Elaine Alvarez always knew she was destined for the stage.
Or if she didn’t, her mother Yasmin Alvarez certainly did. The soprano, who is slated to make her role debut in “Florencia en el Amazonas” at the San Diego Opera (her house debut, incidentally) grew up in a musical atmosphere that nurtured this potential.
In a recent interview with OperaWire in anticipation of this major debut, the singer noted that her mother picked up on the signs of her daughter’s future early on; in fact, she had a big hand in that destiny.
“I had exposure to classical music before I was born,” she remarked, explaining that her mother was a music teacher who got her PhD at the University of Miami in music pedagogy. “She was either constantly practicing or studying while I was a kid.”
Alvarez’s mother, a classically trained pianist and guitarist, quickly became her daughter’s first teacher when she saw the young Elaine constantly looking for opportunities to sing for others.
“She felt it was evident that I was a singer. I was a performer,” noted Alvarez.
Her mother’s influence in those formative years was so massive that she sought out the appropriate teachers for her daughter and picked out the schools that would maximize that potential.
She also took the future soprano to her first opera experience at the age of six.
“It was ‘Bianca e Falliero,’” she revealed. “It was a big deal to go to the opera back in the 80s in Miami.”
She grew to love the art form during her studies at the New World School of the Arts in Miami, which she deemed “the happiest place on earth if you’re a performer and a teenager,” but noted that she didn’t declare herself a future opera singer until the age of 14.
She went to see “La Bohème” and remembers ending up in tears.
It was also around this time that she started studying with Cesar Antonio and Geraldine Suarez, who did their utmost to help her singing flourish.
“It was just a series of blessings that happened in a row. Having a supportive family, great public school options, I just had a lot of wonderful experiences and incredible educators surrounding me at all times,” she noted.
Out into the World
From there her career started to take off as a lyric soprano. But it wasn’t long before the young and budding artist would find herself in contention with a major antagonist – herself.
Alvarez noted that while she loved her conservatory education she felt that she was not properly prepared for the mental aspects of a career on the road alone. Confidence and the lack of it would become a major challenge for her along the way, especially when she found herself contesting with constant self-criticism and a changing voice that she could not get a hold over.
“I definitely found myself just losing confidence to a really serious degree,” she revealed. “I felt really lost. Every time I was onstage there was so much chatter and criticism in my own head. At the same time, my voice was changing and that was something that was really jarring. I didn’t know how to wield this weight that was suddenly coming in and I had no time to figure it out because I was always working.”
Eventually, she came to identify her issue as one of confidence versus ego. “I believe confidence is where you really have authority in what you are doing technically and what you want to do artistically,” she explained. “Ego, on the other hand, really pushes you into a corner where you need constant positive reinforcement to survive. It prevents you from taking in constructive criticism that can help you grow. Developing my confidence while letting go of my ego has been the project of my last few years.”
It has helped to have the continued support of her family and two teachers that have let her understand what she is capable of.
“My voice teacher, Manuel Perez, who I’ve been working with for 10 years, really helped me in that transition from full lyric to spinto,” she noted. “And then there’s Anthony Manoli, who has been my coach for 6 years. He has been instrumental for me, especially as I transition into new repertoire.”
Into the Amazon
Speaking of new repertoire, “Florencia en el Amazonas.”
In recent years the work by Daniel Catán has taken on greater fame and has become an important instrument for many Latin American sopranos. For Alvarez, it is simply one of the best operas around.
“It is stunning. I am getting to sing phrases that are some of the most beautiful I have ever sung in anything,” she noted.
Alvarez’s journey to this opera actually comes from a close association with the composer’s widow Andrea Puente. Back in 2013, the soprano was performing in “Rappacini’s Daughter,” another opera by Catán. Puente was a harpist on the production, which toured across the US and in Europe.
“She spoke to me about ‘Florencia’ and said it was written for my voice,” Alvarez noted. “She even expressed hope that I’d sing it someday.”
That day is about to become a reality because David Bennett, the General Director of San Diego Opera, reached out to Alvarez about making her debut with the work.
