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Opera Field Trip With Tenor Rene Barbera

Cover image for podcast episode

Tenor Rene Barbera talks about opera, breathing, and heavy metal as we take a field trip outside the world of film.

Beth Accomando: And now for something completely different. Yes, it’s the KPBS Cinema Junkie Podcast. But we’re not going to be talking about film today. I cover arts in San Diego and sometimes I get to interview people outside of the film community that I think are interesting enough to share with all of you cinema junkies. What you’re hearing right now is Tenor Rene Barbera warming up.

It’s not often that I get to be in the same room with an opera singer. In fact I’m just a few feet away. It’s impressive to feel his voice fill the room and I feel a bit unworthy, because I’ve been a bit musically impaired on my life. So I never feel like I can fully appreciate opera. I joked about this with Barbera as we were setting up for the interview.

I’m musically impaired. This is my problem, I’m musically impaired…

Rene Barbera: Me too.

Beth Accomando: I’m relatively toned down. I can’t dance because I can’t [inaudible] [00:00:54], yeah.

Rene Barbera: I’m toned down, music means nothing to me.

Beth Accomando: I did the interview at the home of Nicholas Reveles, Director of Education and Community Engagement for San Diego Opera and with the help of Kurt Kohnen.

Kurt Kohnen: Thanks for your patience guys.

Rene Barbera: Well of course.

Kurt Kohnen: We’re all set. I was just going to do mic check. So whenever you guys want to get into your places or wherever you want to sit…

Beth Accomando: Nick, [indiscernible] [00:01:20] at the camera…

Beth Accomando: I hope you don’t mind taking a little side trip to enjoy some insights into the world of opera. Barbera was quite accommodating although he refused to let me record him warming up, because he said that was just too personal. So here is my interview with Tenor Rene Barbera, hope you enjoy it.

So we are at the home of Nicholas Reveles and we are going to have something very special here. So Nick, explain where we are and what we are about to hear.

Nicholas Reveles: Well where we are is that I’m at the piano ready to accompany this great Tenor Rene Barbera who is going to be singing a concert for us, a recital this coming Saturday night. And – but he’s chosen to do La donna è mobile for your radio audience today. This is the great tune or audio from Rigoletto by Giuseppe Verdi. And I’m sure it will be recognized by just about everybody in your audience.

[Music plays] [00:02:13 - 00:04:06]

Beth Accomando: First of all I wanted to find out how did you initially get into singing and what led you to opera?

Rene Barbera: I started out with piano when I was quite young. For whatever reason I decided I wanted to take piano lessons and karate lessons and my mother and father both provided that. And so I started with piano and I was pretty good at it actually. A lot of people had said that I had the ability to get as far as I wanted, as long as I had the passion for it. I didn’t. I did not have the passion for playing piano. I – at the time I really just hated practicing. I was young and I didn’t really want to sit in one place for an hour or half an hour or got forbidden longer than that, two hours, my god.

But anyway, I just gone through it. But when I was in elementary school I had got lucky enough to have a teacher who recognized my vocal talents, because we sang everyday the national anthem in school. So apparently she heard me singing or whatnot, so when I moved to San Antonio for 4th grade year, my teacher had attached a little sticky note to my student record suggesting that they get me in a choir saying that I have a beautiful voice.

Well, I was in the music classes we all had and the teacher of that class said you should audition for the San Antonio Boys Choir. And so I did and I got into San Antonio Boys Choirs and Boys Soprano. As – and then that all happened and I got – I had the opportunity to sing Amahl & the Night Visitors, that was Amahl. And I was in 7th grade and I had joined the choir in middle school and they suggested that I’d be a tenor.

