Cecilia Violetta Lopez is proof you can start later in a profession and still be successful. Raised in the Magic Valley community of Rupert, Lopez attended Idaho public schools and worked in Minidoka County fields in the summer. She initially worked as a medical technician for several years, but her love was always singing.
After being encouraged to go back to college and study music, Lopez found herself enamored with opera—and very good at it. Now the 32-year-old single mother is a rising star in that field. She recently won the Freddie Award for Excellence in Opera for her "star is born" performance as Violetta in Verdi's La Traviata when she was a student at the prestigious Martina Arroyo Foundation in New York.
The best is yet to come: beginning Friday, March 13 and running through Sunday, April 12, Lopez will sing the iconic role of Violetta in the Virginia Opera production of La Traviata, with performances in Norfolk, Fairfax, Richmond and Virginia Beach.
Shortly after this interview, Lopez auditioned for New York City's Metropolitan Opera Company. The next day, she was offered a contract and will understudy the role of Sylvianne in the Met's production of The Merry Widow, beginning Friday, April 24.
"I'm on cloud nine," she told Boise Weekly. "I can't believe it happened to me."
You worked in the fields in the summer, yes?
Yes ... my mom started us at a very, very young age. We were hoeing beets. Oh, my gosh; we hated it. My brother and I were like, "Oh man, here we go again."
But as annoying as it was, those moments; I think they're memories. I just remember a lot of bonding I did with my older brother, and that's where my mom taught us how to sing and she instilled in us the love of music. It was all the old Mexican classics, all the Ranchera music. So that's what I grew up listening to and singing along with my mom, doing harmonizing.
Eventually you were singing in mariachi bands. Where did you sing?
Weddings, quinceaneras. In Rupert there was a rodeo that was basically Latino-based. And either my mom would be like, "You should go sing with the mariachi," or people would call me days before to set it up.
Did you think you might sing as a career?
I never really had that thought in my head growing up thinking, "I'm going to pursue this and become a famous mariachi singer." It was never like that. It was just something that I liked to do.
What about opera? Had you heard much of it?
Never. I think the first time I heard opera was when I watched Sesame Street as a kid—and that's how I learned English. Sesame Street used to have opera singers make cameo appearances back then, and Beverly Sills was the one who came on. And I just remember listening and watching and going, "That's strange. That's very strange music, but whatever." And I kind of put it on the back burner and that was that.
It wasn't until I went to UNLV ... back then my husband told me, "You should pursue a career in music. That's what you love to do. Why don't you do it?" And I said, "OK, we'll see." So I get accepted into UNLV and I start pursuing a music education degree.
And then I auditioned for my first opera. I was cast as a cover, and the girl I was covering dropped out, and so I had to learn the role really, really quickly and go on stage for her. And ever since then, it's just been ... I love it.
Immediately after graduating from UNLV, I got hired at Opera San Jose as a professional artist, and ... gosh, I did nine roles there, so that was better than any grad school.
What about the acting part? You're not just singing up there.
You have to become the character, for sure. This is actually funny. Getting my degree at UNLV, taking acting courses was not part of the curriculum for vocal performance. And actually Miss Irene Dallas at Opera San Jose, who was a big Metropolitan Opera star ... she called me into her office once and said, "Where did you go to school? Did you go to a fancy conservatory? What theater courses did you take?"
And jokingly, I was like, "I didn't, but maybe because I'm Hispanic and I watched all those [tele]novelas with my mom growing up, maybe that's what it is." And she just laughed at the joke, too. I mean, the characters in the opera ... they're real people, and for me it's so easy to be able to connect to whoever the person is I'm trying to portray.
Even when they're old-fashioned characters? I mean Gilda, whom you've played in Rigoletto, is locked inside her house by her dad.
Weirdly enough, yes. My parents are very protective of me. Being the oldest girl [they said], "No, you're not allowed to date." So that I can relate to.
But then it gets me every time, whenever we get to that final scene [of Rigoletto] ... just picturing me in my dad's hands, just holding me as I'm dying. And having to tell him, "Hey, I made a really stupid mistake. I love this boy, and I decided to give my life for him and to save you, too, so here I am dying in your arms." Just the whole thing, just right now I'm giving myself goose bumps just thinking of that.
To me just every opera character is a real person. And I think that's the way to be able to connect with audiences and to keep opera alive. I think opera is for everybody.
