In 2017 Cecilia Violetta López took audiences by storm when she performed Desdemona with LoftOpera. She was an artist on the rise who had so much to offer with her artistry, and has since become a leading soloist with such companies as Opera Idaho, Austin Opera, Madison Opera, and Opera Orlando.
López has also become a huge advocate for Latin American music, performing Ranchera Music and traditional Latin works that speak of her heritage. She recently reopened Opera Colorado with a traditional Latin concert and is set to star in the animated opera “Mi Camino,” which tells the story of migrant workers in the fields during the pandemic.
The soprano recently spoke with OperaWire about “Mi Camino,” her childhood on plantations, performing Latin music and inspiring new audiences.
OperaWire: How have you been during this very difficult time?
Cecilia Violetta López: This time has definitely been tough for the arts. For me, I remember that last July I was very hopeful, that 2020-21 would see life again. And then when things started to disappear I started feeling helpless. I hate the feeling when things are out of control and I can’t do anything about it. That’s when I started to reinvent myself and I started doing recital work to continue paying the bills that were coming in. My music is my life and that is what I did. I found a wonderful pianist in New Mexico and I asked him if we could team up. We were thankfully blessed by opportunities with the companies I work with. They were open to virtual and in-person COVID-19-friendly recitals. That is what helped us and that is what basically kept me afloat. So I have been working.
OW: What was the experience of performing live during COVID-19?
CVL: In Idaho, the COVID-19 guidelines were a little bit more relaxed. It was in this small theater in the town where I grew up and both nights were sold out. It was the beginning of our tour and to see the theater filled with actual living and breathing people was amazing. I don’t think there are words to describe it. We were hungry for it and they were too. The audience was itching to go to something live. They were all sitting six feet apart, socially distanced, and it was quite an experience. It is something that I will never take for granted because singing in front of a camera is another thing. I have, however, been fortunate-enough that I have had companies say “will you record this for our digital recital series that we are doing?”
That being said, it is not gratifying because you are singing for a camera and there is nothing there. There is no support or that warmth of the applause. It’s very different and it made me appreciate the support of our audiences that much more.
OW: You recently worked on two Latin American projects. The first one was for Opera Colorado and the next one is an animated opera, “Mi Camino.” Can you tell me about these projects?
CVL: Yes, the Opera Colorado concert was the company’s first in-person concert and it was outdoors in the botanical gardens. It just shows how much people are itching to do things. The show was sold out and it was all musica ranchera. It was the music that I grew up singing and that made it even more exciting. And “Mi Camino,” with Opera Cultura, was a project that I had never done before. It was a virtual project: it is a digital opera. We will have avatars representing the three soloists. It is something that I have never been part of and to see Maestro Hector Armienta working on the avatars and sending us the music is so great. When I did my recording in Alberquerque, he was zoomed in and he was in there 100 percent of the way. Just to see how this project has come together from different parts of the U.S. is mind-blowing. Music has the power to connect people and to still tell these stories that we are itching to tell is so important. I am looking forward to the premiere.
OW: Why do you think it is important to showcase Latin music now in this time period?
CVL: Latin music is something that I grew up with and when I discovered that I could sing a song composed by José Alfredo Jiménez and I could have a piano accompany me with it, I realized that I was blending these two worlds and reaching a new audience. I was singing as a classical musician and singing popular ranchera music from my childhood. I feel that I have been this vessel for sharing that and showing audiences that it is not such a foreign concept. It’s a way of bridging the two worlds of classical music and musica ranchera; the traditional music of Mexico and Latin America. It educates audiences and exposes them to a different type of art. I am still learning to expose this repertoire and finding ways to interpret it. I am also exposing it to regular opera lovers and showing them that this is our background and our binational identity; an identity that I have been fortunate enough to experience and live both parts of throughout my career.
OW: Opera Colorado’s first live performance since the pandemic was Latin American music. What did you feel upon hearing that?
CVL: It was so amazing. My mom, who never goes to performances and lives in Idaho, closed up her restaurant and went to the performance. So it was meaningful to me and to have Opera Colorado share that with my family and to have my family exposed to this side of my career was something special. I am grateful that I had the opportunity to do this.
OW: What did you perform during this concert?
CVL: Opera Colorado hired a mariachi and a folkloric dance group and in addition to performing with a pianist we rotated our vocal technique. I sang Guastavino, José Alfredo Jiménez, and Cantoral, among others. There was also a big dance finale and it was so exciting. It was just such a huge display of colors and bright cheerful music.
