Houston Grand Opera Explores Spanish Music in a Special Premiere

Tenor Ricardo Garcia
Tenor Ricardo Garcia Photo by Alan Sellar, Houston Grand Opera

The music of Spain — and no, get those one-note misconceptions out of your mind — will be showcased in a special program at Houston Grand Opera created by acclaimed soprano Ana María Martínez, who also serves as HGO's Artistic Advisor.

Premiering on March 26, Suite Española: Explorando Iberia will feature flamenco dancers, a guitarist and a percussionist as well as two HGO studio artists. Tenor Ricardo Garcia is one of those singers performing alongside Martinez in the program, which was filmed in two days in the Cullen Theater at the Wortham Center last week.

The endurance displayed by Martinez over those two days of filming was impressive, Garcia said. "Ana María had a large load in the concert. It was pretty incredible to see her stamina throughout the entire day and just never ever seeming to get tired. And just being vocally fresh every time. When we got to our duet and the ensemble numbers it was as if she was starting the day all over again."

Garcia has a solo in "No Puede Ser," a duet with Martinez on “Dúo pasodoble” and is part of the ensemble singing in “Guajiras.” As a first year HGO Studio Artist, he recently sang the role of Hans Sachs's Trainer in HGO’s digital production of Vinkensport, or The Finch Opera.

There's a large misunderstanding that Spanish music has all the same kind of tunes, Garcia says. Besides the difference in the way Spanish is spoken throughout Spain (with the "s" pronounced as a "th" in some areas), there's a huge range in tone, he said. "In my piece "No Puede Ser" it's really viral, almost like testosterone-charged."

Like a lot of opera singers, Garcia took a winding road to get to his present career. "I come from an athletic family. I played a lot of baseball. My family loves music, but it's not the primary thing that we do. We're baseball players.

"But my uncle played piano; he’s a grand lover of opera. He introduced me to that. The thing that I remember most is playing chess with my uncle till the wee hours of the morning when I used to go and hang out with him and listening to the Carmen production of Maria Callas and Nicolai Gedda.  My favorite part, weirdly enough, was at the end when Don Jose kills Carmen because it was the most exciting part of the music.

"The reason why I liked so much was because of the drama and the music," he said, laughing. But as much as he enjoyed it, he never thought it was something he could do as a career. He thought anyone who became an opera singer would have had to be in voice training since a very early age.

Again it was his uncle who pushed him to audition for a spot in a music program at a university or conservatory. "I was done with baseball by that point in my life and I really didn't know what I wanted to do." Garcia competed in a classical singer competition and in his own words: "I went and I sang and did awful in New York." But one college called him and offered him a good scholarship. He went.

"I was a terrible music student because I didn't know the first thing about theory so I failed theory like three times." But he persevered and from there he moved on to the Conservatory of Music in San Francisco.

"I was at Portland Opera the year before I came here," Garcia said. He put in an application for Houston Grand Opera and the year before that he had sung for at Santa Fe Opera and in attendance was Brian Speck, director of the HGO studio. Garcia kept in touch with Speck who encouraged him to try out for a spot among the young artists at HGO. Garcia made it past the first round of HGO auditions in New York and was chosen to perform in the final round at the Concert of Arias in Houston in January.

Unfortunately the Concert of Arias was scheduled for the same date as the Portland season's opening night and Garcia was had to be on stage there. He called Speck who told him not to worry about it and suggested he come to Houston a couple days early for a special tryout. Garcia sang six arias back to back and then went back to Portland. Then on February 14 as he was on his way to rehearsal on a train he got a call from Speck who said he was offering him a contract. "It was wild to hear that. I was in shambles on the train. I said 'Yes, I's really love that.'"

In explaining why opera became so important to him, Garcia said, "I think the first thing I really started falling in love with was that it was an athletic event.  I could do something that other people couldn’t. You have to be in incredible shape to be able to do it at all. And the coordination that it takes is really incredible.

"That's really what drew me to it because I ended up finding out that it took the same amount of discipline that baseball did if not more.  Because it starts becoming this event where 'Can I sing when I'm tired? Can I still do my job? Can I still deliver a compelling performance when I'm tied, when I'm not feeling so good, when my dog just died?'

"At the end of the day what I ended up loving about it is there's a longevity in singing that there isn’t in sports," he said. In sports like baseball by the time you know enough to play the game the way it should be played, "your body is telling you 'Hey, it's time to hang it up, Bud.'

"But in opera it's wonderful. You really start coming into your prime in your mid-forties and fifties. You have all this knowledge that you can put to use because your body is ready to handle the amount of pounding that it's going to take by singing these really challenging roles."

As for this upcoming program, Garcia said it will appeal to everyone, but with a special meaning for Hispanics.

"The Hispanic people of Houston will be able to see some representation on stage that's incredible. For HGO to put this on in their main digital season is an incredible testament to their ability to do all that. To give more kids like myself to think the ability to think that I could really do this for a living if I really wanted to. That's the whole point to continue the legacy and to inspire kids to be able to say I really can do this for a living."

As Garcia describes it in self-deprecating manner, he may not be the smartest person in the world but through grit and determination he stayed with his singing and got better at it. He attributes his success to that hard work and to "my wife; she keeps me out of trouble."

The program:

“Canción Española (De España vengo)” from El niño judío  by Pablo Luna (1879-1942)
“Sevilla” from Suite Española by Isaac Albéniz (1860-1909)
“La petenera” from La marchenera by Federico Moreno Torroba (1891-1982)
“En Aranjuez, con tu amor” from Concierto de Aranjuez by Joaquín Rodrigo (1901-1999)
“No corté más que una rosa” from La del manojo de rosas by Pablo Sorozábal (1897-1988)
“No puede ser” from La tabernera del puerto by Pablo Sorozábal
“Carceleras” from Las hijas del Zebedeo by Ruperto Chapí (1851-1909)
“En mi tierra extremeña” from Luisa Fernanda by Federico Moreno Torroba
“Asturias” from Suite Española by Isaac Albéniz
“Tres estrofas de amor” by Pablo Casals (1876-1973)
“El cant dels ocells” by Pablo Casals
“Granada” from Suite Española by Isaac Albéniz
“Dúo pasodoble” from El gato montés by Manuel Penella (1880-1939)
“Guajiras” from La revoltosa by Ruperto Chapí

“Goizeko eguzki argiak” from Mirentxu by Jésus Guridi (1886-1961)

Suite Espanola: Explorando Iberia will first air at 7:30 p.m. Friday, March 26 and will be available on demand through April 25. For more information, visit houstongrandopera.org.
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