What do your parents think about all of this?
At first my parents were like, "Oh, well, you're an opera singer. That's really weird. I mean, what do you do with it?" Because it's not anything like ranchera, mariachi music.
And I'm like, "Well, it's a job. I mean, I audition; I get rejected a lot. And then I'll get contracts, and we'll go from there."
I got a standing ovation for Butterfly, and at the end my parents met me in the lobby and she goes, "This is a job. This is a job and we're so proud of you." I think that was one of the few times my dad has ever spoken in English to me—"I'm so proud of you." It was really cute. I was like, "Aw, Dad."
I understand your daughter has been with you this whole journey.
She's been with me since the beginning. I started my undergrad and she was barely walking. She's 9 years old now. She would go to rehearsals with me, she'd sit through performances and watch the shows.
There were times when I was cramming to memorize a role [so] instead of reading a bedtime story, I would read her my role, and put her to sleep pretty quickly. She learns stuff by rote ... I'll sing the words and she'll do the accompaniment. It's super cute.
Tell me about your name. Because Cecilia is the patron saint of music, and Violetta is the name of the lead female in La Traviata. So that's a pretty cool combination for a singer.
It was all done by accident. My grandfather's name is Cecilio, but then my mom and dad really liked the name Cecilia. The middle name—Violeta in Spanish is spelled with one "t." It's a flower. But my dad somehow messed up and put a double "t" Instead. Which I never really thought anything of it, until I went to UNLV and realized, "Oh, my middle name is really Italian." It's all by accident, but it works.
How would you describe your voice?
I don't know. I've always thought very little of my voice. I've never thought it to be grand. In fact I always think it's a work in progress, but then whenever I go to my teacher she says, "No, you're a star. You're a star. Just wait." I'm like, "OK." But for me, I'm my worst critic. I'm always judging myself.
Is there something that makes it unique?
I like to keep the upper extension pretty fresh and "there." 'Cause a lot of singers, they lose their upper extensions. So what I've been told is that I have a warm, lyric soprano sound, but I have this very strange upper extension that usually the smaller, soubrette sopranos have, but it's bigger sounding, meaning I can hit the higher notes and they're big and present.
How is singing Mariachi different from opera?
Vocally, it's very different. Mariachi music consists of a lot of what we would call belting ... so it's a little harder on the vocal cords.
Could you go back to singing Mariachi?
It would be difficult for me to go back, because I'm so used to producing the "healthy" production of sound to cut through an orchestra. I could do like Placido Domingo. He sings his opera, and then occasionally does his mariachi concerts, miked.
Do you have a favorite role yet?
I really like Madama Butterfly–her whole story of being in love, and not being loved back, and then being betrayed and then having to give up her son at the end. I had a little 5-year-old boy with me at the time when we staged it and I could not look at him and sing my last aria and sing, "Look at my face and remember me" without busting into tears [tears up].
What's it like being up there?
It's so empowering to me. To think—I'm this small little vessel and maybe, maybe just maybe for every performance, I can move one person in the audience. And that for me is just a reward and satisfaction all in itself.
I actually have a contract at Virginia Opera coming up. I will be singing the lead role of Violetta in La Traviata again, so that's exciting. It's nine performances, so if anyone's in Virginia, they should go.
What's your dream?
My dream, ever since I started this, is just being able to sing at the Met. To sing at the Met and all the other opera stages like La Scala and Vienna, the [Wiener] Staatsoper and even like the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City. I think, "Why not? Let's bring it home." [Shortly after this interview, Lopez auditioned for, and secured a contract with, the Met.]
You don't seem like a diva.
It makes me so uncomfortable whenever I witness it. I just want to hide under a rock. Like the other day, I got dropped in rehearsal. And the maestro is still conducting the music, and I didn't want to miss my entrance, so I'm laying on the ground, and I'm singing. I just laughed it off, and I had some other cast members say, "Had you been another person, they would not have laughed it off."
What do you like to do other than sing?
I like to go to movies. I'm a foodie. I'm a vegetarian, but I like all sorts of foods.
Your mom has a restaurant in Rupert. What's its name?
Loncheria "El 20"—that name was chosen because the village we lived in Mexico was called El Veinte, "The Colony of the 20th of November."
What's your favorite dish?
I think Fridays my mom makes chiles rellenos, and those are the best.