The following interview took place at the War Memorial Opera House, home of the San Francisco Opera, where René Barbera is scheduled to perform the role of Count Almaviva in Rossini’s “Il Barbiere di Siviglia”. The facilitation of this interview by the San Francisco Opera is deeply appreciated.
[Below: Tenor René Barbera; resized image of a publicity photograph.
Wm: What were your earliest memories of music? Of classical music?
RB: I grew up in Laredo, Texas, where my uncles were Tejano musicians. My brother, who is ten years older than me, played the clarinet in March Band in high school. These were the first musical experiences that I recall.
I started piano when I was very young. In fact, I had asked my parents for karate and piano lessons. I had a good ear for music and could learn pieces very quickly.
However, I did not enjoy practicing piano and my skills exceeded my physical capabilities, as my hands were quite small and I was unable to comfortably play octaves.
Wm: When did you become attracted to vocal music?
RB: I had always enjoyed singing (we sang the National Anthem daily in elementary school in Laredo). Upon moving to San Antonio, I was encouraged to join the San Antonio Boys Choir by the music teacher at my elementary school. That first year in the choir, we traveled to London for a choir tour, which was very exciting for a boy of ten years old.
I decided then, that singing was the right path to take, so, shortly thereafter, I quit my piano studies. When I got to middle school, I decided to join the school choir where I was placed as a tenor. Upon hearing this, the conductor of the San Antonio Boys Choir, Melinda Loomis, demanded that I be allowed to join the all girls choir so that I could continue singing as a boy soprano until my voice changed.
Wm: You have spoken about the importance of piano lessons and of elementary school choir in your early musical training. Do you regard these childhood experiences as advantageous to your later career?
RB: Absolutely! Both piano and choir gave me understanding of musicality. Among the basic skills you learn in piano is how to read music. It pushed me in the right direction. Even now, my basic grounding in piano gives me enough proficiency to play my line in an opera’s score and to pull my part together.
Wm: Of course, lots of children play the piano and sing in choirs, but don’t develop into opera singers. Were there early experiences that pushed you in that direction?
RB: One of the important influences during my early musical development was my high school choir director, Gordon Ivers, who regularly encouraged me to sing out rather than blend. Choir directors traditionally go for “balance” between the various sections of the choir, and, therefore, usually discourage students from singing louder than other choir members.
However, my high school choir director wanted the larger voices to sing out. That said, our tenor section was quite small so he would often single me out and signal me to sing with more voice in the middle of choir competitions or performances.
Wm: What was the impact on you of that style of teaching?
RB: It encouraged me to want to be a high school choir director. I wanted to be a positive influence on other young singers. I decided to pursue studies at the University of Texas at San Antonio [UTSA], where I had intended on studying to do just that.
Wm: It was the voice faculty of the University of Texas San Antonio that recommended that your academic emphasis be on vocal performance. Was it a surprise to you?
RB: I was quite surprised to be nudged toward a degree in vocal performance. I had never really thought it was possible to have a career singing classical music. I had never seen or performed in an opera, nor did I realize it was a still existing and striving art form. Being raised in South Texas, it was an incredibly foreign idea.
Wm: What led them to that recommendation?
I auditioned at UTSA for a scholarship and chose to sing Comfort Ye, Every Valley from Handel’s “Messiah”. The faculty present were all quite visibly impressed with my performance and I was, later in the day, awarded the largest scholarship they offered for a music major at the time.
Dr Michael Burgess, whom I ultimately chose as my teacher, approached me after the audition and told me he had been unable to sing that aria as well as I did until he was in his 30s (I was 18 at the time). He encouraged me to pursue a vocal performance degree, quite adamantly I might add.
[Below: René Barbera as Nemorino in the Opera Theater of Saint Louis production of Donizetti’s “L’Elisir d’Amore”; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph for the Opera Theater of Saint Louis.]
Wm: But, ultimately, you left UTSA without completing such a major. What happened?