Well the Choir Director, Melinda Loomis of the San Antonio Boys Choir said no, you’re not singing – you’re not going to sing tenor if you’re going to be singing this in Amahl in December. You’re just going to ruin your voice and you won’t be able to sing it. So she demanded when – sent a note along that I would be at boy’s soprano in the choir. Well that led to me being the only boy in the all-girls choir in 7th grade. You can imagine what that was like for me. It was actually rather enjoyable. I enjoyed it. But there was a lot of poking fun at me. Nonetheless 8th grade happened, my voice changed and I became some weird combination of alto-tenor thing. Ended up in high school, decided I wanted to get off of choir. I was like no; I don’t want to sing anymore, I’m tired.

Well the choir director from the high school had previously met me and heard me sing in the four-day requiem at the [indiscernible] [00:06:31]. And he had been looking forward to having me in his choir. I happened to walk by him in the hallway. He sees me, I say hello to him and he twist my ear and drops me to the ground, I literally dropped to my knees because it hurt and he says why are you not in my choir. And I said at the time, I was like I just want to take a year off. I don’t really feel like singing anymore. He said you will be in my choir by the end of the week. And I said I don’t want to be in choir, he was like you’re going to be in choir.

Anyway, that being said because of Gordon I was getting back into choir that year. He was very much a supporter of mine. He was very unlike other choir directors in that he would point directly at me in the middle of a UIL competition or whatnot. And just wave his hand for me to sing louder. A lot of choir directors don’t do that. They’re more about blending and keeping quiet and not having anybody standup. But he let me sing loud and he’d let me use my voice unlike a lot of other choir directors might to. And with his support and his constant, hey you could do this, I finally said okay fine, I will audition at UTSA, University of Texas at San Antonio and he helped me learn my two auditioned arias and I went and I got a scholarship and all went very well.

I tried to pull away from singing again after about a year and half and I moved to Colorado. But I didn’t want to completely stop singing. I just didn’t want to do it as a professor. So I sort out Martial [phonetic] [00:08:02] Roland in Colorado Springs. And I went to had a lesson with her after about a month of calling and calling and calling and calling and getting a response. I finally got her and then I went to go and sing for Isang, La donna è mobile for her hilariously. And she immediately said you do need to be in my program. I have a three-week program here in Colorado Springs, Vocal Arts Symposium and I said I can’t afford that. She said no, you’re getting full scholarship, room board and everything; you just have to show up.

And so I went and through that I got in contact with the people at the North Carolina School of the Arts. A lot of the students were there and James Albert and who I’m about to go and work with again for the first time in several years singing the Duke, that will be fun, so all coming full circle. And after about three or four years of being in pain and struggling with it, the whole concept of singing and not really wanting to do it, but still being interested. I had a girlfriend and that girlfriend left me and it kind of – it just light the fire if you will and I said you know what, I’ve been here for four years. I owe it to myself to really give this a shot. And within a week I had applied and created – I applied to several young artist programs and created my audition tape and everything.

And I – that was my first audition season, it went very well. I got into the Merola Opera Program and I got into Florida Grand Opera Program, I entered into the Lyric Opera Program that year and that’s kind of how it all went. I finished my young artist tenure at the Lyric Opera of Chicago after three years in 2012 and it’s kind of – the rest is history, just been running around like a crazy person.

Beth Accomando: So did you choose to go into opera or did people kind of choose it for you?

Rene Barbera: It was chosen for me. I did not see an opera until I was in about four of them myself, something to that affect. I had no experience with opera and I was from South Texas, I was born in Laredo and I live in San Antonio and there just wasn’t opera available to me at that time. It was never been presented as something I should be involved in or that I could even make a living in or that really even existed anymore. So it was all something very new to me when I got to college and people were like hey you should sing opera. I said well okay, I like classical music well enough, sure why not. I actually liked vocal jazz too. My other option was to do vocal jazz in my mind. That did not pan out and that’s okay. I never really pursued it anyway.

Beth Accomando: So what kind of music did you actually listen to like of your own choice just out of curiosity?

