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The young promise of lyrical singing

04 - 21 - 2020

The young promise of lyrical singing

Yaritza Véliz: “Opera Divas Are Outmoded”

As the first Latin American to be awarded a scholarship by the Royal Opera House, Yaritza will star in “West Side Story” at the Municipal Theater of Santiago. Endowed with a rare talent, Yaritza discusses her roots in the north of Chile and the new anti-harassment protocols in lyrical singing. Those who know her best share their impressions.

By María Cristina Jurado. Photography: Fernanda Paul

Contralto and 2010 National Arts Award recipient Carmen Luisa Letelier –her teacher and mentor for nearly a decade at the Music Department of Universidad de Chile’s Arts Faculty– defines her as follows:

–She not only possesses extraordinary vocal qualities, but also great musical intelligence and intuition. She’s enormously expressive on stage: she believes what she is singing, she lives it. It’s very hard to find someone who has it all: a pretty voice, physiological qualities, intelligence for managing her voice, expressiveness. And sensibility: she has progressed step by step; that’s why she has always managed to rise to the demands of her roles. She conveys truth: that’s how she draws you in. I’ve listened to singers who have the voice of a nightingale, but they’re not as expressive as her. She sings the most serious Mozart pieces, she can sing Puccini, Verdi, Tchaikovsky, and you always believe her.

It is a bone-chilling morning in London, and 28-year-old Yaritza Véliz Aquea –born in Coquimbo and interested in her voice since she was a child, though she knew nothing about lyrical singing– is ambling along the trails of Hyde Park, listening to the seasonal songbirds that are beginning to return to the park. Early in the morning, she left her house in Queensway, near Notting Hill, and walked toward Covent Garden, where she is enrolled in the Royal Opera House’s Jette Parker Young Artists Programme. It takes her one hour to get there –a daily rite that relaxes her. Later in the day, Yaritza and her best friends –a Chinese mezzosoprano, a Uruguayan tenor, and an Argentinian tenor– will grab a coffee near Trafalgar Square and will certainly take a look at Tower Bridge.

Now, this soprano and budding promise of lyrical singing must hurry: her rehearsals start at nine o’clock.

Ms. Véliz, who was born in Tierras Blancas, Coquimbo Region, is well acquainted with records. To become the first Chilean and Latin American to secure one of the five positions available at the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme, she had to stand out among 470 singers from all over the world. Those who know her, regard her as a sensible artist who measures her aspirations well: she prefers to aim lower but achieve more. Therefore, all her steps so far have been solid. She earned her most recent accolade at one of the world’s most prestigious lyrical events: the Francesc Viñas Contest, held in Barcelona in January. But she had started shining long before: in 2014, she won the Mujeres en la Música [Women in Music] competition, organized by the National Museum of Women in the Arts of Washington, DC. Drina Rendic, president of the Museum’s Chile Committee, clearly remembers Yaritza:

–¡She’s extraordinary! She has a great career ahead of her. She will complete her two-year scholarship at Covent Garden in June and her agent is already scheduling appearances in world-class venues.

Mrs. Rendic notes that Hazard Chase, her English agent, will accompany Yaritza at the Verbier Festival in Switzerland, where she will sing the part of Mimi in “La bohème”. This was one of Yaritza’s dreams. In 2019, after enrolling in the Jette Parker Programme, she made her debut as Barbarina at Covent Garden, conducted by John Eliot Gardiner. The maestro, who had already conducted her in “The Marriage of Figaro”, was spellbound by her voice, Mrs. Rendic recalls. Devoted to perfecting her vocal and expressive talent at the Royal Opera House, Yaritza is now alone for the first time in her life. And it has been tough for her.

–Technically speaking, I’ve grown a lot, my voice has changed. I’ve learned many musical techniques because the level here is so high and the coaches are very demanding. I had received good training in Chile, but here I learned to be much more demanding. I mean, when you think something’s good… it’s not actually good. You need to be patient and practice every day. If you can’t sing a musical passage well, you need to work on it slowly. You can’t work out everything quickly, let alone if you’re anxious. You need to give your body enough time to assimilate each new thing, because this is a very muscle-based craft. And your muscles need to know what they’re doing.

María Elena Simián, president of the Corporation of Friends of the Municipal Theater –the entity that funded Yaritza’s lyrical education for 10 years and awarded her a scholarship to study at the Royal Opera House– remembers when she first met her:

–Yaritza is an unusual case. She had a unique tone of voice at age 13. Normally, the vocal folds develop later, when the child is older; early talents such as Yaritza’s are most commonly found in instrumentalists. Talented young singers are much less common (…). We heard her audition when she was 13 and our jaws hit the floor.

