Rising Stars: An Interview with David Lomeli
The following interview took place at the Santa Fe Opera Ranch the day before Mr Lomeli’s festival debut as Rodolfo in Puccini’s “La Boheme”. The facilitation of this interview by the Santa Fe Opera is gratefully acknowledged.
Wm: You grew up in Mexico City and were a little boy during their great earthquake of 1985. Was your family in the city at that time?
DL: We lived in the outskirts of Mexico City in the hills above it. We have a terrace. My mom took us out to the yard, where in the far distance we could see skyscrapers going down in the city below. My dad was at work in a building near the earthquake’s center. His building survived, although ten or 12 buildings around him were gone.
Otherwise, my family was not affected by the earthquake. In Mexico, we weren’t that experienced in preparation for and survival during earthquakes. Afterwards, earthquake safety instructions and simulated drills were pushed in schools and sports stadiums.
Wm: You came from a musical family. What are your first memories of opera?
DL: My grandmother sang opera all the time. Regettably, she didn’t pursue it as a profession, because she had nine kids and 64 grandkids. My home was one in which no particular genre of music predominated. We had classical music and salsa, as well as Mexican and American popular music, and, of course, songs from zarzuela such as No Puede Ser from Sorozabal’s “La Tabenera del Puerto”.
Wm: When did you first begin to think about the possibility of you performing opera?
DL: It came by destiny, from the angels that were there. I am an engineer by education and went to an expensive school in Mexico City that my family couldn’t afford. At the school, I had a scholarship to play American football (I used to be heavier), but I wasn’t that good a football player.
I saw that there were auditions for performances of the Bernstein musical “West Side Story”. I learned from another guy that they were going to give scholarships for an opera company. I said I would try everything, so I learned Tony’s song, Maria. The casting director said, we can’t offer you a part, but we want you to be the tenor soloist in our opera company. That scholarship helped pay for my engineering degree. Our ways of doing things in Mexico can be very mysterious, but that’s how I came to opera.
Wm: You pursued your engineering degree and were associated with a rock band, even while you pursuing operatic studies.
DL: Again, I always have loved music. At the same time that I was doing the “operatic thing” with the University, I had several types of employment. I sang in churches and weddings. The rockband entered a competition and won all the prizes in a “Battle of the Bands”. We toured and recorded our first album. Musically, it was a great experience to work with my band buddies, but I did not feel complete, because I wasn’t using all of my capabilities.
As it turned out, every other member of the rock band went into regular jobs in “civilian” life. The band’s main composer works for CEMEX. Another is in San Francisco, working for Apple, Inc.
Wm: When were you first aware of Mexican tenor Placido Domingo’s career and celebrity? Would you assess his importance to developing young operatic singers in general and Mexican artists in particular?
DL: He is a superstar. Everyone knows about him and about Luciano Pavarotti. Even though Placido lives in the United States, he was careful never to forget about Mexico. He has recorded albums of Mexican music. His first son and his grandsons are Mexican. He is as famous everywhere in Mexico, just as he is in the United States.
He had inspired creation of a Mexican Young Artist’s Program, SIVAM, the Sociedad Internacional de Valores de Arte Mexicano, and founded the Operalia contests in 1993.
I had gone by train to audition for SIVAM, run by Pepita Serrano, the lady who mentored Rolando Villazon. She, and Cesar Ulloa, who became my voice teacher, became my mentors. They said they believed I could be a very good opera singer, and asked if I would audition for Placido Domingo himself. It was Placido who said I should enter the Operalia contest and also the Domingo-Thornton Young Artist’s program of the Los Angeles Opera.
Wm: The outcome of your following Placido Domingo’s advice that you enter his Operalia contests is that you became the first artist to win first prize in both the opera and zarzuela contests. Domingo has introduced zarzuela to Los Angeles Opera audiences through Federico Torroba’s “Luisa Fernanda”. With several opera companies now experimenting adding the older Broadway musicals, and Gilbert and Sullivan, to their traditional repertories, are there zarzuelas that you believe would connect with American opera audiences? Is there a zarzuela role that you would particularly like to perform?
DL: I think American companies have been reluctant to schedule them because they are in Spanish, but American audiences, I believe, would enjoy them. I would check with the famous zarzuela conductor Miguel Roa, who knows the performance history of zarzuelas in American opera companies, about which ones might work best.