RB: During the summer break after my first year at UTSA I took part in the American Institute of Musical Studies [AIMS] in Graz, Austria where I worked with Elizabeth Nohe Colson, and loved the taste of being able to focus on music without the distractions of homework in unrelated courses.
When I went back to college, everything relating to music slowed down again, and homework for other courses consumed time I wanted to spend learning music. Finally, in my third semester, I dropped out of UTSA and joined my brother in Colorado and pursue a different career altogether. I didn’t want to quit singing altogether so I contacted Ms Colson and asked her if she knew of any teachers near the Denver area with whom she’d recommend I study.
She immediately suggested Martile Rowland, who ran the Vocal Arts Symposium [VAS], a three-week program for young aspiring singers, in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Shortly after arriving in Denver I got a job performing windshield repairs and selling windshield replacements with Elite Auto Glass.
My boss, during my interview told me that he had seen my eyes light up when I was spoke about my singing. I had told him about Mrs. Rowland and he took it upon himself to call me a couple of times a week to see if I’d managed to be in contact with Martile.
Wm: What a story!
RB: It gets better. Once I was in contact with Martile and had my first lesson, she offered me a full scholarship to the Vocal Arts Symposium. I immediately called my boss and let him know about the offer and he, without me requesting it, insisted that I take a leave of absence and take the opportunity and run with it.
During the program, I met James Albritten and Steven LaCosse from the University of North Carolina School of the Arts [UNCSA]. Several of their students were taking part in the VAS and were doing their best to talk up the school. I approached James one day and inquired about attending the school. He proceeded to inform me that the school had been holding funds for a scholarship for a tenor and that he would like to offer that to me under the condition that I attend that very fall.
It was late July at that time and school began sometime after mid-August. Martile Rowland insisted that Marilyn Taylor would be the best fit for me so I insisted that she be my teacher. My boss at the time was completely understanding and gave me all of the time I needed to make the decision to go, only requesting that I give him at least a week notice. So off to Winston-Salem, North Carolina, I went.
[Below: a scene from the Opera National de Paris’ production of Rossini’s “Barber of Seville” with Rene Barbera (second from right) as Count Almaviva; edited image, based on a publicity photograph for the Opera National de Paris.]
Wm: I think there would be aspiring opera singers from all over the world that would want to work for that boss. In 2004 you began a four-year academic course at the North Carolina School for the Arts. What did you learn there?
RB: I learned a great many things – much of which was what NOT to do, as I had a habit of being a less than stellar student, to put it kindly. I was taught by Dr Taylor what it is I was doing correctly vocally and what I needed to never change.
During my time there I worked a lot on my middle and low voice. Upon arriving I could BARELY sing a G below middle C, so I had much work to accomplish on that front. I got to do a few smaller roles. I learned how to be patient, after much impatience on my part and learned how to relate to others on stage. The concept of REACTING to my colleagues’ acting choices has been pivotal in my growth as a performer.
Wm: Explain what you mean by impatience on your part!
RB: I was kind of a giant pain in the rear while I was there. I’m a South Texas boy with fiery Latin blood. I had a tendency to be blunt and needed to learn how to be tactful.
My time at UNCSA was quite busy. We would go from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. (classes followed by rehearsals) regularly and would often have very little time between classes and rehearsals.
During my final year I took a large number of auditions and was accepted into San Francisco Opera’s Merola Opera Program, the Florida Grand Opera young artist program, and the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Ryan Opera Center, as well as winning the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. Due to my very busy audition schedule, I was unable to complete some of my courses and, knowing that I wouldn’t graduate without them, I withdrew from all academic courses to ease my load.
This drove me absolutely crazy at the time and I was rather miserable and I decided that if I didn’t enjoy my time at Merola that I would quit singing altogether and pursue another career.
Wm: My guess is that you liked the Merola program. How did it fit into your career planning?
RB: I LOVED my time at Merola! It was funny, upon arriving, we were told that this would be the hardest work that we’ve ever done. Yet, unlike the UNCSA, we didn’t begin work until 10 a.m. and were often done by 5 p.m. I hadn’t had so much time in the morning AND the evening to myself in years! It was quite a relief.
