HAVANA TIMES — The soprano Milagro de los Angeles, one of opera’s leading figures in Cuba today, recorded her first album with a rich selection of music. As she pointed out, though, “Incredibly, my debut in a leading role wasn’t in my country.”
HT: Was your training always in operatic singing?
MA: Well, I started out studying engineering, but obviously I made a mistake with that initial choice because there’s a great difference between those two careers. My mother, Caridad Castillo Montalvo, was an actress who founded the Teatro Guiñol Nacional (the National Puppet Theater), so she was the one who prompted me to study singing. She told me that it was my true world and that I had very good chances for succeeding in it.
So I found a teacher and later I went to study at the School of Music in a special course for people who were older than your typical student. At the conservatory I began with Professor Albert San Jose and I ended with the teacher Martha Cardona. Fortunately I was admitted into ISA (Instituto Superior de Arte) where I could do my advanced studies in singing. At ISA I graduated under the instruction of Adolfo Casas, in 2004, and that’s how I started in this profession.
HT: How did you become a member of the Teatro Lirico Nacional (National Lyric Theater)?
MA: Well, I learned that there were tryouts for the choir of the Lyric Theater, and since I had applied to get into ISA at that time but hadn’t yet been accepted — trip ups that life gives you — I went ahead and joined the choir. That was in 1995, and I stayed there until 2000.
HT: But we know that your grand debut as a soloist wasn’t in Cuba, but in a country with a great operatic and musical tradition.
MA: Yes, incredibly my debut in a leading role wasn’t in my country, it was in the opera Porgy and Bess directed no less than by renowned producer and director Octavio Cortázar. For me, that performance was unforgettable and very important for the beginning of my career in Austria in the Graz Opera.
It turned out to be something very difficult for me, requiring a really strong commitment, because if you debut in your land you, feel more like you’re among family, right? – but in a country like Austria, undoubtedly that represented a major challenge.
HT: What were the circumstances that allowed you to be in that cast and perform in Austria without even having already established a career here on the island?
MA: I had really only had small roles, bit parts, especially in lyrical singing, because at that time the companies in Cuba were divided, meaning that there was the Zarzuela and the Opera. They organized a kind of casting process to determine who would play in what roles in performing “Porgy and Bess.” This was before a jury made up of Spaniards, Austrians and Cubans. They finally selected me for the main character of Bess. I then had to train a great deal, working tirelessly to that end with Octavio Cortázar.
HT: I guess that after that significant opportunity, new doors must have opened for your artistic development on the island?
MA: When I returned to Havana, Adolfo Casas proposed that I debut with the National Lyric Theater in the popular zarzuela Cecilia Valdez. Of course, what soprano wouldn’t want that role? It was a significant opportunity, and I performed it with as much dignity as I could at that time.
HT: Do you think Cecilia Valdes is the role of greater affinity with your repertoire, taking into account your physical and artistic characteristics?
MA: I would say that there is something for all tastes, but generally the vast majority agree that I have a lot to do with Cecilia, in the manner that I approach her and my features, as you already mentioned. I think that my having worked with actors who are friends of mine who helped me incorporate more things from the character has somehow contributed to the success of my interpretations in that work. It was fortunate for me that I joined a company as a soloist and was able to be supported by already established figures.
HT: And when you come upon a classical role that’s even stronger, like Violetta in La Traviata, what kind of transition do you experience?
MA: Not only between Cecilia and Violet, each character is a different world. Cecilia, for example, is a Cuban adolescent of that epoch, a bit stubborn, capricious, however Violet is a woman with more life experience, she’s a little older. I imagine that she must be twenty-something, she has experienced more in life. In short, in each character one finds something different, even when I perform the work another time, comparing it to the previous performance, I add new shades.
At the same, the character Musetta — from Giacomo Puccini’s La Boheme — is totally different, she’s very happy, and this doesn’t die.
Now from the technical standpoint, I have an opinion when it comes time to singing. In my case I always adapt my vocal possibilities to the style of the work, because I can’t go beyond what I can achieve with my potential, that would jeopardize my vocal organ.
HT: We know that in record production here on the island there aren’t many lyrical voices, and yours has been one of the privileged ones. Tell us about your latest album.
MA: I had presented my project to Gloria Ochoa, the director of the Colibri label, and she thought it was interesting. This was coupled with the work of an excellent music director and arranger, Roberto Sanchez Ferrer, and both of us agreed on the pieces. He would give his opinion and I would give another one, but eventually what came out of this was this great selection. This is one of the greatest merits of this CD, the works that it contains and the diversity of authors and styles. This CD is my first experience as a solo recording artist. I haven’t made any other studio recordings.
HT: Your debut in music competitions was also a great success.
MA: That’s true, and concerning that I can tell you that my first competition was in the spring in Pyongyang, Korea, where fortunately I won the diploma of gold in Korean song. I had to perform a Korean piece that I had brought with me.
I also participated in the first Latin American singing competition, where I won the SGAE prize (“General Society of Authors and Editors of Spain”). Another recognition I received was when I was in the Opera de Maon, which consisted of participating in a great performance where I was recognized by the tenor Aquiles Machado.
Then too, there was a benefit concert where I had the unforgettable experience of sharing the stage with music greats such as Johan Pons and Joan Manuel Serrat; there I sang the aria of Norma, from “Casta Diva” by Bellini.
HT: As the exponent that you currently are of the genre, what is your assessment of the evolution of classical singing on the island?
MA: It’s very interesting. I’ve always feared that this genre was being lost among the youth, because as time passes and generations go by, unfortunately no one is left to cultivate it. A lyric theatre has been created in Pinar del Rio, and in Holguin there’s also a company with a history that goes back several years. In Matanzas, unfortunately they lost the group in that city, but there are people who are still working.
The National Lyric Theatre also has a school affiliated with the Amadeo Roldan Conservatory, where young people are admitted and trained. In fact, many of them are singing in the performances of the company. Incredibly, these young people — when they discover the artistic expression — they fall in love with it.
They enrolled because they wanted to study singing but they didn’t have a clear idea of ??what lyrical music was. Many of them will even say they don’t like opera. But then I’ll ask them what they’ve heard for them to be able to say that. So, it turns out that with many of these kids, as they learn more about this world of music, they become enamored with the genre.
It’s very gratifying to know that there’s continuity on the island with new performers, since there has always existed a tradition of opera in Havana, not just now but from when we were a colony. Cuba was the second country after Italy where many works of operetta and opera were premiered.
HT: On what stages will we be able delighted by your wonderful voice this year?
MA: In addition to my now well-known performances at the Gran Teatro de La Habana, a new venue was recently opened at that same institution, the Adagio Bar Cafe, conceived of by the Prima Ballerina Alicia Alonso. I’m there brightening it up with a repertoire that’s different from what’s featured in conventional theaters. You can find me there on Saturdays and Sundays between 6:00 pm and 9:00 pm. There, I’m able to do much more varied interpretations of songs, along with master pianist Johnny Espinosa and the young tenor Sahid Mohamed, a new voice now in the lyric theater of Cuba. On the other hand, I have an invitation for the season of Zarzuela and Operetta in Colombia, to participate as guest artist.