For the Love of Opera: LeRoy Villanueva

Interview and write-up: @EmerNestor

Photographs: @FMarshallPhoto

The irresistable tones of American baritone LeRoy Villanueva have entranced audiences from the shores of America, Europe, New Zealand, Canada, and the Middle East. Since winning the Metropolitan Opera National Auditions in 1988, his career has gone from strength to strength with numerous engagements in the major opera houses of the world, and frequent appearances at international music festivals. As a seasoned, and successful, competitor Villanueva is in constant demand for his interdisciplinary pedagogical expertise. He is currently a highly-regarded Teaching Artist at LA Opera, and a passionate advocate of the value of Opera within the educational development of a child.

Villanueva welcomed Final Note into his home in Los Angeles, where he chats passionately, and candidly about his meandering path to the opera stage, his commitment to making opera 'cool' for kids, and his advice for future singing stars.

Was your childhood home filled with music?

My brother Eli was a baritone. He attended the Merola Opera program, like I did, and also sang in the LA Opera chorus. My father Andres was a baritone, and sang in nightclubs before getting married to my mother Zahydee, who was a tenor! My mother, brother, step-father and I sang in a barbershop quartet-style church music group. Then there was my brother Alvin who played saxophone, and my sister Lisa who, when plied with a nice glass of wine would sing through her favorite playlist of American Musical Theater's greatest hits! So yup...I guess you could say home was filled with music.

Did your time in the California Boys’ Choir inspire you to pursue a singing career?

My time in the CBC inspired me to do many things! If not to sing, then to be an actor or a conductor, or to do anything in theater, but in a broader sense...to elevate my sense of self worth. At that age, growing up in a poor neighbourhood, surrounded by violence and drugs, and racisim...there were just so many things around me that conspired to give my life less meaning. The way out was either through sports or religion...or wait a minute...music???...Hell yes!...Mozart, Palestrina, Verdi! My playground as a young choirboy wasn't in the hood, but on the set of La bohème or Carmen with the New York City Opera! It was a time of adventure, wonder and beauty! For a bunch of kids from so many different ethnic backgrounds, religions and financial means, music was the great equalizer! What better inspiration?

You’ve partaken in many competitions over the years — what are your thoughts on the process?

I have absolutely no complaints about the competitons. I am so grateful for the whole experience, win or lose. I did very well in competitions and there really isn't much to dislike about winning or earning money to pay the bills. I recently heard things though, ideas that people have about competitions that really disturbed me...ideas more like sour grapes. There are some singers, teachers and others that believe competitions are rigged. This really cheapens the whole experience for everyone, especially the singers, and those who propagate those ideas are really missing the point. Competitions are meant to support singers. They're not meant to discourage or tear anyone down. Competitions don't make or break careers either and judges who judge competitions bring to bear their personal experience and tastes. If they don't like a particular singer, it doesn't mean that somebody else won't like them. If you participate in a competition, the only thing under your control is your singing. Let go of everything else out of your control. Sing your best and be grateful for whatever the outcome, because you will always stand to gain from the effort you put into preparing for a competition.

How do you prepare for auditions?

When you appear before an audition panel you say something like, "Hello my name is Romulus Del Lobo and I'd like to sing, 'Nemico della patria' from Andrea Chénier". But what the panel should subliminally hear is: "Hi I'm a great singer and you are going to love working with me". The moment you appear at an audition, you need to believe you are initiating a beautiful working relationship. It's what you should want, and it's certainly what the panel wants! They really DO want you to succeed, it benefits them too, so relax and enjoy the music! They're on your side!

Now you do yourself a favour and arrive with enough time to calm yourself down after a harrowing subway ride or a schlep through the rain. I wouldn't socialize with other singers at the audition. You're not doing them or yourself any favours. Just go somewhere quiet and get yourself into a peaceful state of mind. Close your eyes and gaze into the faces of the characters from your arias and have a little dialogue with them...check in. When it's your turn, take yourself, your characters and your heart in with you, and leave all the other garbage outside the door. Now this is good practice for the time you spend at the actual audition.

Let's face it though, the process of auditioning begins long before you arrive. First, you have to choose your material wisely. I don't mean to disrespect voice teachers, I'm one too. Teachers' opinions are important, but you really need a great coach to help you decide on rep for an audition...someone who knows the rep and your voice. Sing through the rep and once you've chosen what makes you shine, study the entire role before learning your aria. Translate the aria word for word and make sense of it so that you're not just a slug on stage. Sing the aria for awhile and let it settle in. NEVER learn an aria just before an audition. That puts a lot of stress into an already stressful situation.

