baritone, stage director, composer
Published on November 30, 2016
Pleased to post an interview with Eli Villanueva, a baritone soloist, a stage director and published composer. He has appeared internationally in leading baritone roles including Figaro in The Barber of Seville, Marcello and Schaunard in La Bohème and Falke in Die Fledermaus with such noted companies as the San Francisco Opera Center and LA Opera; as well as for the Cultural Arts Festival in Cortona, Italy. For LA Opera, Mr. Villanueva has directed numerous productions conducted by James Conlon at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in downtown Los Angeles, including Benjamin Britten’s Noah’s Flood presented in celebration of the composer’s centenary. This event combined a community cast and orchestra of over 400 as well as professional artists from LA Opera. Mr. Villanueva is resident stage director for LA Opera’s acclaimed Education and Community Engagement department. For their In-School Opera programs, he teaches and directs more than 1,500 students annually in original productions. These one-act operas include his very popular compositions, Figaro’s American Adventure and The Marriage of Figueroa, created in collaboration with his brother LeRoy Villanueva as librettist. Mr. Villanueva’s compositions are praised for their appeal to audiences and performers alike. In addition, compositions ranging from solo vocal and choral works to popular handbell songs can be found through publishing companies like Fred Bock Music and Laurendale Associates. Mr. Villanueva has appeared as guest stage director for universities throughout Southern California.
#fellowshipofthelarynx #baritone #voice #opera #stagedirector #LAOpera #OperaOutreach
TVF: Tell us about your singing background.
EV: I started singing as a child. My mother would get us in front of the old upright piano and taught my brother LeRoy and I how to sing church songs in harmony. I think LeRoy was 4 or 5 and I was 5 or 6 years old. We then would sing these songs sometimes in church. Years later, I think I was 10 years old when I accidentally auditioned for a boy’s choir.
TVF: How does one accidentally audition for a choir (grinning)?
EV: I was an unfocused and mischievous boy in elementary school. One day, I was just roaming around the hallways of a new school instead of being in class. I walked into the chapel and there was somebody at the piano. Before I could exit he told me to come in. I didn't want to get in trouble, so I walked into the chapel, trying to look like I that is where I was supposed to be. He started playing scales on the piano and asked me to sing the scale. I sang the scales, not knowing why. Then I sang the middle note of a triad as requested and before I knew it, I had auditioned for a boy’s choir and he invited me into it. Later that day I discovered that most of the boys in the 4th, 5th and 6th grades were auditioned. My brother and I were invited to join so we joined.
TVF: Where was this?
EV: This was in Los Angeles. The boy’s choir was called the COTA Boys' Choir. It was a city run amateur choir. But the choir director was also the director of a professional boy’s choir called California Boys' Choir. After a couple of months in COTA, he invited me to join the California Boys' Choir. He put me into a sectional rehearsal right away and he gave me some music for Heinrich Schütz', “Cantate Domino” and that was the first time I heard Baroque music of the sort. I thought it was absolutely awesome! I got hooked right away and I was enjoying singing things from 17th-19th century. I was just thrilled by it and eating it all up. I was in the choir for about 4 years before I graduated. I absorbed everything I could learn about music theory, vocal singing as a first alto and second soprano, and also any techniques on stage craft that I could learn. During my tenure, the boy’s choir performed with some of the world's greatest artists at the time. They performed with the LA Philharmonic, Glendale Symphony and the Los Angeles Master Chorale. New York City Opera toured to Los Angeles and performed a short season in the winter and used our choir in their chorus when they needed children.
TVF: How did you get into opera?
