Latina Sopranos Changing the Face of Opera
By Christine Bolaños
Opera music while breathtaking has a history of elitism but these four Latina opera singers are breaking through that stereotype and welcoming diverse audiences to opera houses around the world. They have made history and formed a bridge among their Latino community and the world of opera. These are the stories of Nadine Sierra, Cecilia Violetta López, Larisa Martinez, and Daniela Mack.
Nadine Sierra made history when she became the youngest singer to win the Metropolitan Opera’s vocal competition at age 20. Today, the acclaimed soprano travels around the world performing in top opera houses. The native Floridian was first introduced to opera after watching a VHS tape of “La Boheme” when she was six years old.
“I cannot imagine being outside of my life and it comes, thankfully, from child wonderment,” Sierra shares. “It was a VHS tape my mother got from our local library. It’s a 1982 live performance filming of Puccini’s La Bohème – it was done 40 years ago and that production still exists at the Met – I watched that VHS tape so much that it broke. We had it fixed and we never returned it to the library.”
Sierra was obsessed and couldn’t stop rewatching the tape. She believes her grandmother – who wanted to become an opera singer but was instead forced to be a housewife and mother – was another huge influence in her early life.
Today, the musical prodigy, who has Puerto Rican, Italian, and Portuguese roots, is looking forward to touring in Europe with good friend and fellow soprano Pretty Yende. They have shared the same vocal coach, Kamal Khan, for years and Sierra credits him for helping kickstart her musical career.
In 2016, Sierra partnered with veteran Leo Nucci in La Scala’s Rigoletto at the renowned Teatro Alla Scala in Italy which has a reputation for being critical of American singers.
“If they don’t like a singer, they boo you. I was the only American, the only foreigner. Everyone else was Italian,” she shares. “I was worried I wouldn’t live up to it, but I worked really hard and tried my best and Leo helped me a lot.”
The partners performed their duet “Si, vendetta,” at the end of Act II so beautifully that it prompted cries for an encore.
“It had never been done at Teatro Alla Scala before. It has an incredible operatic history and we did this encore and I thought, ‘Wow, that’s different,’” Sierra recalls. She was later told of the historical significance of that moment and seven years later is still shocked at having lived that moment.
Looking back on her career thus far, Sierra shares her decision to pursue opera as a career came purely from her love of music. It didn’t come from a place of seeking fame or making money.
“It changed my life and I did it because I lived certain things in my childhood that I needed to escape from,” Sierra says. “Opera brought me joy, peace and light to my life.”
And it is those same emotions she hopes her audiences walk away with after watching her perform.
Cecilia Violetta López
Cecilia Violetta López is the quintessential American success story. Named one of “Idaho’s Top 10 Most Influential Women of the Century” by USA Today, López grew from hoeing beets in the fields of Idaho as a child to a celebrated soprano praised for her “alluring voice and incredible range,” by the Washington Post.
López wasn’t exposed to opera as a child and learned English by watching PBS’ Sesame Street. Ranchera music, on the other hand, was a staple of her childhood as her mother sang full voice out in the middle of the fields with her two children. Her mother’s signing made time go by faster for López.
As a young adult she thought her destiny was to become a music teacher. She was a new mom and teaching would allow her summers off from work. But with encouragement from others, she ultimately attended the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where she watched an opera school production starring upperclassmen pursuing their master’s degrees.
“I’m going to the opera not knowing what to expect. I hadn’t read the synopsis. People are trickling in and I hear the rustling of paper from the programs,” López recalls. “In the pit, I see all my friends in the orchestra and I remember thinking: ‘Oh wow, we’re going to have an actual orchestra. López was enthralled with the opera, the storyline, the voices.”
The experience of watching Giacomo Puccini’s La Boheme on stage was transformative.
“What they did on that stage. What they made me feel. That magic. The goosebumps. It was a very important event for me,” López shares, who then pivoted to focus on vocal performance studies.
She graduated with a degree in vocal performance and was immediately hired by an opera company in San José, California. Her signature role is playing Violetta in La Traviata which she first performed in 2014.
López’s passion comes from her own life experiences. The stories she tells on stage resonate with humans of all backgrounds because they’re about universal themes such as love or feeling unworthy.
López is preparing for the February 2023 world premiere of The Factotum, appearing as the lead soprano role of Rose at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. The production mixes soul, gospel, funk, rap, hip-hop, barbershop quartet, and R&B.