If the singer in line before you at an audition sings just as well as you do...who do you think has the advantage? The one who is better prepared with the rep! And guess what...when you show up prepared, you can keep your nerves under control. Other than that, take care of yourself, eat well, drink lots of water and get plenty of sleep to maintain good vocal health. Ideally, if you can get to the point where you can audition on any given day without having to 'prepare' for it...you are ready to audition.

Tell us about your time at the University of Southern California.

USC was great fun, a time for discovery. To be honest, I don't know how I got into the Vocal Arts department at USC. My audition tape sucked! Some of my closest friends told me I didn't stand a chance as a singer, and it made me ambivalent about singing. Come to think of it, I wasn't sure what I wanted to do when I first got to USC. Sure, I was a voice major but I didn't envision myself as an opera singer...no way! I thought I would go into choral conducting, then I thought I would switch to Drama...then Music Theater caught my attention. At one point I thought I would be involved in film. That's the great thing about USC...lots of opportunity, though my teachers in the voice department weren't always pleased with my lack of focus. But hey!

My experiences at USC gave me so much depth and insight into the world of performing arts and I really believe it made me a better, more well rounded performer. I worked as a stockroom attendant at the USC Film School where I became Assistant Equipment Repairman and learned how to fix lighting equipment and maintain the sound stage. I met so many interesting people there and learned a lot about film-making too. I even worked on a few films as dolly grip and gaffer. I also participated in various plays and musicals in the drama department...in a way, breaking an unwritten rule by crossing over and colluding with the enemy, ha ha! It's true...for some ridiculous reason, the Drama school and Music schools didn't really work together. It's a common issue with many Universities...I'll never figure that one out.

What are your memories of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival?

Edinburgh was such a beautiful city. It was my first trip abroad and I remember walking to the castle, how it evoked images of the kingdom of Camelot and King Athur's Court (I had recently seen the movie Excalibur). This is everyday stuff for a local but for a young, wide-eyed Puerto Rican from Sun Valley California...it was like Disneyland on steroids! I had nothing else to compare it to, in my limited experience. It all seemed so mystical and surreal, but unlike Disneyland, it WAS real!

Edinburgh is one of my fondest memories! It was hard work but so rewarding. Through connections at the USC Drama Department, I joined a troupe that performed at the Fringe Festival. I performed roles in a handful of musicals and plays but I also had to crew a few shows. I was prop master in one show, ran sound for another and worked the follow spot. We had to construct the sets and build the stage from scratch as well as build rafters to seat the audience! It was a monumental undertaking! We were up at 7am and worked until 10pm, then went out for dinner and drinks until 3am, or later. I was also broke so I didn't eat much! It was so Bohemian! I don't know how I even survived so much fun! Of course when the shows began to run, the ratio of work to play shifted a bit...favoring play...ahem...lots of play...

Having initially set out to pursue studies in Musical Theater, what drew you into the world of opera?

It almost feels accidental. I mean first there was a buddy of mine, Bob Swensen, who filled out an application for the Merola Opera Program at San Francisco Opera. He sent it in for me without my knowledge and got me an audition. Bob kept telling me to focus on Opera and stop messing around with the other stuff I was doing...well, I got into Merola, thanks Bob!!! Things went pretty well for me there, winning the 1st place, Schwabacher Memorial Award in the Merola Finals...thanks Bob!!! Then there was Rae Allen with whom I studied acting at one point. She directed a play I was in, at USC. Rae played Gloria Thorpe in the 1958 film version of Damn Yankees and I was in awe of her and really valued her opinion. She encouraged me to go into opera...more like insisted. My buddy Tom Randle pushed me to work harder on my singing.

There was one other very important thing that made me choose opera over Music Theater and that was the colour of my skin. Music Theater casting directors weren't looking past my skin colour at that time. Opera directors were more forgiving. I once auditioned for a touring production of a musical...I sang and read well for them and they offered me a role for a person of colour...a character that, surprise surprise...had to sing Blues. I had to decline because I didn't know the first thing about singing Blues. At least in Opera...if you sang well, you got the part!

When did you find your ‘classical’ singing voice?