EV: I must have been 12 or 13 when I was brought into my first opera with New York City Opera which was La Boheme by Puccini. They put me in the first act as a child to bring in wood when the character Schaunard first enters. The stage director told me to just follow Schaunard, drop off the wood off the stage left. Then turn around, come back and put out my hand for some money, Schaunard will give you a coin and then you can leave. So I walked in, dropped off the wood, and turned to face Schaunard. Schaunard sang his first line, “La Banca di Francia~~” and my hair just shot backwards, I nearly fell over, because there was so much intense sound coming into my ears. That was the first time I’ve ever heard a professional singer let alone an opera singer that is 2 feet away! I fell in love with the art form from that point on. I remember Catherine Malfitano was singing Mimi and in the final scene of Act four, when she closed her eyes and dropped her muff, I was just so sad. A few moments later, the C-sharp minor chords of the brass began to play before Rodolfo sang, “Mimi!” I was stunned, I noticed goose bumps on my forearms. I have never been so affected by music or drama before. At that moment, I realized I love this art form and I have to follow it. For the next few years, our music and stage directors of the boys' choir would sneak my brother and me into rehearsals as often as we could. I loved watching these incredible artists at work and remained laser focused while absorbing all of this. These amazing artists were my education and this experience changed my life.
TVF: Did you take voice lessons?
EV: As a choir boy, the vocal study was about foundation of technique and this instruction was generally offered in a group setting. I didn’t take formal lessons until I was in college.
TVF: What was your first opera role?
EV: I believe the first role was in an operetta, I was a senior in college. It was “Trial by Jury” by Gilbert and Sullivan and I was The Judge. At that point, I didn’t think I would have a career as an opera singer. I was actually studying Music Education and first became a music teacher. My first year teaching was so busy that I stopped singing. I didn’t get back into opera until my brother, LeRoy forced me back to singing. At the time, LeRoy was a very fine emerging opera singer. One day his car was being repaired and he needed me to take him to a voice lesson. I took him to his lesson and he told his teacher that I was also a singer. She insisted that I sing and after I sang an art song, she guilted me into taking lessons saying that it was a crime that I was not singing any more.
TVF: Wow…I wish someone would guilt me into singing. LOL.
EV: Yeah..she did (laughs). LeRoy actually coaxed me into singing by getting me an audition with the LA Master Chorale and I finally joined the Chorale for their next season. At that time LA Master Chorale was contracting the chorus for some of the productions for LA Opera. I was offered 2 productions that year as a chorus member. That was the first time I got to see legends like Marilyn Horne and Placido Domingo on stage. It was quite an eye opener to work with these fabulous people on stage. I was enjoying myself but I was also feeling like a very young singer. I am a light lyric baritone and it was LA Opera Education Programs that got me singing more outside of the main stage.
TVF: What makes a voice light or dark?
EV: I would describe it as a quality of sound produced by a singer. Every singer creates sound that is slightly different. Combine that with textual interpretation and musical line and every sing can be very unique. Many have described this intangible quality of sound through colors: a light color or a dark color. These colors are created due to each singers physical uniqueness and is independent from loudness or pitch. In general, a male who is 6 feet, 6 inches tall will create a much different sound than a male who is 5 feet tall. The differences in sound can be very unique and evoke a particular response by the listener. It is the difference between the vocal command of James Earle Jones or Patrick Stewart from the vocal qualities of Jim Parsons or Alex Trebek. In Operatic terms, the vocal qualities required to sing over a 60 piece Orchestra like what is used for Verdi and the timbre suited to create such large sounds would need an vocal instrument much more different than mine. I'm 5'8" tall and that makes me a small man in the operatic circles. My vocal size matches more my physical size and in operatic terms, I produce a quality of sound that is better suited for a smaller orchestra. My voice and body would be more suited for Baroque or the early Classic period... Perhaps the playful side of Operetta would also suit a light lyric Baritone like myself.
TVF: Is that why you were a specialist in Gilbert and Sullivan?
EV: Yes, I was a specialist in Gilbert and Sullivan. I toured around with a repertory group called Opera a la Carte, and the role I was especially known for was Koko in The Mikado. It was more about my stage prowess than my ability as a lyric baritone. In fact I altered my vocal quality to sound less attractive. I was a comedic baritone in that sense.
