For the first installment of Opera Pulse’s “Artist Spotlight” series, I spoke with tenor René Barbera, a current young artist in the Ryan Opera Center at the Chicago Lyric Opera. At only 26, René has swiftly established himself as an opera singer on the rise, beginning with his sweep of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions in the spring of 2008. Upcoming performances include the Judge in Un ballo in maschera and Harry in Girl of the Golden West with Chicago Lyric Opera and Tonio in La Fille du régiment with Opera Theatre of St. Louis. To learn more, visit www.renebarbera.com.
What is your background in music? When did you first decide to pursue a career in opera?
I started with piano as a young boy and took lessons for about 7 years before switching over to singing with the San Antonio Boys Choir. I was a boy soprano in those days and, in middle school, was the only boy in the all girl’s choir. I stuck with choir through high school and auditioned for the University of Texas at San Antonio in 2002, with the intent of majoring in music education and becoming a high school choir director. The voice teachers at UT suggested that I focus on performance, and I decided to give it a chance (having really no idea what this meant). I eventually ended up at the North Carolina School of the Arts where I studied for several years. I didn’t really begin actively pursuing a career in opera until the fall of 2007 when my life was uprooted by a really bad break up. Since then, I have devoted myself to the pursuit of this career and have to admit…I love it.
You have been a young artist at the Merola Opera Program and Florida Grand Opera and are now in your second year at Chicago Lyric. How did you make these opportunities happen?
I got into the Lyric Opera by quite a bit of luck! Firstly, I met Gianna Rolandi’s mother in North Carolina before the Lyric was even on my radar as an option. I was singing at a funeral she was attending, and she approached me afterward and said, “You really need to sing for my daughter, Gianna Rolandi.” I thought she was just some crazy old lady…turns out, she wasn’t! I sang for Gianna in New York for the Metropolitan Opera National Council Grand Finals, and then Gayletha Nichols [director of the National Council Auditions] called up the Lyric and got me an audition. As for the more recent offers that have come my way, the Lyric has many companies / managers coming through to hear the young artists each season. I have been very fortunate that a few of those have turned into future contracts.
How would you describe your singing process? What do you focus on first: technique, expression, emotion?
I’m really not good with describing what I do technically. I was lucky to have a voice teacher who understood how to get me do things by using imagery instead of more technical wording. I have also been fortunate in that I don’t really have to focus too much on my technique. I know what I’m doing and how to fix things that aren’t working, but most of the time I just warm up and get going! At this point, I’m really trying to focus on my acting and interpretation. Acting has always been my weakest point, and I have only recently been able to let go of my inhibitions little by little! Still, if I focus too much on emotion, I can easily find myself doing things technically wrong, especially if the mood is sad or angry.
What is your practice regimen?
The way I practice is really pretty simple. I warm up for 15 minutes and then go through the parts of a piece that are giving me trouble vocally. For example, before an audition, I go over the approach to the high C in “Spirto Gentil.” Otherwise, my practicing is just warming up for whatever is required for that day of rehearsals.
What is your process for learning a new role?
First, I read a synopsis of the opera (preferably a detailed scene-by-scene description). I then highlight my part throughout the opera and write the page numbers of my entrances in the front of the score. Next, I translate the opera from cover to cover. Once all of the book work is done, I sit with the score and listen to a recording of the opera, after which I head to a practice room and plunk out my parts as best I can. Once I have a grasp on the parts, I take the role to a coach and work with him/her on the parts I’ve worked out and any parts that are giving me a hard time. Something that I do often, even with roles I’m learning, is listen to the opera and sing through (quietly to myself) the role. This also helps with memorization: I will play the opera and mark through it while doing other things, such as playing a video game. If I can sing through the role successfully while doing something unrelated, I know that I’m ready to put the role on its feet in rehearsals.
What steps do you take to develop a character?
When developing a character, I take a very personal look at the character to see what he’s going through over the course of the opera. I try to envision how I would react to these things and how they would make me feel. Often times, my ideas will change throughout the rehearsal process since actually seeing the other characters and their acting choices directly will affect how my character will react to a particular circumstance.
What do you see as the next step in your career? How do you plan to get there?
The next step in my career is being done with the young artist phase. I am open to whatever happens at that point. I will be done with the Lyric Opera Program in the spring of 2012, and I have a few gigs lined up that I am very much looking forward to. I would love to get out to Europe and take some auditions and get to traveling as much as possible!
To wrap things up, let’s talk about the future of opera. People are continuing to question its survival in today’s society. Do you have similar concerns?
In truth, I don’t think opera will have trouble surviving. I definitely think it will go through changes in the process, but it will survive. When 16,000 people show up to a free outdoor concert in Chicago and the baseball park in San Francisco is packed for a live broadcast of Lucia, I can’t help but feel very hopeful about the future of opera.
Photo: Deborah Gray Mitchell