Very early on. I was classically trained at the age of 8 years old. I was a boy soprano in the California Boys' Choir. As a boy soprano, I toured all over the United States and sang with New York City Opera in the chorus of several productions in Los Angeles. I had a deep appreciation for the music of Bach, Mozart and Mahler. My taste for classical music was well developed before my voice changed but even then, I had a classical choral sound and didn't fully realize my potential to sing Opera until I started working with a coach at USC. It wasn't until my Junior year there that I really learned how to breathe. And really, only after entertaining the idea of being an operatic baritone did I begin to hear and feel my voice differently, allowing my voice to grow and evolve into the repertoire.

What excites you about performing?

The part about "make believe". I'm a pretty shy person but I can be anything or play anyone on stage. Performing on stage is pure fantasy. It's fun and at the same time, it's a risky thing! Things happen. You or someone else might forget your words or change the staging. You have to be prepared to think fast on your feet...improvise...but that's what makes it so thrilling! Audiences may not laugh where they're supposed to or worse, laugh when they're NOT supposed to. Props fall apart, set pieces fall down and that's all part of the excitement! The other cool thing about performing an opera is that you get to listen as well! The other singers, the orchestra...the conductor who can inspire or even sometimes make you work harder than you need to! You are all in it together. You make music but it also makes you...and it's different every single time...you may be affected by its power in a different way every time and you come away from it a new person with a new experience, every time.

From the many roles that you have sung so far, what particular performance stands out, and why?

My best experiences have come from productions where the director and conductor collaborate with you and don't just direct traffic on stage, or herd you through the music without any give and take. When you collaborate you develop trust and depend upon one another to inspire each other. These are productions where you can really sink your teeth into a character. The new productions and premieres are really best for this, where you have roles you can create, as opposed to recreate, alongside the composer. I've had this experience quite a few times, most notably in San Francisco, Paris and once in Boston.

In Boston, I performed the title role, in a premiere of Phillip Glass's Orphée, directed by Francesca Zambello at the American Repertory Theater. I had just performed the same role but in Monteverdi's version of Orfeo at Long Beach Opera, directed by Christopher Alden — another great director. Monteverdi is considered to be Opera's first major composer and nearly 400 years later, Philip Glass conceived his modern take on Jean Cocteau's version of the 1950's French Film,Orphée. I had such a strong connection with the character ...having taken a journey that spanned 400 years, from the oldest opera to the newest with two amazing directors, two great opera composers and one historic Film Director/Artist, all telling the same story from their unique perspective...a story that had been told many times before in opera, stage and film.

As a teacher, what qualities do you consider important in your eclectic branch of vocal teaching?

It was important for me to realize that there isn't a one-size fits all technique to singing. There are so many different singing techniques out there and so many different styles of singing. Different techniques work for different singers and once I realized that, I was able to adapt and learn from others, including my students! It's important to adapt and be flexible...to be open to different styles of music and singing. Who am I to force the classical singing style down the throats of would-be pop or rock singers? Music and singing have been evolving over the past several hundred years, so should we!

How do you look after your voice?

When you look after your body, you look after your voice. Singers are like athletes. You have to exercise your voice regularly and take care of your body. That's not to say that I haven't had my share of harmful behaviour because I certainly have. I speak from experience! When you don't sleep, you don't sing well. When you eat poorly, you feel poorly and you don't sing well. When you are not well in the mind, your head isn't in the music and you don't sing well. When you don't exercise the voice, you don't sing well. It's hard to be on your game all the time, but that's really what it takes to succeed.

What inspired you to write the libretto for Figaro's American Adventure, and do you have further plans in this area?

Bugs Bunny! He was my favourite cartoon character as a kid and the inspiration for Figaro's American Adventure. Bugs inspired me as a kid. He taught me to never give up! The clever Stacy Brightman who heads LA Opera's Community Outreach Programs commissioned me to write Figaro's American Adventure. She asked me to write the libretto for a children's opera based on the character, Figaro from Rossini's Barber of Seville. In my research I learned some very interesting things about Figaro's original creator — the French playwright Pierre Beaumarchais who was literally the real life Figaro. He was a do-it-all, a Factotum and he helped a lot of people, including the Americans to win their independence from England! He was a watch-maker, smuggler, diplomat and spy, a poet and musician. I found this natural connection between Beaumarchais, Figaro and Bugs Bunny ...and therein lies the connection with kids.

My libretto reads more like a cartoon version of the The Barber of Seville...silly, fun, short and sweet. My brother and I wrote a sequel to Figaro's American Adventure called, The Marriage of Figueroa. That one features the music of Mozart's Marriage of Figaro and focuses on the Governor of California, whose name was José Figueroa. These were the first two projects I wrote for LA Opera and have since written several others. There are more to come!