TVF: What is a lyric voice?
EV: A lyric voice has a gentler, less imposing or intense quality of sound. Many would say a lighter quality. The characters that they would sing would give the listener the impression that they are more youthful than the patriarch, or perhaps they would be perceived as romantic. However, their vocal quality can sometimes give the listener the impression that their personality is not as powerful or in control as some others in the male cast. They are sometimes lovers, but more times than not, they are the faithful friend of the tenor.
TVF: What is your role in LA Opera now?
EV: I am the resident stage director for the Education and Community Engagement department. It is my job to go out and introduce opera to the community, whether it is directing a show in a residency for school age kids or by directing a production available for volunteers to come in and perform along with our impressive opera singers. We also offer an opportunity geared for young people who want a more impactful experience of producing a show. It is an intense workshop called Opera Camp.
TVF: You are also a composer. Tell us how you got into that.
EV: It probably started in college. My music theory teacher was a composer who worked with Nadia Bollinger, a French composer and teacher who taught many of the leading composers of the 20th century. He inspired me to keep on writing after college. I began writing out of necessity, writing arrangements for a school band or a Hand Bell group. There was a time when I sang in the chorus for LA Opera, but I also sang as a section leader in a church choir. There were times when there would be an opera performance on a Saturday night but then I needed to sing a solo for church Sunday morning. So, I began arranging songs for myself that would be easier to sing but yet be effective in a service. Over time other singers began requesting arrangements for themselves. One day a friend of mine suggested that I write a short little children’s opera. I said, no... but she blackmailed me into it.
TVF: How does one do that? (laugh)
EV: Perhaps "blackmailed" is an exaggeration. Let's say, she actually guilted me into it. She made it an important cause for education - that the children really needed a story about nutrition (laugh) so I felt rather guilty and agreed to do it.
I worked with a librettist she knew and we put together a show. I can’t remember the title of it right now… it was probably about 15 years ago…oh yes, it was called “Indigestion Joe and the Pyramid of Food.” It toured around in the schools of LA Unified School District and that's when my boss, Stacy Brightman actually saw a production of it at one of the schools. She looked at me at one point and said, “Why aren’t you writing for me?” She then gave me the opportunity write a "Send up" of The Barber of Seville, but it needed to incorporate US history so that it would also fit with the educational requirements of the elementary schools with whom we work. I contracted my brother to help me out with research and write the libretto. He came up with interesting facts about the revolutionary war and that Pierre de Beaumarchais, who wrote the play, The Barber of Seville, was a secret spy for the king of France and smuggled supplies to the Americans during the revolutionary war. This is true. He actually supplied weapons in time for a particular battle that turned the course of the war for the Americans. Nobody talks about it. It’s a quite a secret. Since Beaumarchais was a spy we decided to write a version of Barber of Seville in which he was Figaro trying to figure out how to smuggle supplies into America in time for the battle of Saratoga. It turned out to be a cartoon and it fit in with the 5th grade curriculum and the 5th grade kids loved the show. That started the ball rolling and I think I’ve written 6 productions for elementary school and high school programs and also for Opera Camp. The most recent work is “Then I Stood Up”, which was written for Opera Camp, our 2 week intensive program for young singers ages 9-17. It’s a story of a present day history class, studying the civil rights movement of the 1950s through the 1960s. The class is inspired by their teacher to put themselves in the shoes of the young people who lived it.
TVF: What kind of vocal demand does the work put on young singers?
EV: We work very hard to find or create content that is fun, that encourages young people to sing, and that engages the young singers to grow from wherever they are at the start of their journey. The music is created to help them grow musically and technically, whether they are at Opera Camp or in our acclaimed In-School Opera Programs. In-School Opera is a residency program, offered to either elementary schools or to middle and high schools that introduces the students to Opera and gives them an opportunity to perform a show along with professional opera singers. The pieces we offer are age appropriate and the principle roles are sung by professional singers. The students learn the chorus part and we design the chorus part to be within the vocal range of the students who are just learning how to sing. Over the course of 5 to 9 weeks, we give them basic instructions in vocal techniques such as breath and how to create a healthy sound. We don’t discriminate those who cannot match pitch. They too are invited to learn to sing the music. When we need beautiful singing they don’t have to sing as loud. But when we need an enthusiastic moment, that’s when the student who does not know how to sing can be featured.
