, but my hands just can't seem to get on board with the guitar

MN: Who were your most important teachers at this stage of your development?

RB: I am going to have to start with Melinda Atkins Loomis, the conductor of the San Antonio Boys Choir. I was a soprano and she made sure I did nothing that might harm my voice. When the middle school chorus tried to make me a tenor, she had me tell the teacher that my placement was wrong. I ended up being the only boy in the girls choir. Loomis was the first teacher who taught me about singing.

Gordon Ivers, my high school choir director, also had a great deal of influence on my early years. Rather than ask me to sing softly during state competitions, he would point directly at me and ask me for more sound. He never asked me to hold back. Holding back can hurt your voice if you are young and don’t know what you are doing. It was he who told me I could make a career as a singer. I did not believe him at first, however. For my first year of high school I decided not to join the choir. Shortly after that I happened to walk by Mr. Ivers. He grabbed me by the ear, twisted it and dropped me to the ground, saying, “You will be in my choir by the end of the week.” I was.

MN: Where did you go to college?

RB: I attended the University of Texas at San Antonio for three semesters and then dropped out because I decided I did not want to sing any more. (He says with a chuckle). I moved to Colorado where my brother was living and got a job replacing windshields. I missed singing and eventually received a full scholarship to the Vocal Arts Symposium of Colorado Springs. From there I went to the University of North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston Salem for four years. I spent most of the final year doing auditions and competitions. The following summer I was at The San Francisco Opera Merola Program, and then I went to the Florida Grand Opera Young Artist Program. Eventually I finished my studies at Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Opera Center.

MN: Who do you study with now?

RB: Currently I study with Dr. Marilyn Taylor, Chair of the Voice Department at the A. J. Fletcher Opera Institute of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. Anthony Dean Griffey has also studied with her.

MN: Whose recordings do you listen to?

RB: I listen to Placido Domingo’s CDs for the beauty of his high notes. For ideas on coloratura, I listen to Rockwell Blake. For sheer pleasure, my choice is Fritz Wunderlich. Occasionally, I listen to Jussi Björling, too.

MN: Which competitions have been most important to your career?

RB: In 2011, at Placido Domingo’s Operalia Competition in Moscow, I won the First Prize for Opera, the First Prize for Zarzuela, and the Audience Prize. I was the first finalist to be the sole recipient of all three awards since the competition began in 1993. I’ve won quite a few other contests, but winning those Operalia prizes was tremendously helpful in allowing me to start a career.

MN: What are your favorite roles?

RB: I love, LOVE Nemorino in Donizetti’s Elixir of Love. I’m also fond of Tonio in theDaughter of the Regiment. The music of both roles works very well for my voice and I can identify with the characters, especially Nemorino. I have lived with his mental process of shyness and falling in love. Elixir has a lot of comedy and some touching moments, too. Some characters don’t make any changes but Nemorino grows along the way to the finale.

To some degree, any tenor’s interpretation is colored by the director’s wishes, but I have always been lucky enough to have my thoughts on interpretation considered in arriving at the final version of the role. I’m fine with the stage director being the most important person in the production so long as he or she has respect for the score, the story, and the characters. No matter what we do on stage, the audience sees the libretto overhead as supertitles. I also enjoy singing the Duke in Rigoletto because he is the polar opposite of most of the roles I sing. He’s the bad guy.

MN: What do you see yourself doing five years from now?

RB: In a perfect world I’m heading down the beach with a martini. Realistically, I hope I am still singing and getting better at it. I would like to do a little bit less Rossini and a little more Bellini and Donizetti. Maybe I could be doing La traviata and some operas like that. I enjoyed singing Giannetto in Rossini’s La gazza ladra at the Rossini Festival in Pesaro, Italy, this summer. It was refreshing to have a new piece.

MN: Do you have an anecdote or two for us?

RB: When you perform live theater, things are bound to happen. I was singing two performances of Rossini’sBarber of Seville in Moscow with two different Rosinas and the stage director had her slap me. One mezzo was left-handed and the other right handed. I forgot which was which and turned directly into the smack! Another time I was singing in La traviata and during the Act Three ballet, I noticed that the bass had lost his mustache. A moment later I saw it—hanging from the edge of a dancer’s hat.

MN: What will you be singing at your recital in San Diego?

RB: At 7 PM on September 19, 2015, I will be singing the Polly Puterbaugh Emerging Artist Award Recital at the Balboa Theater in downtown San Diego. My accompanist will be Cheryl Cellon Lindquist. I will be singing Alberto Ginastera’s Five Popular Argentine Songs, one of the most important twentieth century song cycles from South America. I’m also doing a set of Tosti pieces, a bit of Bellini, and some operatic arias.

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