My father even brought me back a typical chiapaneco dress. My family is so supportive of my opera career but when they get a chance to see the music from our own culture it is very meaningful to them and they go gung-ho.
OW: “Mi Camino” is a very original project that has not been done before. Tell me about the process of singing with an animated avatar and why this work resonated with you?
CVL: It is a very interesting story that a lot of people don’t think about. Maestro Hector Armienta went and interviewed farmworkers who had been hustling throughout the whole pandemic. The produce that has been in the grocery stores during these times was all due to these immigrant workers that didn’t stop working and they are still there. Maestro Armienta went out and interviewed these people and took their stories and turned them into music.
I identified with the story because I worked on the fields with my mom when I was young. It was something that I did and it was required of us; to work in the fields and to earn our buck by the sweat of our brows. That is why I wanted to be part of this project. It was a full-circle moment and even though I do music for a living, I looked at these stories and realized how important what these people do is. I felt what they were going through and it made me appreciate the work that they do much more. That is why it is special to me and I am excited to be able to tell these stories which never get told.
I’m excited to see the final product because we all recorded alone and I have not seen how it turned out. It is interesting to see the different elements because there is the music that was sent to us, the one learned, and the one we recorded. I was one of the first ones to record and then there was a mezzo that recorded on top of me and everything was in a different studio. All of these elements that happen behind the scenes to make this project happen are a lot of work. I applaud Maestro Armienta for doing this.
OW: Can you tell me about the recording process and how it was to work in the studio alone?
CVL: It was so lonely. As performers, we are naturally around people so that is what we want. We are always telling stories with other colleagues and sharing the stage with other people. To be in a recording studio and hearing the track through my headphones and having the recording engineer in another room was eye-opening. It was another learning experience that I never thought I would ever do. It was challenging because with live performances, you have the butterflies and it is what it is. You perform and it’s over. With a recording, even though you can do take after take, there is this obsession with perfection. I want to get it right and that is the most challenging thing. And of course, the fact that you are lonely changes things. I wanted that instant feedback from colleagues or from somebody. And just to be alone is tough.
Another thing that was challenging was that I was first and I had to lay the foundation and if I messed up, there would be a domino effect. The pressure was intense and that is why I had become so obsessed with perfection.
OW: Was it the first time you recorded in a studio?
CVL: It was the first time I had ever recorded anything. When I did the virtual recitals with my pianist, it was completely different. There were no headphones and the microphones were not directly in front of me. That was different and this was about the voice and making sure it was perfect.
OW: How did you feel performing for a microphone?
CVL: It is very different and as an opera singer where we rely on the sound shooting out into the auditorium, having the earphones on, it feels like your singing into a cloth that is an inch away from your face. That was super challenging because whenever I feel like the sound isn’t going anywhere, I have the feeling I need to push. That was something I had to accustom myself to.
OW: Had you seen any of the animations prior to doing the recording?
CVL: I saw the avatar. When we recorded at first, however, I performed my aria a certain way. Then afterwards we did another take and Maestro Armienta told me the story of this woman that he interviewed and gave me a personal level of what she felt and expressed. And that changed the delivery of a few measures. It humanized it and it reminded me that these are actual people that Maestro Armienta had interviewed. I wanted to put more feelings into the music that was in front of me and that changed my interpretation. So I wanted to be true to the stories that we were telling.
OW: Outside of your work as a soloist and performer, you are now the Artistic Advisor at Opera Idaho. Tell me about the work you are doing with them and what you hope to accomplish in the next few years?
CVL: That has been a completely new learning curve. As a performer, we do the things on stage and now, as an administrator, I see how the well-oiled machine has to run behind the scenes. I am very grateful for the General Director of Opera Idaho to take me under his wing and to have the patience to teach me everything he is doing for the company. It has been fun so far and I enjoy dipping my hands into everything I can. Idaho is dear to my heart because that is where I was born and that is where my family history is. I tell everyone that Opera is for everyone and Opera Idaho needs to get new audience members to enjoy the music and the stories that are being told. I am a Latina and never was exposed to opera as a young person but now as a performer, I am trying to take that as a platform to continue to share the message and expand our audience. We need to break down the stigma that opera is only for the elite.
I hope our industry settles into some normalcy even if it’s a hybrid of virtual and live performances. I think that our industry will have to embrace it and marry it to our live performances. We have to find ways to keep the music going.