Interview with Star of Florencia en el Amazonas, Elizabeth Caballero

Recently, she has performed this role with Florentine Opera, Madison Opera, the Pacific Symphony, and the Orlando Philharmonic. In 2015 she had a major triumph in the title role of Daniel Cat‡n’s Florencia en el Amazonas, the role she is repeat with the New York City Opera this month. Early next year, at Florida Grand Opera, she will appear in the hard hitting new opera, Before Night Falls that Jorge MartÌn based on the memoir of Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas.
An interview by Maria Nockin
Q: Where were you born?
I was born in Havana, Cuba, but grew up in Miami, Florida. I’ve always had music around me because my parents would often play music on the radio as I was growing up. I remember listening to artists such as Julio Iglesias, Roberto Carlo, and Rafael just to name a few. These were all wonderful Spanish artists who not only had beautiful or interesting voices but they sang such amazing Spanish style ballads. I also remember going to church and singing in the church choir as a child. I would also audition for the solos and, most of the time, I would end up singing them. I don’t ever remember being a shy kid. I always enjoyed performing.
Q: What did you do after high school?
It was after I graduated from high school that I discovered I could study singing. I attended the local community college where I was given a full scholarship and I met Beverly Coulter who was in charge of the music department. She was the first person to introduce me to opera. I had never heard opera before except for Placido Domingo singing some Spanish ballads and all the Bugs Bunny “Kill the Wabbit” stuff. Anyway, she gave me my first voice lessons and taught me my first operatic aria, “Quando m’en vo,” Musetta’s Waltz from Puccini’s La bohËme. That’s when I noticed that the Baz Lurman La bohËme was playing on PBS. I saw it and just fell in love with opera. I wanted to be a part of it. I don’t really remember my first time seeing an actual opera live but I will never forget the first time I saw it on TV.
I really owe all my training to three voice teachers. Dr. Beverly Coulter at Miami Dade College was the one who planted the seed. Then, after the opera bug hit me, I transferred to the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music. There I met Dr. Lorine Buffington. She taught me how prepare operatic roles, and from her I learned a great deal about acting. She was a great singer and a true opera diva. She was so much fun, too. It wasn’t until after I graduated from the University of Miami that I met Manny Perez who is now my voice teacher. From Manny I learned the technique that worked for me. I learned never to push my instrument and, most importantly, I learned patience and persistence. After working with him for a few years, I won many competitions and was accepted into the Merola Opera program at San Francisco Opera. Bill Schuman is also a vital part of my training and I study with him when I am in New York.
Before Merola, however, I participated in the Florida Grand Opera Young Artist Program where I got to meet and work with Diana Soviero, and her husband, Bernard Uzan, both of whom I’ve always admired. From them I learned a great deal about the business of singing opera. What I cherish the most about their teaching is the importance of acting in opera. After all, we are singing actors. I remember Bernard saying to pay attention to all the punctuation in the librettos. Basically you will sing a question mark differently from a period or an exclamation point. Pay attention to commas, and all those other simple details. His words have really meant a lot to me.
After Florida Grand, I did the Merola Opera Program. Those were the most amazing summers I ever spent. I got to sing my first Fiordiligi in Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte one summer and my first MimÏ in Puccini’s La bohËme the next. The intense program really worked us hard. It was amazing and so very rewarding. Merola Program Artistic Director Sheri Greenawald was always very giving, and the cool thing about Florencia, the part I am singing in Catan’s Florencia in el Amazonas is that she created the role. I was able to pick her brain about the role when I found out I was singing it. Listening to her take on the part was amazing. She gave me a great deal to work with.
Q: What are your favorite roles?
I really enjoy Nedda in Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci and Violetta, the title role in Verdi’s La traviata. Although very different from each other, both of these women are thrilling dramatic characters. Nedda may be based on real life because Leoncavallo, who wrote both the libretto and the music, said the idea for the story came from a court case handled by his father. Violetta was an actual French courtesan named Marie Duplessis who lived from 1824 to 1847. Franz Liszt and the younger Alexandre Dumas knew her. But, honestly, this question is not completely fair because my favorite role always ends up being the role I’m singing at the moment. I always find something new and different that makes me fall in love with each of the roles I sing.
Q: What did you like about singing Zemfira in Aleko?
I loved playing a gypsy. As a lyric soprano I’m always Micaela while Carmen is the hot gypsy. So it was fun to find my inner “Carmen”. I also loved singing in Russian. Singing in Russian is actually quite similar to singing in Italian or Spanish in the sense that the vowels are very open and pure. It’s a very comfortable and rich language to sing once you understand it. I also enjoyed singing those Russian dark L’s.
What do you like best about singing opera in Spanish?
Spanish is my first language so it is a pleasure to be able to sing in the language I learned to speak as a child. There aren’t many Spanish operas in the standard repertory so the fact that Florencia is being done so often makes me happy. Spanish is an extremely beautiful language to sing in because all the vowels are open and pure.
Q: What can you tell us about Before Night Falls?
Before Night Falls: an Autobiography (Antes que anochezca: autobiografÌa) is the life story of Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas. It describes his early life in Cuba, his time in prison, and his escape to the United States in the Mariel Boatlift of 1980. The opera based on the book means a lot to me because I have many personal connections with it. Reinaldo Arenas came from Cuba in the Mariel Boatlift. So did I. Jorge Martin, the composer, who is also Cuban, didn’t come in the Boatlift but he came much earlier when he was the same age I was when my parents brought me to the United States. He was just a little child. So he and I are these odd hybrids.
We are not really Cuban because we left the island very young and we don’t remember anything of the island. We were raised in America. However, we have a big sense of Cuban pride that was imbedded in us by our families. We aren’t really Cuban any more because we are Americans, but we will always have our Cuban love affair. So to sing a piece from such a wonderful Cuban composer who comes from the same place I do, means a lot. I am so happy to be a part of this. The fact that it will be premiered in Miami, which has a huge Cuban community, is amazing. I hope it will be seen in New York City, too, since that is where Jorge lives and where Arenas lived, too.
Q: What roles would you most like to sing in the future?
I’d love to sing more Verdi. Leonora in Il trovatore and Desdemona in Otello come to mind at first. I would also love another opportunity to sing Adina in l’Elisir d’amore. I only sang her once a few years back, but I remember that she was so much fun and a thrill to sing. Norina in Don Pasquale is another role I’d love to sing. It’s fun not to die at the end of the opera. Basically, I’d love to do more bel canto but not exclude a late Verdi role like Desdemona.
Q: Which composers’ music do you think fits your voice best?
Honestly, I love to sing all composers, but Mozart is the composer I like to use as my grading scale. If I’m having trouble singing Mozart, I need to go back and fix whatever is giving me trouble. Mozart is like butter on the vocal cords.
Q: Do you have many clips on YouTube?
Yes, I do. Here are links to a few of them:

image_description=Elizabeth Caballero [Photo courtesy of Uzan International Artists]
product_title=Interview with Star of Florencia en el Amazonas, Elizabeth Caballero
product_by=An interview by Maria Nockin
product_id=Above: Elizabeth Caballero [Photo courtesy of Uzan International Artists]