Interview: Canadian Opera Company offers Toronto an early glimpse at remarkable young tenor René Barbera


René Barbera sings with conductor Sir Andrew Davis in Chicago's Millennium Park in 2009. The two are reunited in the Canadian Opera Company's production of Gianni Schicchi, which opens Apr. 26.

The New Scientist yesterday published the results of a study that shows that viral videos are the result of blind luck. The scientists also suggest that the actual content of a video or photo has nothing to do with whether it will go viral or not.

That can’t possibly be true. Not all great videos go viral, but terrible or boring one’s simply don’t.

It’s the same with singers.

Young Texas tenor René Barbera won not one but three top prizes at last summer’s Operalia 2011 competition in Moscow, organized by the legendary Placido Domingo.

The prizes came with instant international attention. And thanks to already being a buzzed-about member of Chicago Lyric Opera’s young ensemble, Barbera had been offered the role of Rinuccio in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Giacomo Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, which opens in a double bill with Alexander Zemlinksy’s A Florentine Tragedy, on Apr. 26. (For all the details, click here.)

This is part of a remarkable string of successes since the 28-year-old began pursuing an operatic career in earnest just five years ago.

Barbera knows how lucky all this is. “Competitions are very subjective. In any given year, if five different people had been there, I might not have won,” he admits.

But he loves comeptitions, for good reason, and hopes to be able to find the time to do one or two more, if his increasingly busy work schedule allows.

The singer, endowed with a fine treble voice as a child, has found himself being propelled further by interested mentors ever since grade school.

Born in Laredo, Texas, Barbera moved with his family to San Antonio when he was 9.

He didn’t realise that a teacher, impressed with his singing of the national anthem every morning, had attached a sticky note to his permanent file, suggesting that he be placed in a choir. It’s how he ended up in the San Antonio Boys Choir in Grade 5.

Things got a bit complicated in middle school, because puberty was coming late. The director of the Boys Choir forbade him to sing in a mixed choir until his voice broke, meaning that he became the lone boy in his school’s girls’ choir.

“People used to ask if I was the girls’ choir’s manager whenever they saw a picture, because I was the only guy in it,” he chuckles.

It made him a natural target for taunts.

“I said, you can pick on me all you want, because you’re in a room full of guys and I’m in a room with 50 girls,  and I’m having a great time. Whenever anyone, messed with me, that was my line,” he laughs.

He sang his first operatic role at this time: Amahl in Gian Carlo Menotti’s Christmas classic. “I still remember most of the piece,” he smiles.

He thought he’d take a year’s break from choir when he started high school and his voice broke. But the new school’s choir director recognized him in the hallway from a concert performance.

“He grabs me by the ear and twists it, and drops me to my knees, and says, ‘Why aren’t you in my choir?’ I say, ‘I wanted to take a year off,’ and he says, ‘You’re going to be in my choir by the end of this week,’” Barbera recalls.

Fate made its will known again after the tenor graduated from high school. When he auditioned for University of Texas, San Antonio, he had intended on being an education major. “I wanted to be a high school choir director, because I was so influenced by mine,” he says.

“Everyone at the audition said I should do performance instead,” Barbera continues. “I didn’t know what that meant. I didn’t know that meant opera. Lo and behold, it did, and here I am. After years and years of kicking and screaming, I finally gave in.”

Just like a great video on YouTube, people have singled Barbera out because he is better than the rest. He’s going viral, and, although luck has a lot to do with it, that’s only part of the story.

Just listen to a 27-year-old Barbera’s victory aria from Operalia — “Pour mon âme,” from Gaetano Donizetti’s La fille du régiment:

John Terauds

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