In the English capital, Ms. Véliz highlights a topic that requires maturity: keeping a cool head when selecting roles within a sea of opportunities.

–I have a rather dark voice, I’m not a fully lyrical soprano. I’ve been offered some roles but I’ve said “no, but I may be able to sing that in 10 years’ time”. There are roles you shouldn’t accept because you need to age and live your life. If a character needs to experience the death of her child, I’d find it difficult, because I’m not a mother. You need to take a lot of feelings and emotions from your own experiences. I’ve been asked whether I’d play Violetta in “La Traviata”, but I think that’s a role for the future… I’m only 28. From a technical point of view, I could start doing the heavy repertoire now, but that may cause me to end my career at 40 and I want to sing for much longer.

After a number of poor choices, your vibrato loosens up, says Yaritza. As singers do not use a microphone on stage, “you are the resonator, you and your bones. And you need to have the energy and the muscles to resist a full opera”. For that reason, she refused to play Mimi for years, but she feels ready now. She follows her instinct –her golden rule.

–Your reflections on the course of your career sound very mature.

–Many people get greedy with their voices, they overwork them, and once they are exhausted, they abandon them (…). These two vocal folds I have are my treasure. I want them to last me until I’m old enough to teach.

–What essential qualities must a renowned soprano have?

–Humility and keeping your feet on the ground. To be a great singer, you should never forget about your beginnings, how hard everything was, the people who helped you, and where you come from: I’m proud to be from Tierras Blancas, from Guayacán. I think opera divas disappeared long ago. There are no divas anymore (…). I’ve spent time with great singers, such as Anna Netrebko, Jonas Kaufmann, and Diana Damrau –the best Queen of the Night of all time– and had a masterclass with Joyce DiDonato, a world-famous mezzosoprano. It was always a conversation among normal people.

Andrés Rodríguez, former director of the Municipal Theater of Santiago, considers that Yaritza has made repertoire choices suited to her voice: “singing is like a high-performance sport; singers have a short career where age is a critical concern”, he explains. As Head of Music of the Ibáñez Atkinson Foundation –and like master teacher Carmen Luisa Letelier–, he stresses her smart career management.

–It’s almost impossible to fault her voice; she has an outstanding instrument. And she’s taken good decisions in a field where it’s easy to make mistakes.

FROM ANDACOLLO TO COVENT GARDEN

At age 13, Yaritza attended the feast of the Virgin of Andacollo and –purely by chance– listened to tenor Tito Beltrán singing in a church. It was a life-defining event for her. Neither her nor her parents knew anything about lyrical singing. They had never listened to a single aria. But Yaritza knew her voice was special –people had told her so since she was a child.

–I realized my voice was very different from others. I joined my school choir when I was 6. I’d always lived in a musical environment… I also play percussion. And around 13 years of age, when my voice started to change, I realized it was weird. I would go into a classroom when there was no one around just to practice, to make these strange sounds that I felt should come from an older lady. And then came a blessing: I went to Andacollo, they listened to me sing, and that’s were it all started.

After listening to Tito Beltrán, Yaritza felt that “there was someone who sang like me, like a male version of me”. Her family entered the church and talked to the tenor, who asked to listen to her. He was left speechless: the girl was a diamond in the rough. Word of the child prodigy reached the then Senator for the Coquimbo Region, Evelyn Matthei, who decided to help her to enable to study singing. The issue was that the Véliz family lived in Tierras Blancas, a small town in the northwestern part of the municipality. Her mother was a preschool educator assistant and her father was a mining truck driver. Lyrical singing was an expensive career choice and they could not afford it. At this point, the Corporation of Friends of the Municipal Theater took over and awarded her a scholarship. From then on, her career skyrocketed. For the last two years, she has also received major support from the Ibáñez Atkinson Foundation. First in Santiago, where she attended the Conservatory of the Universidad de Chile, and later in London, she has never forgotten about her origins: her parents, her grandmother, who lives in Guayacán, and her brother. They are her roots.

–I’m very close to my grandmother, Hilda Salinas, and my mom. Ours is a very strong grandmother-mother-daughter connection. To me, they’re my two moms. And I think the strength I have for dealing with the distance and the singing competitions is something I got from them. They’re truly brave women (…). The hardest things about living here have been the language and the culture, having no friends… my family and my boyfriend are in Chile. He’s a double bassist at the Philharmonic.

Yaritza is certain that opera is her path and her future. And one day, she says, when her voice is no longer the same, she will open a music school in Coquimbo to educate the children from her homeland.

–Studying opera and music in general is very hard in our country. It’s a very expensive process, and there are few positions for instrumentalists or lyrical singers. It’s a challenge, and parents don’t understand what this is about (…). It’s a really complicated path. I had to travel abroad to perfect my art, because I started to notice that didn’t have enough space in Chile. I was at the Municipal Theater in Santiago, but I played secondary roles because the director at the time didn’t trust me enough.