[Below: Rodrigo de Rhu (René Barbera, center left) is threatened by King James V, disguised as Ubaldo (Lawrence Brownlee, center right) as Elena, la Donna Del Lago (Joyce DiDonato, center) tries to separate them; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]
My particular assignment was to sing Ernesto in Act 1 of Donizetti’s “Don Pasquale” for the Schwabacher Summer Concert. Leah Crocetto was Norina!!
Wm: You entered and won regional vocal competitions and then was a winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. What impact did these wins have on your career?
RB: When I was still at the University of North Carolina, I had won the Heafner/Williams Vocal Competition in Lincoln, North Carolina and the 2007 Grand Prize in the Charles A. Lynam Vocal Competition in Greensboro. As a result of that grand prize I was invited to perform a concert at the University of North Carolina in Greensboro.
For the Metropolitan Opera Auditions, I sang Tonio’s aria Mes amis from Donizetti’s “La Fille du Regiment”. It was during the Met competition that I was encouraged to sing for the Ryan Opera Center (run by Gianna Rolandi). Upon entering the audition space, Gianna immediately said “You know my mother”. Which, initially, caught me off guard, but it quickly came back to me and I said “Yes I do!”.
[Below: a scene from the Lyric Opera production of Donizetti’s “Don Pasquale” with, from left to right Ildebrando d’Arcangelo as Pasquale, Corey Crider as Malatesta, René Barbera is Ernesto and Marlis Pedersen as Norina; edited image, based on a Dan Rest photograph for the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]
Wm: How did you know Gianna Rolandi’s mother?
RB: She happened to be in attendance at a funeral service for which I sang. Afterward, as I was exiting the church, she approached me and introduced herself, exclaiming that I needed to sing for her daughter, Gianna Rolandi.
At the time I had no idea who she was or what she was talking about as I was feeling rather awkward being praised in that way immediately following a funeral! Little did I know the influence that a strange meeting would have. She, I was later told, went straight home and called Gianna and insisted that she hear me sing and continued to pressure her about it until I finally DID sing for her.
Wm: So the Met National Auditions win gave not only gave you national attention, but led to your being noticed most particularly by Gianna Rolandi and the Ryan Opera Center.
RB: Yes! My time at the Ryan Opera Center is a direct result of my singing for the Met Competition that year.
[Below: Operalia founder Placido Domingo (right) helps Operalia winner René Barbera with his accumulated trophies; edited image, based on a publicity photograph from the University of North Carolina School of the Arts.]
Wm: The most impressive competition on your resume, of course, is winning the opera, zarzuela and audience awards in Placido Domingo’s Operalia contest, the first male to do so. Do you divide your operatic career into “before-Operalia” and “after-Operalia” segments? What have been the tangible results of your Operalia successes?
RB: I don’t really think of my career as before-Operalia and after-Operalia segments. I feel like everything I have done has cumulatively brought me to where I am, but the timing of Operalia and the international attention it got me couldn’t have been more perfect.
It helped me gain the finances I needed to begin my career and it was around this time that work began to really line up as it was nearing the end of my time as a young artist. It’s hugely important to be heard and noticed internationally in this career and Operalia provided that platform.
[Below: The Count Almaviva, disguised as music teacher (René Barbera, right) is eyed suspiciously by Doctor Bartolo (Alessandro Corbelli, left) in the 2015 Los Angeles Opera production of Rossini’s “Il Barbiere di Siviglia”; edited image, based on a Craig T. Mathew photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
Wm: A phenomenon of the last few decades is, first, the Donizetti revival and incorporation of many of Donizetti’s works into the standard operatic repertory, and later the revival of interest in the works of Rossini.
There are now several first rank artists capable of the technical vocal demands of Rossini’s works, including yourself, whom I collectively refer to as the “Rossini Royalty”.
[Below: Prince Ramiro (René Barbera, right) takes the hand of Cenerentola (Karine Deshayes, left) in the finale of the San Francisco Opera production of Rossini’s “La Cenerentola”; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
I have seen you perform Almaviva in “Barber” in Los Angeles, your Ramiro in “Cenerentola” in Los Angeles and San Francisco, and in “Donna del Lago” in Santa Fe.