TVF: This is a wonderful way of introducing performing arts to young people.
EV: I think so. We have inspired a lot of kids to become interested in opera. Not necessarily to be future performers, although a number of them have followed a performing track through this experience, but also as Opera goers. Our Education Department will also bring the students into the opera house to see dress rehearsals or a matinee show. In this way, they get to see a full opera in the grand scale than what we can offer them in their school.
TVF: What do you recommend to young singers and their children?
EV: I don’t offer myself as a vocal technician or specialist, but based on my experience, I find that children need to be children. They need to find a healthy technique and not try to sound like somebody who is 30 years older than they are. They need to know how to match pitch, how to breathe, how to produce a balanced sound within their body in a healthy way, they don’t necessarily need to create a vibrato since that is a natural phenomenon. When one creates it, it is manufactured and over time, the vibrato will be something that cannot be controlled.
TVF: Yeah, tell me about it. Then they have to come to someone like me!
TVF: You are a multifaceted artist. You are also a director! How did you get into it?
EV: One of the leaders in the Boys' Choir was a stage director. -- This choir was specifically trained not just to sing, but to perform. The director inspired me to learn everything I could about stage craft. I would sit in on rehearsals of great performers and just learn through osmosis. My teacher would share his insights and we examined how the actors are telling the story. My mentor would share secrets of how things worked. I became quite opinionated by the time I got to college, as to how people should be standing and breathing which I would share with the music director. Ultimately, I was asked to direct a show in college. I had a lot of fun, and later as I began working along side my singer friends and some would ask if I would share some thoughts with them. So, I began coaching them. I was also opinionated with theatrical directors who were not yet experienced with how to direct singers. Singer friendly directors understand the vocal and technical needs of singers and incorporates those needs into the directing. For example, a singer who needs to sing a series of high notes need to ground him or herself in preparation to sing those notes. Or sometimes a singer needs to see the conductor better at a musically difficult spot. So a singer friendly director helps the singers in the staging of these moments to help the singer feel more secure. My collaboration with non-singer friendly directors were noticed by producers who eventually gave me opportunities. LA Opera has given me so many opportunities to continue to learn and grow. I am eternally grateful for them.
TVF: What makes a good singer?
EV: In my personal opinion, a good singer is not just a good instrument that can create an impressive sound. A good singer is a good story teller through music. They approach the sound in a healthy, unmanufactured way. I don’t think it has to be a large voiced person. It’s somebody who understands the poetry of sound and text, and puts the two together to actually tell a story with all the vocal colors and musical flexibility that are available in a person's voice. That type of story teller makes a good singer. It’s not just about one impressive sound.
TVF: What does manufacturing sound mean to you?
EV: When one is manufacturing sound, it is a perception in the singer's mind. It is the thought that an opera singer sounds a certain way. Many times I will hear someone audition for us but their perception of what an opera singer is, makes them create a sound that is too dark for who they really are. They are manufacturing a certain operatic color or intensity of sound as opposed to telling a story within the voice that they have.
TVF: How frequently do you find somebody who knows their true voice?
EV: There are many singers with naturally beautiful voices. Too bad I don't have jobs to offer them all. But what concerns me is the perception of what an opera singer needs to sound like. When we go into an audition, many come in thinking that we will be impressed with their high notes…I am interested more with a person who can control their high notes in a pianissimo..that’s something that’s impressive. It’s not difficult to sing a high note really loud. It is impressive when somebody knows how to align their voice and keep their voice open enough where they can just bring it up and let it grow, flower, or blossom from there. That is somebody who knows how to control their voice and create musical phrasing. That’s exciting.