Rene Barbera: Oh my! When I was in high school before and I actually got into opera, I listen to a lot of R&B, hip-hop, rap a lot of heavy metal too. I really loved Metallica, Macy DC, yeah, nothing remotely close to opera was in my play list and its – it really is still isn’t there. I mean occasionally I will pull out some Fritz Wunderlich here or some [indiscernible] [00:10:51], something along those lines, but usually not opera. Usually we’re looking at Leader and things like that just to have some thing that’s soothing and relaxing when I’m driving, because occasionally when I’m driving in a car that’s the only time I road rage. So I need to have to say – when I feel the road rage coming on, I put on Fritz Wunderlich and I just relax a little bit. Otherwise it just – otherwise I listen to Dubstep when I’m in the car. Of course now I just have a motorcycle, but I still listen to a sizeable dose of M&M.

Beth Accomando: But this recital will not be featuring you doing any hip-hop or heavy metal?

Rene Barbera: Sadly not. No, I would really – it’s a dream of mine to work one-on-one with MNM. That will be really funny and entertaining.

Beth Accomando: Christopher Lee did that whole heavy metal album with that band. So I mean people cross over in interesting ways.

Rene Barbera: That will be pretty fun. I’m not opposed to the idea.

Beth Accomando: You’re very young. So you’ve probably come into opera when we’ve already had this audition of wireless microphones for everybody to be using. But how has that – has that changed how a singer sings? Do you still have to project as much? Does it make any difference whether you’re mic’ed or not?

Rene Barbera: Well the truth is in opera houses the mics that are available are only – they’re being used, they’re only for the purpose of broadcast. So they’re actually not being used to amplify the sound in the house. So yes, the answer is we still have to be able to sing – loud enough to be heard in the audience. Those microphones are quite the inconvenience for all of us. We really – they’re always kind of stuck in your hairline. Inevitably the glue comes off and you feel them moving around and you feel that the tape in the back of your neck pulling the hairs there while you’re not turning your head, it’s not exciting. We do there and we have to learn to do with them, but for the most part they’re not used to amplify. That’s the only time we have amplification in – and when an actual performance situation is when it’s outdoors. But in opera houses those – it’s very rare for a microphone to be used for application purposes – amplification purposes, excuse me.

Beth Accomando: I had a chance to speak with Steven Costello when was here doing an opera and he talked about how being a singer is very much like being an athlete. Does that metaphor work for you as well?

Rene Barbera: Absolutely. And depending on the production it can be even more athletic than just the regular singing. There have been productions where I’m climbing up walls and climbing up ladders and jumping on tables and climbing and jumping over rails on the staircases, running around theater while singing. There is quite a bit of things that go on and when you combine adrenaline with – it’s essentially holding your breath, but exhaling it slowly while you’re running around it can get really exhausting. But that being said just the singing aspect alone is very physical. I mean there is a lot of muscles involved, especially abdominal muscles and you’re having to engage your entire body, keep your legs involved, keep your upper body involved while at the same time keeping things lose and flexible because you can’t get too intense about things.

And of course the breath, I mean there are many times where I – depending on what I’m singing I’ll end a phrase and I’m just thinking I don’t know that I can actually take this next breath in time to not pass out. So things like that happen. But then there are also – there is also types of music that are different in that. For example, Rossini is which I sing a lot of is I would consider vocal gymnastics. In that you’re constantly moving all about your vocal register and there is very little time to breathe and all kinds of muscles are involved with – it’s like slow twitch or it was a flow twitch versus slow twitch muscles.

Like when you’re running long distances versus speed, with Rossini there is constant – it’s – the muscles in the abdomen are constantly pulsating and vibrating and going for being able to move a lot of agility let’s say. Whereas singing a long line makes – it creates constant pressure in the abdomen to make sure the air is coming out. It gets to be quite difficult with Rossini. And there have been many times where I get to the end of the phrase and I’m – literally my stomach is in pain. My abdomen is on fire. The lactic acid is building up and I’m sitting there thinking I don’t even really know that I have enough energy in these muscles to get the next line out, because they’re so exhausted.

