Q+A with René Barbera, Tenor of La Traviata
When did your interest in becoming a vocal performer begin?
I started performing when I was quite young as a pianist, actually. My love of music eventually led to me singing in the San Antonio Boys Choir at the age of 10. My first year as a singer took me to London – so from that point on I realized that I wanted to sing more than play piano. So I stuck with singing. It wasn’t until college, when I was actually involved in staged operas, that I really fell in love with performing. I always loved being the center of attention, of course, but seeing how everything came together to create this spectacle was amazing to me and I wanted to be a part of it for as long as I could manage.
Where did you grow up?
I was born in Laredo, Texas. When I was 9 years old we moved to San Antonio and that is where I lived til I was 20 and did my “growing up.” I’m still very much not a grown up at heart!
Who would you say were or are the major influences on your career? Teachers, conductors, other singers…
Well I wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for a series of people encouraging me. My parents were AMAZINGLY supportive throughout my entire education and career; if not for them I would most definitely not be where I am today. It did, truly, take a village, or in my case, villages. My high school choir director, Gordon Ivers, was a major influence in my ending up where I am today as was Michael Burgess (first voice teacher), Elizabeth Colton, Martile Rowland, Steve Lacosse, James Allbritten, and Dr. Marilyn Taylor (my voice teacher since 2004). There are many more names to add to this list, of course, but these are some of the people who absolutely played an integral role in my being where I am today.
What was your first big break?
My first big break would be the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions in 2008. That was really the first major competition I won and it set me up to sing for the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Ryan Opera Center where I ultimately ended up as a young artist for 3 years.
When listening to other singers who do you listen to?
It really depends. I listen to Kraus for accuracy and style. I listen to Pavarotti for how far I can go within that style. Giuseppe Giacomini if I really want to just be blown away by an enormous voice (Same with Corelli). If I want to relax and listen to some beautiful and artistic singing I will throw on Dichterliebe sung by Fritz Wunderlich.
Do you ever sing in languages that you don’t understand and if so how does that affect your performance?
I have sung in French and German – both of which I understand a tiny bit. It really doesn’t affect my performance. Part of our training as singers is to translate and study the text in the operas. So even if I don’t speak German or French very well, I know what the words I’m singing and the words my colleagues are singing to me mean. It is a lot of work and quite challenging at times but it is part of the job.
Which venue has been your favorite to perform in and why?
That’s a difficult one to answer. I love singing in Palermo because I love the people and the theater. I love singing at the Lyric Opera of Chicago because the acoustics are fantastic and it is home to me. I love singing at San Francisco Opera because it was one of the first places I ever performed in and the acoustic are also fantastic as well as the people behind the scenes. Singing at the Met was a dream come true and I had more adrenaline on that stage than I’ve ever had anywhere else. It was quite a thrill.
I could actually go on and on because I really do love most theaters I have performed in and they are all for a variety of reasons. Sometimes
having little to do with the physical theater.
Will your repertoire be changing in the near future, where are you heading, are you leaving some roles behind?
My repertoire is slowly but surely making a change toward more of the type of repertoire I’m singing here, actually. I have mostly sung Rossini in my career and the shift toward singing more Bel Canto and some early Verdi is happening as we speak. I will be leaving some roles behind very soon – most notably Almaviva in Barbiere di Siviglia. I still have a couple of years left singing it but it is something that will be phased out very soon. I very much look forward to welcoming more Donizetti and Bellini to my repertoire as well.
Where do you see your career heading over the next five or ten years?
That’s an interesting question. Honestly – I don’t know. I have some ideas but it ultimately depends on how my voice changes in the coming years. I see myself probably growing into some of the fuller lyric repertoire. Singing a Boheme in 3 – 5 years is likely. I’m hoping to also start singing some more of the French repertoire. I’m really open to whatever feels right as long as I’m able to continue performing.
When it comes to a specific style of singing, or proficiency in certain areas of vocal technique, how much of it comes from nature, and how much from nurture?
Honestly everybody is quite different. For me, the coloratura necessary for Rossini was nearly all nurture. That was something that was never easy for me and has gotten better as I’ve had to practice it more and more. For me, legato, once it was explained to me properly, came as natural as breathing and my high notes were always present. My lower register began to fill out with age, which is natural, but early on I really didn’t have much of a low voice. It’s somewhat of a lame answer – but it really does depend on the person. Some people are natural singers (myself included – I don’t think much about technique and never have) and others had to work for everything.
Do you still get nervous before a performance?
Not as often as I used to. Honestly – It’s pretty rare. It does happen from time to time but mostly I’m just sleepy before performances. The calm before the storm, so to speak. At about 15 minutes before the show begins the adrenaline kicks in and I’m just excited and anxious to get out there and have fun!
What has been the biggest challenge in your career?
The biggest challenge in my career has been to adjust to the lifestyle. It’s so difficult to find yourself gone from home for as much as 10 – 11 months per year. It strains your relationships with friends and family and it becomes a challenge to maintain them. One of my biggest means of releasing stress is riding a motorcycle and, unfortunately, motorcycles don’t fly well. Haha. There’s always a some challenge everywhere you go – bed is uncomfortable, not enough pillows, noisy new neighbors, construction near your apartment, getting sick from travel, being sick in a country whose native language isn’t your own, and other things like that. It’s things like this that add up and begin to drive a person mad. Thankfully my wife travels with me – so that is an enormous luxury.
How many roles do you have in your repertoire at the moment?
I have to do math? Lol I have approximately 14 operas in my repertoire – that I’ve performed in the past 3 years. In the 2017 – 2018 season I’m performing 7 of them. Traviata, Barbiere di Siviglia, La Cenerentola, Don Pasquale, L’italiana in Algeri, La Clemenza di Tito, and I Puritani. Now that I’ve written that – I’m a little stressed out! Haha!