“I felt really honored by it,” she noted.
She shared that the opera has its major challenges, many stemming from the need to be cognizant of pacing throughout.
“The work has been to figure out the most efficient way to cut through the orchestra without wasting vocal capital,” she explained. “There are three arias and high Cs all over the place. Right from my first entrance. You want to be expansive throughout the night. To do that you have to figure out where to lay back and not burn all cylinders, all the time.”
But she noted that she has felt at home with the musical component of the work, particularly since it is in Spanish and “the treatment of the language is a sound world I understand already.”
She also feels very much at home with the complex title role, who leaves her lover behind to pursue her career and returns in the opera to try and reconnect with him.
“The idea of sacrifices one has to give in this career to advance is what this piece is about,” Alvarez recounted. “She is on this journey to find him and herself. And all of us who have worked know of the sacrifice and things we have to give up to have this extraordinary life. Romantic relationships are high on that list.”
She also noted that she identified with the theme of loss.
“She has to deal with the fact that she might have run out of time and that she can’t tell him all those things she always wanted to say. She says that she can feel him all around her,” said Alvarez. “I can relate to that, as can anyone who has lost an important loved one. You can really feel them all around you and that there are things you wish you could have said that you couldn’t. Thank them for what they gave you and taught you even if it took you a while to figure it out.”
But there is one major difference between Alvarez and the character she must interpret.
“She has sung at La Scala and I have not,” she joked.
The World of Early Verdi & Beyond
Looking forward, Alvarez is really excited to continue expanding her repertoire, her interest shifting toward early Verdi operas such as “Luisa Miller,” “I Lombardi,” and “I Due Foscari,” among others. She recently had a big success in “Jerusalem,” which she never thought she could do.
But Manoli showed her the way.
“When I showed up in Belgium to do that production, it was the most gratifying experience I’ve ever had in terms of being challenged in every possible way. It was so rewarding.”
She noted that the key to this kind of singing comes down to having the right tools and pacing yourself.
“You have to have power in your voice. Generally, it’s one soprano, a bunch of guys and chorus,” she noted about the first tool needed to sing this repertoire. “There will be a lot of high notes, high Cs, and huge ensembles.”
The second tool is vocal agility and the final is the “spinto” element with a wide range.
“If you have those three things in your voice, then the challenge is pacing. Because learning how to sing it over the course of the night is key,” she noted. “If you haven’t worked out where you can back off or sing what I call unemotional high notes, then you won’t succeed. You can’t do staging and think about vocal technique. You need to be thinking about where to move and stand at specific moments. You’re not thinking about going forward in the breath or how to reach that high A.”
Alvarez noted that of her five dream roles, she has already conquered three, with two still a major possibility. Those top five consist of “La Bohème,” “Tosca,” “La Traviata,” “Madama Butterfly,” and “Norma.” She has already done the first three, but was noncommittal on when “Butterfly” might arrive. She did, however, enthuse about being ready for the last of these.
“I have been studying [‘Norma’] for the last year,” she shared, further explaining that while covering at the Met last fall, she even took time to study Sondra Radvanovsky, who opened the season in the role. Alvarez did everything she could to take in information from the singer, whom she deeply admires.
“She was amazing in letting me ask her a million questions and listen in on rehearsals,” she explained. She even went to almost all of the performances, taking in what she believed to be a series of “historic performances.”
“She was rising to her greatest potential. It makes me happy for her because she is such a wonderful person. It makes me happy to be there to witness it. It will always be one of the great Normas in my life as I study it and hopefully debut the role,” she stated. “I was most impressed with the way she inhabited the character. It really spoke to how many performances of that role she’s done and how much authority she has on who Norma is. Vocally what really impressed me was the way she holds back; she has an enormous voice and she holds it back when it is necessary. She is so refined, and then when it is time to unleash, the sound is incredible. It’s visceral. She gave beautiful and important performances. I feel like I saw something historic.”
Alvarez is making her own operatic history, which will continue this weekend in San Diego.