From Refugee To Mimì – Soprano Elizabeth Caballero On Her Journey From Cuban Outcast to Opera Star

By David Salazar

“La Bohème” is arguably the most popular opera in the world. It is full of intense intimacy, universal emotions, and ultimately allows us to revel characters that we, at some point, have known and experienced.

For soprano Elizabeth Caballero, that Puccini classic is almost akin to a leitmotif in her life.

On March 2, 2018, one of her greatest artistic triumphs occurred when she stepped in for an ailing Sonya Yoncheva at the Metropolitan Opera.  During a recent interview with OperaWire, Caballero sat down to talk about that life-altering moment.

Becoming Mimì At the Met

Elizabeth Caballero had been told from the start of the run that Yoncheva was ill and that there was a chance the Cuban-born soprano might get a chance to appear on the Met stage this time as a leading lady. She made her debut years before and covered on several occasions prior to this triumphant debut.

Yoncheva got through the first few performances well but on Friday, March 2, Caballero knew something was up.

“This alert was different.There was more concern than on opening night,” she noted.  An hour later at 10:30 A.M., she got the big news that she was going to step onto the Zeffirelli set and sing for over 4,000 people that night.  When we asked about her reaction, she said,

“I just felt… I wasn’t nervous or scared. I was ready! I didn’t want to go out on social media and announce the good news should something change and opted to only tell my husband, teacher and a few close friends.”

The opera company informed her colleagues of the switch and Caballero promptly received a text from her leading man Michael Fabiano, who announced the cast change on social media. From there, the floodgates opened. The Met made the announcement on its social media and Caballero followed.

While she was more excited than she’d ever been, her preparation rituals were the same as they had always been.

“I sat around. Relaxed. Sang a couple of scales to make sure everything was working. And just waiting for it to be 6 so I could head over there,” she noted. When she arrived at the Met, she had her own fitting, walked the set with Fabiano and conversed with some of her other colleagues.

“[Baritone] Lucas Meachem told me to do what I do and he’d follow me,” she revealed.

That night turned into a dream come true for Caballero.

“It was really magical. Until I took my curtain call, it didn’t hit me that I was performing on the Met Stage. It really hit me!”

While that Met moment with “La Bohème” was undeniably huge for the soprano, the opera’s significance has always been life-altering for the soprano.

Let’s go back a few decades.

The Immigrant

It was 1980 in the midst of the Mariel Boatlift, the mass exodus of Cuban citizens to the United States. On one of those boats was a six-year-old Caballero alongside her mother, her sister, and her father.

“I was so young and oblivious of what was going on.  I have few memories,” she noted before relating one rather difficult memory.

Her boat was sinking and both she and her sister had to be carried over to the coast guard’s boat for safety.

Fortunately, Caballero’s main memories are of happy times in Florida, playing with her sister.

Her parents didn’t necessarily have an easy time making the adjustment. Caballero noted particular difficulties with the adjustment for her mother who had no prior knowledge of the English language. At times, it made her new life unbearable.

“She cried a lot that first year. Dad was working. She was away from her family and didn’t really have any friends,” Caballero recalled, adding that her mother was mainly a stay-at-home mother that sold cantinas and other small hand-crafted items that she made.

Her father did all he could to get the family ahead, working in whatever capacity he could find. English was not a serious challenge for him as he had been taking classes in Cuba for a long time prior to the emigration.

“My father had always planned on coming to the US as soon as Castro took over. He immediately tried to come to the US and, unfortunately, he turned the age when he was forced to join the military. So he couldn’t go.”

But Caballero was quick to note that that misfortune brought about true fortune.

“If he had gone, he wouldn’t have met my mother. It was fate. They are my heroes because I start to think about the decision they made for our family.  I think about where my life would be if they hadn’t made that decision. I have family in Cuba and when I start to think of the struggles they go through, that’s where I would be. In the USA, we are a country of immigrants and I am who I am today because this country took me in. I will forever be grateful.”

The Moment She Fell in Love

Then came the opera. Though not immediately.

Caballero, who grew up in a very Latin American environment, knew nothing about opera. She was constantly exposed to Cuban culture through songs. The only knowledge she had of the artform that would become her bread and butter was limited to “Bugs Bunny and Plácido Domingo’s Latin albums.”

She did, however, sing in church and in school and even took some piano lessons in her youth. Looking back on those formatives years, no outsider would see the opera talent that was to be.

During her final months in high school,  the school’s choreographer asked her a serious question about her future. Her teacher saw the fearlessness she had onstage and natural ability she possessed having performed on the stage throughout her academic career.

Caballero noted that her plans were to go to community college to figure out what she wanted to do with her life.

“She told me about the show choir and urged me continue singing and dancing while I decided what to do.”

Caballero auditioned and started taking on voice lessons in college. The first aria she learned?

“Quando m’en vo,” from “La Bohème.”

Caballero didn’t have her epiphany at that first encounter with Puccini’s famed opera. In fact, she ridiculed the aria.

“I made fun of what I thought an opera singer sounded like,” she noted. But her teacher at the time had a different reaction. She told her it wasn’t that bad…

It didn’t ultimately shift Caballero’s perspective, but it made her aware of her potential talents.

Then came the magical moment. As Caballero describes it – she fell in love for the first time.

She was at home watching the public television channel in Florida WPBT and suddenly an opera performance came on.

Yes, “La Bohème.” Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation to be more precise.

“I sat through it and I fell completely in love,” she noted before stopping for a moment to reflect on that day. “The story, the music, everything. I told myself that I can do this and that I want to do this.”

She could do that and she would. The following year she was standing in front of Luciano Pavarotti singing for him at his international competition. Elizabeth Caballero, the refugee from Cuba…Elizabeth Caballero, the young girl who had thought opera was a thing to make fun of… Elizabeth Caballero, one of 100 finalists picked from a pool of 2,000 international prospects.

There she was singing for arguably the biggest international star the opera world has ever known in the Beacon Theater in New York.

She will never forget the words he told her, which she notes are recorded on a video cassette she still keeps.

“You are like a diamond that needs to be polished.”

Caballero revealed that those words stick with her on the best and most difficult days of her career.

“For me that fired me up to take it all the way. On bad days, I always remind myself that Pavarotti saw something in me.”

A Return

The soprano is set to take on the role of “Florencia en el Amazonas” in just a few days at Madison Opera. This is a work that the soprano connects with very deeply having sung it in three previous productions. The story centers on returning to the past to construct a better future.

Caballero, in recounting her story, emphasized that for her it is crucial to remember where she comes from and the sacrifices made for her to live this life as an opera singer traveling around the world.

“Being an immigrant is a part of who I am. It’s a reminder of how lucky I am to be doing what I am doing.”

Caballero also connects deeply with the titular character’s passion and emotional intensity.

“Florencia is a hopeless romantic. Her first lover was Cristobal but, her first love is the stage, the reason why she left him. She realizes how much she missed out on and why she feels that loneliness and desire for him throughout the story.”

It is easy to relate as Caballero notes, “My first love is and will always be music and the stage.”


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