BWW Interview: Vanessa Vasquez of LA BOHEME at Santa Fe Opera
Colombian-American soprano Vanessa Vasquez, winner of the 2017 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, recently completed a residency at the prestigious Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia.
While there, she sang as Mimì in La bohème, Gilda in Rigoletto, Donna Anna in Don Giovanni, and Violetta in La traviata. She made her professional opera debut in summer 2017 as Liù in Turandot at the Des Moines Metro Opera. This past season, she was Violetta at Arizona Opera and, currently, she is appearing as Mimi in La bohème at Santa Fe Opera.
In what kind of environment did you grow up?
I grew up in Scottsdale, Arizona. I was especially lucky to live with both my parents and grandparents! It was always a loud, fun-loving environment filled with lots of Latin music. My immediate family is not musical, but my Cuban great grandmother on my mother's side was a soprano and I'm told that she loved singing and listening to classical music.
Was there much music in your school?
Yes, I was extremely fortunate to have been engaged in music programs throughout my entire development. In fact, I am not sure I would be in the arts today without the crucial exposure and encouragement from teachers and mentors. I sang in my school choir since the third grade and began singing and cantoring in my local parish church around the age of twelve. In high school, I became the vice president of our award-winning Honor Choir. I became very interested in musical theatre during this time.
Did you study piano?
I studied piano for about three years beginning at age six, when I began my private voice lessons. But soon I spent all my time practicing singing and I never wanted to practice piano! Looking back I definitely wish I had stuck with piano, too.
When did you see your first opera?
During my freshman year of college, I was in the chorus of La bohème. I fell in love with the music instantly, and I admired my colleagues greatly. They all inspired me and were a huge part of the reason I fell in love with opera. When I saw these young people making such beautiful and touching art, I wanted to learn how to do it and be a part of it.
Where did you go after high school?
I earned my Bachelor of Music degree at the Catholic University of America and received my Masters in Music from UCLA.
Are there any artists or musicians from the past whose work has significantly influenced you?
A performer particularly close to my heart is Teresa Stratas. She is one of the greatest singing actresses of all time. I remember watching and studying her work. It was always profoundly honest and beautiful. I am still trying to figure out how she created the magic she made. I am forever her biggest fan.
Who were your most important teachers?
My teachers, especially voice teacher William Schuman, were instrumental in helping me arrive at where I am today. They, and the mentors that I've had, are a part of my unique journey. I am eternally grateful to them all for guiding me to my present place as the journey continues.
What did you learn from your teachers that you would like to pass on to the next generation of artists?
Learn to play an instrument, because skills pay the bills! But most importantly believe in yourself. I was waiting for the feeling of being ready, but I think it's important for young singers to know they will never get that feeling! Just believe in yourself and put yourself out there!
How finished an artist should a young singer be when leaving school?
I don't think DMA's are really necessary unless a singer intends on teaching. Official schooling degrees aren't very important in our field. Mainly what matters most is your polished singing ability and experience. An artist must be able to communicate effectively throughout a performance, however. This takes a lot of dedication and maturation, so going as high as a masters degree or young artist program is beneficial.many ways.
Have you won any big competitions? What are your thoughts on the value of competitions?
I'm very lucky to have won nine competitions to date. They include the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, the Gerda Lissner Foundation International Competition, the Richard Tucker Foundation's Sara Tucker Award, and the Licia Albanese-Puccini Foundation Vocal Competition.
Those contests have had tremendous value for me. If it weren't for the monetary help I received from them, I'm not sure I could have afforded to keep up with the financial demands of pursuing this career full time. Also, it was through competing that I was introduced to management. Although that happened because of exposure to the competition circuit, competitions are only one path toward the goal of a successful career. I know for a fact that competitions are not just a necessary evil. They can be beneficial in many ways.
After graduating from UCLA, I became a four-year resident artist at The Academy of Vocal Arts (AVA) in Philadelphia.
When did you first sing the role of Mimi in La bohème?
I sang it during my first year at AVA and it was my first major lead role in an opera ever! Singing the role of Mimi feels wonderful. It's a privilege to perform such an iconically beautiful story and its music.
What is your interpretation of the role?
Mimi is charming and graceful. It's not so much that she is shy but that she is fragile with an underlying vivaciousness. I love that the score mentions Rodolfo's love affair with Mimi's hands. It's one of my favorite details about her character and it inspires me as an artist when I think about playing her.
Which are your favorite roles?
The two favorite roles that I've performed to date are Violetta in La Traviata and Gilda in Rigoletto.
What important performances do you have coming up later this season and next?
I will be making my debuts with the Canadian Opera Company as Liu in Turandot and with the Washington National Opera as Donna Anna in Don Giovanni.
How do you feel about stage directors and their impact on current opera productions?
The emergence of the stage director as a major force in opera presents some interesting challenges. We have to balance what our directors ask of us and the execution of their visions with our ability to keep our own personal artistic integrity. It can be difficult, but my experience thus far has only been enriching and positive. In my opinion, working with the director gives a wide range of perspective. The directors' work keeps our job fresh and spontaneous, especially when we are performing the same roles over and over.
What do you see yourself doing five years from now?
I want it all: a career and a family. I am recently engaged and we are planning our wedding. That has been taking up much of my spare time, but it's been a fun process so far! I can't wait for the big day later this winter!
Photo of Vanessa Vasquez and Mario Chang in LA BOHEME by Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera.
Santa Fe Opera's LA BOHEME can be seen on July 19, 29, August 3, 7, 12, 17, and 20.