An example of a situation – of a line that requires to – that it makes sure that you have the proper amount of breath and that you don’t expel too much early on to make it to the end of phrase in La donna è mobile as it’s this particular phrase.

[Song Plays] [00:15:18 - 00:15:27]

Rene Barbera: And here you’re holding it for so long that you will be getting a note then you have to make sure you have enough support in air coming through to be able to do the run down plus to hop back up and hold it a little longer. Otherwise you just go ahead and it seems – things end up being funny if you don’t quite have enough breath and you can sustain the breath well enough to get through the end of the phrase. And then of course you have to tank up again for the last line up.

Beth Accomando: So how do you train and keep in shape then for something like that?

Rene Barbera: That’s a wonderful question and I really sometimes still have no idea how it happens. I mean the only thing that I can assume is that with the constant – I mean the rehearsals that we have six days a week, six hours a day usually. As long as you’re working, each one of those days you’re working hard then usually the stamina builds up well enough for you to get through it. But every performance is different if a conductor takes a different tempo one night for whatever reason. And they had an espresso or they didn’t have an espresso, they could make a difference in the tempo and it can change the way it all flows so you have to be able to adjust and there are moments where you’re sitting there thinking this tempo is going to kill me, I may actually drop dead.

Nicholas Reveles: Just a quick question, you’ve mentioned breath and I work with a number of young singers and hopefully they’re listening to this interview, because you’re saying some really, really great things. Is that one of the most challenging things to be able to control the breath so that you don’t expel so much of it at the beginning of the phrase, you don’t have anything left to finish it? How do you control that? How do you learn that?

Rene Barbera: Every phrase is a challenge and every phrase has a – and depending on what comes before it’s going to take something different. So you never really “learn it”. You learn it for that particular line, you learn it for that particular area, that particular duet or ensemble piece where you say okay well, this line before this next one I have to take a breath here, otherwise I’m not going to have enough of this and it has to be a big breath or it has to be a quick breath. You have to know where those are and you have to really plan them out to make sure you have all that and of course you have to practice those lines and make sure that you can get through them.

And there is various breathing exercises; one of my favorite ones is using a straw. Putting one end of the straw into a bowl of water, but you want to put it just under the surface and you breath, you excel as slowly as you can to make the smallest bubbles you can, but maintain the bubbles all throughout until your breath is gone. So it helps you learn to use your abdominal muscles to actually control how much breath is coming out from the beginning to the end and sustaining that can be really difficult and it’s exhausting, but it’s one of the good exercises to do. And just doing breathing exercises in general is really helpful. I don’t always do breathing exercises before show. But if there is a particular phrase that I know I’m going to have to sing if I have the time beforehand, I will just go straight to the dressing room and just do a lot of exhaling breaths and pulsating and just holding out long phrases as long as I can.

Beth Accomando: So before any performance, do you have a regular routine of like warm-ups that you have to go through?

Rene Barbera: Again it’s one of those things that kind of just varies day-by-day and opera-by-opera in fact and sometimes just performance-by-performance. Some days I wake up and my voice is just topnotch, it’s ready to go. It’s for whatever reason maybe I had the right combination of food the night before, but I wake up the next morning and I’m like I feel great, my voice is ready to go, I can sing right now. The only problem is sometimes you take a nap in the middle of the day, because you have nothing else to do before performance and you wake up and you’re like okay I should have just stayed awake, because now I actually have to work.

The warm-ups, they vary depending on what I need in that particular day. Some days I need to do things with more focus on residents, some days more breath, some days just waking up my upper register, my lower register, just all depends on what’s necessary for the day. But my rituals usually revolve around what I do for the day or what I don’t do and what I don’t do is anything. I stay home all day. I do the least I can possibly do on a day, because it’s – singing a full opera is a very – and it is very energy consuming thing. And the less that I do on a day the more likely that I am to have the energy later in the day to get through it and I definitely have before show at least a single shot of espresso if not a double. It’s got to happen especially for Rossini, for whatever reason it wakes up the abdomen.

