Interview: Gabriella Reyes on making her Met debut, her Latin American identity & her dream role

Nicaraguan-American soprano Gabriella Reyes speaks to Yehuda Shapiro about making her Met debut, her Latin American identity, and her dream role

Nicaraguan-American soprano Gabriella Reyes is currently a Lincoln Center Emerging Artist at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. A member of the company’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program, she made her Met debut in Autumn 2018 as the Priestess in Aida, with Anna Netrebko in the title role, and followed this with Nella in Gianni Schicchi, performing alongside Plácido Domingo.

This interview first appeared in the Spring 2019 edition of The Green Room magazine. Read the full issue here

Things have moved fast for you. How did you come to make your professional debut with the Metropolitan Opera?

It all began in 2017. Michael Heaston, who is director of the Met’s Lindemann programme, heard me in the New England semi-finals of the Metropolitan Opera’s National Council Auditions. It was the first competition I had ever entered. Within a week, he invited me to sing in New York for some of the most important people at the Met. I auditioned with three songs, and then, on my way home, Michael rang me and asked if I wanted to be on the Lindemann Young Artist Development Program. I just broke down in tears. It was a very surreal moment.

Three days later I flew out to Los Angeles and sang for Plácido Domingo, who had also heard about me. When I finished singing, he came up to me, shook my hand and invited me to join the LA Opera’s Domingo-Colburn-Stein Young Artist Program. I can tell you, it was very hard to have to say no to Plácido Domingo!

I was halfway through studying for a performing certificate at the Boston University Opera Institute, but after the the Grand Finals of the Met Auditions I left to join the Lindemann Programme. My debut as the Priestess in Aida came in September 2018. The Metropolitan Opera was my first professional engagement ever. Isn’t that quite insane, but I guess you’ve got to start big! I’d never even done a summer programme, since I had been working as a waitress to put myself through school. As a student I’d sung the Contessa in Le nozze di Figaro, Emmeline in Tobias Picker’s opera and roles in Jonathan Dove’s Flight and Philip Glass’ Hydrogen Jukebox. And then the Met suddenly decided “She’s ready.”

This season I’ve been lucky enough to sing 20 performances of three roles at the Met: the Priestess, Nella, alongside Plácido Domingo as Gianni Schicchi, and the First Lady in Die Zauberflöte. Next season I’ll be covering Liù in Turandot as well as singing one performance. This debut season has been incredible – I could really only have dreamed of that.

One of the great singers of the past that I listen to is Rosa Ponselle. Maybe the universe is trying to tell me something, but I was born two houses away from where she was born in Meriden, Connecticut … Both of us had immigrant parents – hers from Italy, mine from Nicaragua. She made her debut in opera at the Met, also in a Verdi opera, in 1918 – 100 years before I did. When I read her biography a couple of years before the whole Met thing happened, I thought, “If only that could happen for me …”

What made you decide to become an opera singer?

Opera is the ultimate outlet for me – I’m a highly passionate person! There are other musical outlets that I enjoy, such as Nicaraguan and Latin American folk music, but there’s a different sense of fulfilment when I’m singing with my full voice and whole body, engaging every part of myself.

I was raised close to New York City, but I didn’t go to the Met when I was growing up. My father is a pastor, and whenever he visited the small Spanish churches in the Boroughs, he would also take my sister and me to see a museum. My parents have worked in factories to earn their living, but they made sure to set money aside for these museum visits, and I think that’s how I got my appreciation for art.

I grew up singing in church. When I was five years old, I sang ‘Twinkle, twinkle, little star’ in front of the entire congregation. I had no nerves or shyness and just loved to sing in front of everybody. Our church has a piano and a drum kit and congas and there’s so much rhythm and soul. Music started speaking through me, whether I was worshipping or just singing at home. My grandmother has a beautiful voice, and she would make me ham and cheese sandwiches while singing along to her records of Domingo or Callas or Caballé. But it wasn’t until I went to college that I focused on classical singing. I started off as an instrumentalist, first of all playing saxophone, and then trombone and then tuba in a marching band. I really wanted that bass! When it came to college, I started off with Biblical Studies and Music in Springfield, Missouri, but I soon realised that what I really found fulfilling was playing tuba. One day in rehearsal I started joking around and singing along with the orchestra. The director said, “Hang on a minute, you can cut through all that sound, you’ve got something there – you should take singing seriously.” After two years at the Christian college in Missouri I decided to transfer to the Conservatory in Boston.

Though I played saxophone in jazz bands, I was never one for improvisation. If I have my musical guidelines, my roadmap, I can expand upon that and develop my own interpretation without having to create something from nothing. In opera, I love that there are rules – you are working within a tradition – but at the same time there’s always room for making it alive and new and different.

“My parents came to the US as immigrants, as refugees from a war-torn country, and in today’s political climate it’s especially important for me to talk about my background.”

As an opera singer, how important is your identity as a Latin American?

Part of the reason my parents weren’t drawn to opera was because they didn’t see anyone who looked like them on stage. It makes a big difference these days to see people like Ailyn Pérez, Nadine Sierra, Mario Chang and Javier Camarena up there. Last summer I sang in one of the Met’s concerts in Central Park and the audience was full of Latin Americans. People came up to me in tears afterwards saying, “We’ve never seen someone who looks like us singing the way you sing. It makes us so proud.”

I want to keep building this community of Latin American opera singers. My parents came to the US as immigrants, as refugees from a war-torn country, and in today’s political climate it’s especially important for me to talk about my background. I took every opportunity that America had to offer, so I feel I am truly living the American dream!

My sense of hard work came from my parents. If you want to make things happen for your life, you need to take it into your own hands. I made my game plan when I was still in middle school: I knew my parents didn’t have the funds to put me through university, so I made sure to get straight A’s and to get involved with every sport and extra-curricular activity. My goal was to get a full scholarship and the discipline paid off for me in the end. Now it’s about applying discipline to my vocal technique, and to learning my music meticulously, so that I can build a long career. And I hope I can use that career to inspire other Latin American singers growing up in a lower-income urban area like I did.

What is your dream role?

That’s easy: Tosca. I’ve always been drawn to Tosca. It always leaves me in tears when I see it. Act 2 is one of the most brilliant acts in opera. But I’m not rushing into roles like Tosca or Aida. For the moment I’m happy to be doing Mozart and lighter Puccini, taking things step by step. The key is longevity and not just instant gratification. I think people appreciate the heart that I bring to my singing, the way I connect with the character and with them. They see a real person – there’s something primal about it.

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