OPERA NEWS - The Fourteenth Annual OPERA NEWS Awards: Ramón Vargas
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The Fourteenth Annual OPERA NEWS Awards: Ramón Vargas

// TENOR //
By Louise T. Guinther 

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Portrait by Coral von Zumwalt at LA Opera
Grooming by Kate Loftis for LA Opera
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As Edgardo in the Met’s Lucia, 1998
© Beth Bergman
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© Coral von Zumwalt

RAMÓN VARGAS is a rara avis—a connoisseur’s singer with a crowd-pleaser’s charismatic charm. The Mexican tenor is cherished for his elegant artistry and alertness to the nuances of style, yet there is a directness to his communication, an unabashed expressiveness, that makes him an instant audience favorite. 

Vargas’s musical grounding in the children’s chorus of the Basilica de Guadalupe encompassed Gregorian chant, polyphony, Bach, Handel and Mozart. A 1982 victory in the Concurso Carlo Morelli was followed by his debut at the Palacio de Bellas Artes, but shortly thereafter a deep vocal crisis led him to start from scratch, seeking out what he calls “the natural way of the voice.” Clearly, he found it: in a 1999 OPERA NEWS profile, I described his instrument as “a voice of essentially sunny sweetness, tinged by a darker quality of yearning”; miraculously, two decades later, its timbre remains unaltered by time, as does his youthful spontaneity. 

When Vargas sings—of fury or sorrow, of anguish or love—one can feel the throb of his emotions tugging at one’s own heartstrings. His acting is never separate from his singing; for him, the vocal line constitutes a direct and sufficient expression of character, situation and sensibility. What he does with his body stems entirely from what he is doing with his voice. A 1998 Met Lucia exemplified the aesthetic he has embraced throughout his long career. Every change of mood or color in the music was reflected in Vargas’s tone, attitude and facial expression, creating an aural and visual kaleidoscope of shifting passions that perfectly captured Edgardo’s volatile character.

Though his repertoire is firmly rooted in the works of Rossini, Donizetti and, increasingly, Verdi, Vargas fluently translates the classic bel canto virtues into a variety of genres. In Romantic French repertoire, his plaintive timbre—honeyed yet slightly astringent—and his tasteful sculpting of phrases imbue Roméo, Werther and Hoffmann with full psychological dimension. His intense Lenski in a 2007 Onegin, painfully shy but brimming with feeling, was the essence of lyric poetry. This exceptional musical–dramatic engagement springs from an unwavering tension in the vocal line that pulls the listener resistlessly along with his character’s emotional journey. And when he relaxes that tension to float an ethereal pianissimo, the sense of release seems to fill the audience’s collective soul, as well as his own.

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With Elena Zaremba, Svetlana Volkova, Renée Fleming and Dmitri Hvorostovsky in Eugene Onegin at the Met, 2007
© Beth Bergman

Vargas offstage is very like Vargas on—serious, thoughtful and romantic-minded. A great part of his personal appeal lies in the earnestness with which he dedicates himself to the things he finds important. The same class, elegance and balanced perspective that inspire his heartfelt artistry guide his humility and uprightness as a man. In 2000, Vargas and his wife turned what might have been an embittering tragedy—the loss of their young son Eduardo to cerebral palsy—into an opportunity to serve families facing similar challenges, founding the Eduardo Vargas Fund to improve the lives of disabled children. Vargas has also been a stalwart cultural ambassador for Mexico, where he helped to establish the Bellas Artes Opera Studio.

Back in 1999, this wizard of vocal dexterity and musical magnetism told me, “Singing is a virus, and there’s no vaccine.” The opera world is inordinately lucky that Vargas was bitten by that bug. —Louise T. Guinther 

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