Nicholas Reveles: You said earlier and you just referred to that you sing a lot of Rossini, you’re called upon to sing a lot of Rossini. And also you got at least two [indiscernible] [00:19:52] rose under your belt, the Daughter of the Regiment and Elixir, what else?

Rene Barbera: I also have Ernesto in Don Pasquale, a whole song I had to got to do in Luteya and I think that covers it.

Nicholas Reveles: Okay. But then – but you also mentioned that you’re now working on the Duke in Rigoletto which is where the aria was from that we performed by. What are the differences? Are the challenges remarkably different or are you approaching it the same way that you would with this so called lighter repertoire which really isn’t, but…

Rene Barbera: Right. It’s just – it’s interesting. I can’t – if I just got through singing Rossini, it will take me at least two weeks to a month to get my voice out of that place. The way that I sing legato music, even something as different from – it’s close if you will as Donizetti and Rossini. There is a very, very big change in how I approach it in that. I’m able to use more of my voice when I sing Rossini which Rossini is very unnatural for me if that makes sense. And so I have to sort of change the way I sing so that I can – and I essentially only use my upper residence to get through it, otherwise I will never be able to actually have the flexibility to make the color to our voice.

So when I’m making a twitch to singing something like the Duke which I’m actually done, I did this in – I did the Duke in Upper Colorado and I had done – I think it was at Barboursville just beforehand. And it took me a solid month before my body was willing to let me sing with all of my voice and to be able to sustain some legato lines, because it’s a very different approach to everything. So yeah, there is – there can be a very big difference in the way things are doing – the way you approach things.

From a technical standpoint, for the most part nothing changes. I just kind of allow myself to have more color in my voice and use some of them in my chest residence that I don’t get to use in other things. But otherwise I try to approach it as lyrically as possible. I’m not going to try and sing like it’s Wagner or anything like that.

Beth Accomando: So in selecting the pieces for this recital, what were you looking to do? Were you looking to challenge yourself in some ways or revisit things that you really enjoyed?

Rene Barbera: Well, it’s a combination of a lot of things. Definitely some revisiting of things that I’ve enjoyed, because I know there are lot of pieces in this list that I really love. But a lot of it was just selecting music that makes me happy, because it’s really nice to sing things that are different from what I sing all the time and there is a lot of legato music, there is a lot of things about love in there and heartbreak and happiness and kind of going back and forth between the two. It’s very – for whatever reason that type of music really speaks to me and it’s a lot of Italian and Spanish with a couple of French things mixed in.

One of the songs I want to sing again mainly because my mother – for my senior recital in college it was [indiscernible] [00:22:54] with love my mother is the name of the title. I had chosen that song to sing for her. Well the day of my recital she had an anxiety attack. At the time she did not know what that, well that’s what it was. She thought she was having a heart attack, the hospital thought she was having a heart attack. So they took her in and they – once they realized that it wasn’t a heart attack they said well we’re going to keep you here for monitoring, you can’t leave. And so she stayed and was – and she missed my recital and that was really hard for me. So it’s kind of an emotional piece for me. I almost lost it that night when I was singing that piece. And so now as a profession, my mother come and see me and so I said that has to be on there. She has to actually see me perform it, because she didn’t get to.

So otherwise it’s just a bunch of music that I really like and I think speaks to me. And I think the words and the music speak – can speak to everybody as if it’s just about – most of it is just about the human experience about love and heartbreak and kind of how that all goes in various waves if you will. There is one particular set that I chose as something completely new. I said I need to have something I’ve never sung before, that’s somewhat different from everything else and that will be the setup pieces. And those are – they’re very interesting pieces, the music, the accompaniment is a very – it almost seems atonal, but it’s not, because once – especially once the singing comes in and so for whatever reason I picked it up very quickly. I was kind of afraid of them at first and once I started working on them I realized oh these are actually quite tonal and they’re really interesting. And one of the pieces is quite creepy, you will enjoy that one.

