Sound Bites spotlights up-and-coming singers and conductors in the world of opera.
Sound Bites: René Barbera
Photographed by Dario Acosta at Sixth Street Specials, Inc., motorcycle repair, NYC
Grooming by Affan Malik
© Dario Acosta 2012
René Barbera is not just another bel canto tenor who can toss off nine high Cs before breakfast; his singing is suffused with the kind of old-fashioned warmth that is often supplanted in florid rep by laser-sharp precision. "For some reason or another, it feels right," Barbera says of singing bel canto. "The way the music is written, I feel where the music is going. I feel, I guess, in some ways, what the music wants. That's a weird thing to say. But I just have a feel for that type of music. It just makes me happy."
With a schedule full of Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini at top U.S. companies this season, Barbera has plenty to smile about. He is currently taking on Ernesto in Don Pasquale at Lyric Opera of Chicago, where he wrapped up a three-year stint at the company's young-artist program in April. "I was hired for that gig in 2009, so I've had three years' worth of anticipation, waiting for it," he says. "It's great to be able to go back to the Lyric so soon after leaving. And I can say it's home. It's my home opera house." Later in the season, a snappy and much-admired production of La Cenerentola, by the Barcelona-based theater group Comediants, provides the vehicle for Barbera's company debuts at Los Angeles Opera and Seattle Opera, and he heads to Santa Fe Opera this summer for the secondo uomo role of Rodrigo in La Donna del Lago, opposite Rossinian extraordinaire Joyce DiDonato.
By most standards, the tenor from San Antonio, Texas, has all the elements in place to kick-start a successful career: he won the Met's National Council Auditions in 2008; completed terms at San Francisco Opera's Merola Opera Program and Florida Grand Opera's Young Artist Studio, in addition to Chicago's Ryan Opera Center; and made Operalia history in 2011 when he became the first singer to sweep three categories at the competition — zarzuela, opera and the audience prize. But Barbera is quick to credit the teachers and mentors along the way who've kept him on track. There was one particularly passionate high-school choir director — Gordon Ivers — who had heard Barbera sing as a boy soprano in middle school, and who brooked no nonsense when the budding tenor thought he'd take a break from singing. "I decided, my freshman year of high school, not to do choir," he recalls. "Well, I happened to walk by him, and I said hi to him. Well, he grabbed me by the ear, twisted it and dropped me to the ground, and said, 'You will be in my choir by the end of the week.'" He laughs. "So, I dropped history honors. And I joined choir."
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