–You have said that you will prioritize your family over an international career. ¿Have you changed your mind after London?

–My family will always come first. Building an international career is hard, I’m just starting, and my work is one way of improving my parents’ quality of life. I get a lot of support from my family and my partner supports me in everything I do. But I’m already doing this in earnest; I started my journey by coming to London. I know that, by choosing to move abroad, I’m already out. I hired an agency and I’m already getting roles in Europe.

–So that is what your life is going to be like from now on.

–Yes, it will have to be that way. But I’m not going to prioritize my career over my family. If I think that singing is my whole life, and one day I lose my voice, my life would be over. That would be wrong.

But Yaritza’s lyrical path is not one of isolation. It is part of the new context of complaint protocols put in place in the international opera world –which is being shaken by the recent accusations of sexual and power harassment filed by 27 women against the world’s most renowned lyrical singer, Plácido Domingo. Ms. Véliz prefers not to discuss Domingo’s situation and states that she has never been harassed in the music world. However, she mentions a meeting that she was asked to attend at the Royal Opera House after the dismissal of Italian tenor Vittorio Grigolo, who was accused of inappropriate behavior during a tour of Japan in September. This meeting was used to present the current protocol to members of the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme.

–They told us about this issue and said that, whenever we felt uncomfortable, we had to let them know. The theater has a policy. If something like this affects us, we can file a complaint and our name will not be disclosed. The theater will then take the necessary measures.

A NEW MARÍA

After the summer ends in the Northern Hemisphere, the soprano will pack her bags and travel to Chile. She will keep busy rehearsing and performing in Santiago during September and October. Most importantly, she will shine as María, the Puerto Rican protagonist of “West Side Story” at the Municipal Theater, under the artistic direction of Francesca Zambello. She will also give concerts –Strauss and Mahler– with the Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Pedro Pablo Prudencio.

When asked why a lyrical singer with a nascent international career would decide to sing in a musical, Ms. Véliz answers reflectively. She clarifies that, because the two key roles will be played by lyrical singers –herself and Argentinian tenor Santiago Burgi–, classical singing techniques will be used. Popular singing requires a different set of techniques.

–I think it’s a mistake to pigeonhole artists. (Leonard) Bernstein, a director who worked on several classical pieces, a lot of symphonic repertoire, was asked if he regarded “West Side Story” as a musical or an opera (…). And if you listen to a recording that he made many years ago, you can hear the famous tenor José Carreras as Tony and Kiri Te Kanawa, a renowned soprano.

She also illustrates her point by mentioning “Porgy and Bess”, a musical that is part of the repertoire of the Metropolitan Opera House for 2020. She likes to try new things and salutes the Municipal Theater for doing so, because she thinks that audiences need innovation.

The director of the Municipal Theater of Santiago, Carmen Gloria Larenas, believes that Yaritza’s participation in “West Side Story” is an opportunity:

–For her, it’s a fabulous experience to be part of a production that is comparable to those in the US and which is deeply representative of that culture. She has everything to succeed in that role: she’s young, dynamic, and knows how to work.

But Ms. Véliz not only defends innovation. She also believes that educating new audiences is an unavoidable challenge in Chile. She mentions that, in England, “in order to attract new audiences, invitations are sent to Instagram influencers”. They go to the opera and record videos, take pictures, and show their followers what an opera singer’s work is like”. She is surprised at how Covent Garden authorities have learned to harness the power of social media as a tool for appealing to new musical audiences. “It’s not just the singers. It’s the musicians, the backstage staff, the make-up artists, the costume artists, the people who prepare the stage. I think showing people how opera is created could help us to generate new audiences”.

–Could this idea be replicated in Chile?

–Yes, absolutely. But we need more funding for culture in Chile, more money has to be allocated. It’s essential to invest more. There’s a lot of talent in Chile, too much talent that gets stuck. I wouldn’t have been able to study if it hadn’t been for the help of the Corporation of Friends of the Municipal Theater and, more recently, the Ibáñez Atkinson Foundation.

Ms. Véliz is not only concerned about the lack of funding for the arts. She is also worried by the lack of vision preventing us from seeing Music and History as essential school subjects in Chile.

In spite of everything, Yaritza defends the essence of the creator.

–If a singer becomes consumed by pride, by a lack of humility, she loses the magic of creating music. What we do is transparent: opera is not just us singers. The magic of opera is behind everything. This magic is created by equipment managers, costume designers, lighting operators, subtitlers, the people behind the scenes who tell you when it’s time to go on stage, scenographers,  Opera is all of them. Music is all of us.

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