Beth Accomando: Would you pick any of these as being particularly challenging like the most that of the selection?

Rene Barbera: The most challenging thing for me in the entire – well, aside from remembering all the words which there is a lot of, there is one particular piece, La Danza by Rossini, go and figure the two hardest pieces in the thing are both Rossini. La Danza, it’s quite difficult, because both verses are identical in sound and they’re strophic, but the words are different. And the words being different there is one phrase that starts the exact same way, but ends completely differently and that makes it really difficult to remember. So I’m having quite the time wrapping my brain around that one. But as far as vocal challenges, it’s fairly easy piece to sing. The hardest piece for me to sing in the entire recital will be the Rossini piece that starts it up. It’s from like La gazza ladra; it’s a very difficult – very, very difficult piece.

Beth Accomando: And you’re also doing the IC’s from Donizetti, yes?

Rene Barbera: Yeah. I’m doing the Daughter of the Regiment, that one is easy though. It’s commonly stated that when it comes to that piece you either have IC’s or you don’t. And if you have them it’s easy, if you don’t it’s hard. So I mean I’ve been – I’m fortunate that the IC’s are not really a challenge for me. In my opinion and I think a lot of people would agree the second aria in the Daughter of the Regiment [indiscernible] [00:26:02] is substantially harder than the first which is the normal with the non-IC’s. It’s just the most popular one, because it’s exciting and the IC is often seen as a Mt. Everest of – for tenors, but if you can do it you can do it.

Nicholas Reveles: You were singing one of my favorite arias from the Pearl Fishers [indiscernible] [00:26:22] and I’ve always wondered where the tenor has to sort of place that or where you have to sing that from, because it’s marked [indiscernible] [00:26:32] I hear recordings of it and I think is that person singing falsetto or just lots of head resonance. How do you explain what you have to do in order to make that piece come off?

Rene Barbera: It’s an interesting piece. I love it, because it gives me the opportunity to d something I don’t ever get to do and that’s to kind of float everything. It’s kind of just like singing in this well mixed area. It’s just kind of – I don’t know, it’s hard to explain. There is definitely a lot of head resonance, but it’s also strangely really kind of high and back in the head and one of the way I feel it when I’m singing.

Nicholas Reveles: Well it gives it a very ferial effect within the opera itself. I mean it’s like Nadir, the character is having a dream and this thing is just taking him to a whole other world and the music does that.

Rene Barbera: Yeah, it’s great. I mean he is just kind of recollecting this time that he had and it’s very clearly a very intimate time. It’s quite beautiful and it’s – I mean, I don’t know. There is just something about the piece that I’ve always really, really like and I just – I try to do my best with it and yeah, I will see if it works out.

[Song Plays] [00:27:43 - 00:28:10]

Beth Accomando: On that note we have to wrap up, thanks so much. I’m Beth Accomando and I’ve been speaking with Tenor Rene Barbera and Nicholas Reveles, Director of Education and Community Engagement at San Diego Opera. Thanks to you both for taking time for this conversation and music.

Rene Barbera: Thank you very much for taking the time to interview me.

Beth Accomando: Thanks for listening to the KPBS Cinema Junkie Podcast in our little side trip to the world of opera. I’m Beth Accomando and I will be returning to film very quickly with a podcast from Son of Monsterpalooza in LA. Remember to check back every Thursday for a film review and every Friday for interviews. Until our next film fix I’m Beth Accomando, your resident cinema junkie.

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Satisfy your celluloid addiction with the Cinema Junkie podcast, where you can mainline film 24/7. This film and entertainment series is run by KPBS Film Critic Beth Accomando. So if you need a film fix, want to hear what filmmakers have to say about their work, or just want to know what's worth seeing this weekend, then you've come to the right place