Certainly, Pablo Sorozabal’s “La Tabernera del Puerto” with a great plot and great roles for tenor and baritone would be one, and also Manuel Penella’s “La Gato Montes”. A newer piece (dating from 1998) is Jose Maria Cano’s “Luna”, about a gypsy betrayed by his wife, with gorgeous music. Domingo has performed it and both he and Rolando Villazon have recorded selections from it. I would love to sing the principal tenor roles in these zarzuelas, perhaps with Domingo in the principal baritone roles.
Wm: Would you relate your experiences under Domingo’s mentorship?
DL: He is one of the most wonderful angels that have appeared in my life. He took me from nowhere. He got me a legal pass into the United States, and provided for my training. He came to my dress rehearsal for the New York City Opera production of Donizetti’s “L’Elisir d’Amore” earlier this year. He gave me tips on what to do singing the role of Nemorino. He is a force of happiness.
Wm: You have participated in the Domingo-Thornton programs at Los Angeles Opera and the Merola program at San Francisco Opera, where you became also an Adler fellow. How did each of these experiences impact your career?
DL: Each had a tremendous effect on my career. I never had had formal training. I had some voice lessons and some solfeggio, but that was it. I never got “in the face” discipline and order that you have to have to be successful. I had to work hard and those programs gave me the tools to train properly.
My very first day in Los Angeles was August 3, 2006. The day after that, I had my first rehearsal as Lerma in Verdi’s “Don Carlo”. I was sitting there with Salvatore Licitra, Ferruccio Furlanetto, Lado Ataneli, Eric Halfvarson and Lauren McNeese. I never had conservatory training. It was my very first rehearsal in my life. Conductor James Conlon said, “let’s start”. Well, it worked out.
The L. A. Opera Domingo-Thornton program gave me a lot of insight into what I needed to do. I stayed in the program. As a “Young Artist’s” program with only a brief history, it was not that intensive. But then I arrived at San Francisco Opera’s Merola and Adler Programs. They are intense.
They say that the Merola program is like a boot camp and I can agree with that. You are busy every day all day, rehearsing, studying acting, working on languages, having private coachings. It is intense! And when the regular day is done, you are socializing with the terrific sponsors and patrons. This was excellent training for the real world of being an opera singer. You are always busy!!
Whoever can survive the Adler Fellowship successfully is ready to sing in every part of the world. They fill your day with activities. You are attending coaching sessions; then, because you are covering a lead role, you have to take part in the rehearsals. At the same time, you have to be learning the next role, and you also have your own projects.
It is really impressive how much work we as Adler Fellows get done. We did not know we had so much voice or capability. The Adler Fellowship faculty members teach us how to learn music, how to develop the methodology to prepare for a new role down to the most precise details, even how to plan your calendar so that you have the role in your voice when you need to have it.
Wm: You performed Alfredo in “La Traviata” in the final two performances conducted by Donald Runnicles in his role as Music Director of the San Francisco Opera.
DL: Yes, in the Los Angeles Opera production created by Marta Domingo, Placido’s wife, who was my stage director. Runnicles is such a major figure in the opera world, and there was barely enough time for rehearsals with him, but he made me feel comfortable when I was onstage.
Both the Los Angeles and San Francisco opera companies trusted this inexperienced Mexican kid to take on lead roles in such operas as Torroba’s “Luisa Fernanda” (Los Angeles), and Verdi’s “La Traviata” and Puccini’s “Gianni Schicchi” (San Francisco). I will be singing the Duke of Mantua in Verdi’s “Rigoletto” and the Tenor in Verdi’s “Requiem” next season, and Rodolfo in Puccini’s “La Boheme” in 2014.
Wm: Your signature role at present is perhaps Rodolfo in Puccini’s “La Boheme” which you are performing at the 2011 Santa Fe Opera festival with Ana Maria Martinez as Mimi. You have also sung Rinuccio in Puccini’s “Gianni Schicchi” with Paolo Gavanelli and Patricia Racette.
Yet, it seems that your immediate future may not be in the direction of Puccini and Verdi, but in bel canto roles, particularly of Donizetti. Two persons I have interviewed, Conductor Antony Walker and coloratura soprano Laura Claycomb participated in performances of Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” at Pittsburgh Opera’s beautiful Benedum Theater, in which you starred as Edgardo. Claycomb cited you as an artist whom she feels has a great future. Did the experience of performing Donizetti under Walker whet your appetite to explore other Donizetti roles and encourage you to take your Edgardo to other opera houses?