Tell us about your involvement with LA Opera’s Community Outreach Programs.

It began with Figaro's American Adventure. I was living in Paris when I wrote that and soon after, I found myself travelling back and forth between Paris and Los Angeles. I was writing more for the Outreach Programs but also became a Teaching Artist. I won't lie, certain health issues made it difficult for me to sing full-length operas anymore, so it really made sense for me to move to Los Angeles and it's very important work that we do. LA Opera's Community Programs reaches out to tens of thousands of kids and families all over Los Angeles from every walk of life. They are serious about education and about making the connection between community and opera through programs in-school and out.

For example, we write short operas for children, usually kids who know nothing about opera. We take the opera into the schools, English classes or chorus classes, no matter their experience, and we teach them about opera. We write librettos that connect traditional opera stories with their school curriculum. We work with the kids for as many as 10 weeks, teaching them to sing as a chorus, working together as a team and then we bring in the sets, lights, costumes, professional singers, the works! It all comes together in a performance before their family and peers. It's hilarious because many of the kids are skeptical and have no idea what they are getting themselves into, until that final day of the performance. They arrive at school on that day to find the assembled sets and lights, wide-eyed and often terrified but always excited. And when they pull it off...they are overwhelmed with emotion...and so are we. I love working with Community Programs at LA Opera because they never take themselves too seriously! We share the power and beauty of opera, but also find the humour, even in the most serious opera stories. We are not afraid to poke fun at ourselves, nor tackle serious topics or current events that can be seen through the opera glasses.

From your involvement in so many educational programs, such as Opera Tales, how do you get children interested and involved in opera?

Opera Tales is a collaboration with the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. Supervisor Don Knabe sends us out to Libraries all over Los Angeles County where we perform opera for the community. During a sort of 'story-time' for kids and families, we present three condensed operas. Each opera lasts 10 minutes for a total of 30 minutes of Opera Tales or stories. They're usually narrated by some historical famous opera character like Mozort or Verdi or most recently, Pierre Beaumarchais. The way we present Opera Tales actually reminds me of Fractured Fairy Tales, if anybody remembers that...I think I just dated myself. These performances are zany and families love it! Many of them come back year after year. Opera Tales appeals to both children and adults because the operas are short, fast-paced and fun-filled. The other appealling element is that there is no need to dress up and schlep across town to the big opera house, just come for a bit of fun at the local library before supper, and enjoy some absolutely divine music. It whets their appetite for the real deal at the opera house!

Why is it so important to you to be involved in such projects?

This work is so important because let's face it, opera isn't getting any younger. We need more people interested in opera in order for opera itself to evolve with the times. We all shape opera, like any other art form. Our lives, history and culture make opera and opera stories. The art form has been alive for over 400 years, telling the story of humanity as we live, die, sweat and cry. It's important to celebrate our connection to one of the oldest and most beloved forms of human expression.

How much fun do you have collaborating with your brother Eli?

We laugh at the same things! Eli and I grew up together on the stage. We sang and toured together in Boys' Choir. In school we were drama nerds, writing shows for and performing with our high school children's theater group. We performed in plays and musicals. We both studied music in college and later worked together as adults to keep doing what we've always done...play, argue, laugh and then laugh some more! I can't believe somebody actually pays us to do this stuff!

What are you working on at the moment?

My brother and I are working on a new children's opera based on Turandot. It's called The Legend of Cannery Row and it's a tale of hope and sacrifice, love and rage. Great authors like John Steinbeck have penned novels about the historic site. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote his own impressions about Cannery Row, capturing the romance and mystery of the Orient. Through LA Opera's in-school Opera Program, children will discover the plight of the Chinese immigrant at Cannery Row by exploring Puccini's masterpiece opera, Turandot. The story of Turandot originates from The Arabian Nights/A Thousand and One Nights, a collection of ancient tales told by the sultana Scheherazade. The sultana tells these stories to her jealous and violent husband, hoping to keep her husband entertained...and herself alive.

Turandot is the story of a mysterious Prince Calaf who himself was an immigrant. His sacrifice led him on a journey against all hope to win the love of Princess Turandot whose cold heart burned with prejudice and rage. It's a tricky project. We want to get the kids interested in Opera, Puccini and Californian History, while telling these elementary school kids a creepy story...all without scaring them...too much!

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