Call tenor René Barbera the reluctant musician. In town to open San Diego Opera’s 2015-16 season with a solo recital at downtown’s Balboa Theatre on Saturday, September 19, the rapidly rising young singer did not exactly rush headlong into a musical career.
As a youngster, he gave up studying piano after six years because practicing bored him. But his teachers noted his vocal abilities and urged him to join the San Antonio Boys Choir and then a middle school choir, where he frequently found himself singing prominent solos.
When he started high school, he decided was tired of choral singing and chose not to sign up for the school’s choir. But during the first week of school, the choir director recognized him in the school hallway and pulled him aside.
“He grabbed me by the earlobe, twisted hard and pulled me down to my knees. He told me to change my class schedule and be in his choir by the week’s end,” said Barbera. He complied.
Growing up in San Antonio, Texas, it is not surprising that he had never attended a live opera production. But his first opera experience—watching a televised production of Rossini—came about only because his girlfriend at that time twisted his arm and insisted he watch it with her. He still carries a grudge—Rossini is his least favorite bel canto opera composer.
His start and stop undergraduate career finally came into focus at the North Carolina School for the Arts, a well-respected conservatory for artists and performers, and from there a trio of post graduate training programs connected to American opera companies. In 2009 he entered Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Ryan Opera Center, a program that has graduated a host of successful American singers—Harolyn Blackwell, Mark S. Doss, Elizabeth Futral, and Matthew Polenzani, to name few.
Shortly after beginning his work with the Ryan Opera Opera Center, Barbera received a summons to the director’s office, which filled him with trepidation. Instead of a reprimand, however, Lyric Opera of Chicago offered him the leading male role of Ernesto in Donizetti’s Don Pasquale for the company’s 2012 season.
“I was so astounded with the offer that I wanted to shout, cry, and jump up and down all at once, but I just sat there in shock,” Barbera recalled. “Finally the director asked me, ‘Well, do you want the role or not?’ And all I could do was blurt out, ‘Of course!’”
Between his official Chicago debut in Don Pasquale he experienced another surprise summons in the fall of 2011 from the Lyric Opera Chicago management to fill in for the ailing Italian tenor Giuseppe Filianoti in another Donizetti classic, Lucia di Lammermoor. An important part of the training younger singers receive in programs such as those at the Ryan Opera Center is preparing roles as the designated “cover” for the contracted singers, should they become indisposed and unable to sing at a performance.
“It was after 5:00 p.m., and I had just left my apartment for a relaxed evening, when my cell phone went off. I was told to come down to the opera house and I would be on stage at 7:30 singing Edgardo.”
He admitted this filled him with terror as he thought of all the complicated blocking of this new Chicago Lyric production, not to mention “that first act duet with the soprano that goes on and on and seems like it is never going to end.” It was a trial by fire, a kind of “out-of-body experience,” he explained. But once he started singing, all his worries about staging and other details subsided and it proved a successful performance.
“Even though this was in the middle of the run, there happened to be a critic in the audience, so I received a good review for my surprise performance.”
2011 proved a banner year for Barbera. At Placido Domingo’s Operalia world opera competition held in Moscow, Barbera walked away with three top awards: first prize in Opera, first prize in Zarzuela, and the coveted Audience prize. This was the first time since the competition’s founding in 1993 that a singer won three awards.
San Diegans first heard Barbera in April of 2015 at San Diego Opera’s 50th Anniversary Celebration Concert, where he sang “Au fond du temple saint,” the famous tenor-baritone duet form Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers, Donizetti’s “Ah, mes amis,” from The Daughter of the Regiment—the aria he sang in his final round of Domingo’s Operalia competition—and “All’ idea di’ quel metallo” from Rossini’s The Barber of Seville. As one local critic described his performance, he stole the show with his bright Italianate tenor sound and engaging, dramatic stage presence.
I was fortunate to hear both of Barbera’s performances at San Francisco Opera last season: his San Francisco debut, Don Ramiro in Rossini’s La Cenerentola in the fall, and as Iopas in Berlioz’ Les Troyens in June. Each proved an excellent vehicle for his dramatic and vocal abilities, and in the grand Berlioz work, the audience showered him with as much applause as they gave the two lead singers, mezzo-soprano Susan Graham and soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci.
Barbera promised his Saturday program would include a generous sampling of Italian and Spanish songs–including a song cycle by the Argentine composer of the last century Alberto Ginastera–and a few opera arias. He will be accompanied by pianist Cheryl Cellon Lindquist.
San Diego Opera presents tenor René Barbara in the Polly Puterbaugh Emerging Artist Award Recital, accompanied by Cheryl Cellon Lindquist at the Balboa Theatre, 868 Fourth Avenue, Saturday, September 19, at 7:00 p.m.