DL: Antony is my favorite bel canto conductor. He sings with you, and he phrases his conducting to support his singers. Bel canto fits my voice. You need substance, but still, I never have to push, I never get tired, and I never have the sense that I can’t do it. I feel comfortable in the tessitura. It’s as if Donizetti wrote for my voice.
I have commitments to sing Leicester in Donizetti’s “Maria Stuarda” and Percy in his “Anna Bolena”. I’m discussing adding the role of Arnold in Rossini’s “Guillaume Tell” in Spain.
I hope, with contemporary tenors like Brian Hymel, Stephen Costello, Massimo Giordano and Eric Cutler singing these roles, we can revive the great Donizetti tenor roles that have not been often heard. We as a group each have very secure tessitura. And, fortunately, the Met is dictating a little bit of the newfound interest in Donizetti.
Wm: You have sung the title roles of Gounod’s “Faust” and Massenet’s “Werther” and have expressed interest in doing more in the French repertory. At San Francisco Opera you covered Ramon Vargas in Mexican Director Francisco Negrin’s brilliant new production of “Werther”, which emphasized the obsessions and ultimate creepiness of the Werther character. What did you think of Negrin’s concept, and would you like to perform Werther again in that production?
DL: For me it was a painful process covering the role and not being able to perform it. It is always this way when you are covering, and that is part of the life. You are prepared to sing, but you cannot wish to sing, because that would mean the principal is unable to sing. Covering is a great experience, but full of conflicting emotions.
Ramon did not arrive until six or seven days before the opening. I rehearsed that production with Alice Coote and Brian Mulligan, who both were there. Negrin got me through that phenomenol production.
Sometimes it is said that Werther is such a heavy role, but with the right guidance as to how you can sort it out, a voice of medium weight can take it on. I think it was one of the best fits for my voice of any role I’ve tried.
I did perform the role for the dress rehearsal, because Ramon wasn’t feeling well. It was painful not to go on during the regular run, but, as I said, this is part of the life. Ramon, of course, sang great and is a very nice person. He was done so much. But I want to sing this role. I hope that the San Francisco Opera revives that production and that they remember I can sing that role.
Wm: You also have expressed interest in the Czech and Russian repertories. At present, do you feel that those who make casting decisions for operas, are proposing future assignments for you that reflect the diversity of your linguistic interests, or do they seem to think of you as “an Italian tenor”?
DL: I was offered Riccardo in Verdi’s “Ballo in Maschera”, but I said I am just 30. I don’t sing things like that, certainly not in a big house. Maybe I might try the role in Zurich or Lille. I look for roles that are concentrated around my passagio and have a high tessitura, and many of those are in the French repertory. Regrettably, I don’t get offered the title roles in Gounod’s “Faust” or Massenet’s “Werther”, nor Romeo in Gounod’s “Romeo et Juliette” nor Gerald in Delibes’ “Lakme”, nor the title role in Donizetti’s “Dom Sebastien”, but would like to do them all.
Wm: In the 1970s and early 1980s San Francisco Opera’s Kurt Herbert Adler developed a relationship with the young tenor Luciano Pavarotti which resulted in six role debuts for Pavarotti in San Francisco between 1971 and 1981. If you were to find a major opera house’s general director willing to mount whatever operas you wish to make role debuts over the next decade, name six operas that you would choose to have mounted for you?
DL: Definitely “Werther”, I want to do Fernand in Donizetti’s “La Favorite”, Arnold in Rossini’s “Guillaume Tell”. I want to do Jenik in Smetana’s “Bartered Bride” and Lensky in Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin”.
Wm: It’s probably significant that Adler mounted Donizetti’s “La Favorita”, the Italian version of “La Favorite”, for Pavarotti’s role debut as Fernando. You get one more.
DL: Then add the title role of Mozart’s “Idomeneo”.
Wm: Where do you currently call home, and how often do you get to spend time there?
DL: I’m booked well into the future, and will be working a lot in Berlin and San Francisco. What do I call my home? It’s really hard for me to get back to Mexico. My post office box is in San Francisco. I have an apartment there that I never go to. I haven’t been back to that San Francisco apartment, with the exception of three days to change clothers.
Wm: Thank you, David.