Larisa Martinez never dreamed she would one day become a renowned soprano. She grew up humbly in Puerto Rico with a single mother and two brothers who made ends meet on a nursing income. She would often visit her grandparents who lived in the mountains of Orocovis which provided a ripe opportunity for her to grow close to nature. But music was ingrained in every facet of life in la Isla del Encanto.
Martinez sang and danced in every school talent show as a child and as a teenager entered the Puerto Rican National Choir. In college, she double majored in environmental science and music, and it wasn’t until her introduction to classical music that she pivoted towards an eventual career as a soprano.
That introduction was performing Mozart’s Requiem in concert.
“The concert started and I felt the shock of 200 voices behind me a like a wave. Overwhelmed by this glorious music, I couldn’t even sing. I started crying,” Martinez says. “I got hooked on classical music.”
Today, Martinez is working on her debut album release called “Saudades,” which includes art songs from Latin America. Her goal is to provide more Latin classical music that speaks to the Latino community by reflecting its stories.
She hopes the album will be completed in the fall, a season that she says is ideal for its release because of its nostalgic nature. Martinez and her superstar violinist husband Joshua Bell are touring a program called Voice and the Violin, which is described as an “evening of beloved romantic arias and modern classics.”
She made her Carnegie Hall debut four days after her wedding and while preparations for both lifetime events were grueling she described it as the most amazing thing she has done. Martinez has extensively toured with Andrea Bocelli around the world at venues such as The Hollywood Bowl and Madison Square Garden.
Another highlight of her career was performing for incarcerated women at a maximum-security prison as part of Silkroad, a nonprofit organization that promotes collaboration among artists and isolated communities.
After her performance, she received a letter from an audience member who was about to be released from prison after 40 years, who wrote that during her down time she was planning to listen to classical music like the type she heard in concert.
“It gave her something to look forward to in the next chapter of her life, and for me it was a great reminder of the power of music and why I got into it in the first place,” Martinez shares.
Daniela Mack’s voice is described as “strong, dark, deep and gleaming,” by Opera News and it is no wonder as she started taking private piano and singing lessons at an early age. The mezzo-soprano was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, with roots in the United States via her adoptive father. Her multi-cultural background taught her the importance of appreciating and understanding other cultures and accepting people who are different from her.
“My parents saw the importance of connecting and exploring other languages and in doing so they inadvertently prepared me for what I do for a living,” Mack shares. “They had no idea it was going to come in so handy to study languages, but it built a strong foundation for my career. The bulk of what I sing and perform is Italian and French.”
This season, Mack is performing three role debuts, including as Desdemona in Rossini’s Otello with Opera Philadelphia, which has wrapped up. She will next perform the
role debut of Federico Garcia Lorca in Osvaldo Golijov’s Ainadamar at the Detroit Opera, followed by the world premiere and role debut of Gabriela Lena Frank and Nilo Cruz’s El Último Sueño de Frida y Diego at the San Francisco Opera.
“I’m honored to step into Frida Kahlo’s shoes. It’s a new opera that just premiered in San Diego a few months ago,” Mack explains. “It’s not a biopic in any way. It’s a fantastical look into the afterlife and pays homage to one of the greatest artists ever.”
She is also working on an album of Argentine songs that are near and dear to her heart and is set to be released soon.
For Mack, the greatest fulfillment comes in doing pieces that foster the most growth. “I recently performed the role of Desdemona in Rossini’s Otello and I had a lot of anxiety about whether or not I should be doing it or if I could do it,” she shares. “When I succeeded it was a big personal victory. Singing world premieres is also an education, you can’t listen to a recording in order to prepare for these roles. There’s a sort of pressure in learning those and also a higher level of difficulty than standard rep. Those that push me and challenge me are the ones I’m most proud of.”
Mack hopes people are touched by the music just as she was when she was a young audience member.
“There could be two people sitting next to each other who do not respond to my sound and my particular vibration in the same way but I hope they find a shared connection when they share a moment with me on stage,” Mack shares.
I really enjoyed reading this article , very well writing .
I knew and have seen Nadine Sierra perform but I did not know of the other 3 sopranos. Thanks for introducing me to them. I will be eagerly looking for their performances and recordings. Will be sharing with family and friends.
I knew and have seen Nadine Sierra perform but I did not know of the other 3 sopranos.. Thanks for introducing me to them. I will be eagerly looking for their performances and recordings. Will be sharing with family and friends.
Fantastic article. I look forward to seeing these talented perform in the near future.
Jimmy Ortiz, PhD (Washington, DC)
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