By Maggie Van Ostrand
Mexico’s Gift to Opera, Rolando Villazón
I don’t know anything about opera, and accidentally proved it to my date a long time ago at a screening of Franco Zeffirelli’s La Traviata. Halfway through the movie, I whispered, “What a rip off. All they did was copy the plot of Garbo’s movie, Camille.” How did I know that the Verdi opera film, based on Dumas’ 1848 novel, was written long before Garbo was even born? At least my date was enough of a gentleman not to laugh aloud; he merely snickered behind his hand. So, on Christmas Eve, when I was trapped into seeing a new filmed opera called La Bohéme, I determined to keep my big trap shut. Except for you, of course. I just have to tell you about it.
Emilio Rolando Villazón Mauleón is the world’s next great tenor, at least equal to Placido Domingo. You don’t have to know anything about opera to appreciate Villazón’s voice. When you hear him sing, your jaw drops, your eyes glaze over, and the hairs on your arm stand to attention. My goose bumps had goose bumps of their own. This, I thought, is a voice for the ages.
Villazón was born in 1972 in the Mexico City suburb of Fuentes de Satelite. At the age of 11, Villazón entered the Mexican Academy of Performing Arts (where he later met his future wife, Lucia), studying acting, music, modern dance and ballet. That would account for the graceful perfection of his later onstage movements.
His father used to bring home records from his job at Columbia/Sony, including Placido Domingo’s “Perhaps Love.” Villazón loved Domingo’s voice and bought every record of his that he could, except opera. Back then, he didn’t even like opera. In fact, he had decided to study for the priesthood.
Luckily for us, fiancée Lucia sent him on an intense soul-searching mission, which ended with Villazón’s painful decision to not become a priest. When he was 18, Villazón sang in a school play, with baritone Arturo Nieto in the audience. Nieto went backstage and invited Villazón to take instruction from him to develop his “really big voice.” When Villazón arrived at Nieto’s studio and saw a photograph on the wall of Nieto with his idol, Placido Domingo, he was so impressed that he decided to take up Nieto on his offer. Two years later, after singing before an audience of 1500, Villazón met with his mentor, a Catholic priest, who told him that his destiny was opera, and persuaded him to try out for the conservatory at once.
Villazón auditioned next day, singing an aria from La Bohéme, using a pillow as his lover, Mimi. To finance his studies, Villazón taught history part-time. Lucia, now a psychologist, threatened not to marry him if he refused to pursue his dream. Smartly, he listened and continued his studies, now under Enrique Jaso. In Villazón’s case, it seems destiny was spelled L-U-C-I-A. He started performing in small parts, easily winning two national opera competitions in Mexico. He has since graced the most famous opera stages on earth, performing the lead male roles in the greatest operas ever written.
After voice problems in April 2007 forced cancellation of performances at Carnegie Hall and the Metropolitan Opera, today, Villazón’s voice is back, as superb as ever. His schedule includes performances in Mexico in June of 2010. Though Villazón did not become a priest, the Divine One gifted him with the voice of an angel.
If I again see La Traviata, this time starring Rolando Villazón, I won’t even think about Garbo. I’ll be too busy in the faraway land to which his soaring, celestial voice has transported his audience.