At what point did you decide that Rossini would be a cornerstone of your career?
RB: Honestly, that decision was made for me. I had not sung much Rossini before my career began. I did not believe I had the vocal agility to bring justice to Rossini’s music. It was and continues to be VERY hard work for me.
I think I’m doing pretty well given the circumstances and have come to appreciate the challenge it provides. I never planned for Rossini to be the “cornerstone” of my career. I had expected Bellini and Donizetti to be central to my repertory as I feel, and have always felt, that the music of those two composers is my forte. So far, whoever, it is Rossini with whom I’m most associated.
Wm: And you’ve been invited to the annual international Rossini celebrations in Pesaro, Italy, with the other Rossini royals.
RB: Yes I have!
[Below: René Barbera as Giannetto with Nino Machaidze as Ninetta in the 2015 production of Rossini’s “La Gazza Ladra”; edited image, based on a Amati Bacciardi photograph for the Rossini Festival of Pesaro, Italy.]
Wm: The first couple of times I saw you perform was in the small role of Hadji in Delibes’ “Lakmé” at the Florida Grand Opera in 2009, although Hadji is a part whose music I find to be charming.
You have said elsewhere that the lyric tenor roles of the late 19th century, even including Nadir in “Pearlfishers” are off the table for you, at least presently.
Perhaps the role of Iopas in Berlioz’ “The Trojans”, which you performed this summer at the San Francisco Opera, should be thought of as a prelude to other ventures in the French repertory, perhaps Gérald in “Lakmé”? Would you comment?
RB: I am open to a lot of possibilities. I just don’t want to skip all of the Donizetti and Bellini roles. I could see Gérald in the future and even Nadir, honestly sooner than later. I just haven’t given those roles much thought as, I would imagine, the Bellini and Donizetti would likely come first.
Singing Iopas in The Trojans was an incredible experience and I certainly hope it is prelude to other French repertory. I love any music that provides me with the ability to use my voice in an artful and beautiful way.
Wm: Your career has been centered in the light lyric roles of the early 19th century repertory, but here the comedies have a security in the performance repertory that most of the dramatic works of the period do not have.
Rossini and Donizetti each have three major comic operas that are now well established in the repertory, but Bellini’s “Sonnambula” and “Puritani”, both with lead roles that fit your voice, remain rarities.
Are you able to advocate for Bellini in your conversations with managements?
RB: Truth be told, at this point, I do not do any advocating for myself. I allow my agent to do the legwork for me and trust his judgment. I am definitely encouraging him to seek more and more opportunities outside of Rossini. At the end of the day I go where the work takes me.
Wm: A few tenors, notably the late Spanish tenor Alfredo Kraus, have resisted the insistence of operatic managements who wish to see leggiero and lyric tenors take on roles requiring heavier vocal weight. Are you offered roles that you feel will not fit your voice, and have you ever had to reject an important engagement because you feel what you are offered does not fit your voice?
RB: Offers come and go and opera administrations have talked to my agent about roles such as Alfredo in Verdi’s “La Traviata”. I have, until recently, been turning those types of offers down as I didn’t feel I was vocally ready to take on those roles at the time. I think it is important to be careful not to accept roles until they are right for your voice.
I want to be able to pace my career and be smart about what I sing and when I sing it. I want to take a giant bite into Donizetti, Bellini, and even some lighter Verdi roles in the near future.
Wm: What about your career so far gives you the greatest satisfaction?
RB: What I find so satisfying is that I have achieved success in a career that allows my family, and especially my parents, to join me in places that they would never gone otherwise – Moscow, Paris, Rome, side-trips to such important sites as Pompeii.
I feel rewarded that my brother and I have been able to, jointly, do such great things for our parents. Nothing pleases me more than being able to, in whatever way I can, give my parents the reward they deserve for their unending support of me and of my career.
Wm: Thank you for an excellent interview.
RB: Thank you.