TVF: How do you control your voice?
EV: I would describe it as a coordination of air from the breathing mechanism as it passes through the vocal mechanism. The sound becomes aligned, which is freeing not only to the singer but the person who is listening. It has an emotional effect to the audience. When a singer allows that sound to just feel open, it offers a sense of vulnerability and the audience can feel it. And it all comes from the refined coordination of core muscles.
TVF: Where do you feel that the most in your body?
EV: When one is open, you can feel the whole body engaged…the breath opens the throat and the body. Then we align the whole body to control the release of air. A singer may even shift weight to remind the body to remain unlocked. The sinewy control of the breath passes through the vocal folds and sound begins. One finds balance in the control of air and sound. It allows you to actually sing in a way that is much more freeing. It requires a deep coordination and it doesn’t happen by trying to be a large singer. Kathleen Battle is not a large sounding voice. She stayed within her frame and it is glorious.
TVF: Is there something you wish singers would do differently?
EV: I wish there was more time for the singer to prepare a role and get the role in their body. It takes time to make great art. The technical and cognitive study of their role needs to be already done by the time the first rehearsal begins. Then we can focus the rehearsals to finding engaging ways to tell the story. So often, singers are so busy that they just get off the book by first rehearsal, but the technical coordination is still being worked out. It shortens the time we have in rehearsal for creative exploration. It diminishes our opportunities to affect the audience’s experience in a visceral way. Great art brings us to a singular moment of truth, of reflection, of relationship. In that moment we, the audience will forget to notice one’s vocal technique. We just live in that moment with the artist and feel the goose bumps on our skin.
TVF: We talked about how opera is not a singing style but an acoustical need.
EV: The Latin origin of the word "opera" means “great work.” It refers to the different disciplines coming together to tell a story-- with the play, the dance, set design, singing and instrumentation, all integrated into a grand melodramatic experience – that is opera. If you listen to Purcell and other Baroque composers, the style of singing is much more refined and contained – the orchestra is smaller. Over time, the drama grew, the orchestra grew and the sound the singer produced grew. What people are used to now is a much larger sound with much bigger orchestras. The person who should be singing grand opera repertoire is an adult who has cautiously trained and naturally finds the sound in them. It is naturally in their body and they are NOT singing at the top of their lungs to produce this amazing sound. The vibrato that is created is a phenomenon that relaxes the intensity of sound. But vibrato is not necessarily a definition of operatic style singing.
TVF: It is very disturbing to see young children imitating operatic singing on popular TV shows.
EV: Yes, it concerns me as well because a very young singer who produces vibrato in a manufactured way have a difficult time adjusting as they get older and the weight of their voice naturally grows. That is when their real vibrato begins to evolve and they must renegotiate how to produce sound in a new way. Foundational change is not easy.
TVF: Do you have a vocal pet peeve?
EV: A pet peeve? Hm… Lack of respect is a pet peeve. I suppose that it can apply to singing as well. One should respect the voice that naturally and healthfully comes from a singer. There are many vocal sounds that come from different types of people. The sound that naturally comes out of every singer is unique and valid and that sound will fit in a particular style of music. Respect the sound and sing in the musical style that best fits a healthy voice.
TVF: That means not everyone can be an opera singer.
EV: I suppose that is true. Fortunately, not everyone needs to be. And if a singer respects and accepts their skill set, they can specialize in certain categories in Opera. To tell you the truth, my operatic singing career was short because Grand Opera Companies don’t need a light lyric baritone in their productions. So my career was mercifully short (laughs.)
TVF: What brings you joy?
EV: My joy comes from the process of working with wonderful artists in creating a story. The opportunity to create through composition, or directing professionals and amateurs is a very joyful experience. I really appreciate that I found a time and a place where I am able to create. LA Opera has allowed me to create in so many different ways and that is what brings me joy. I am very lucky.