For Soprano Cecilia López, a Path to Opera Through Mariachi

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It’s not unusual for an opera singer to start out by dabbling in rock music or show tunes. But for the young soprano Cecilia Violetta López, the entrée to singing was Mexican mariachi music.

López grew up in central Idaho as the daughter of Mexican immigrants, so that brash and brassy sound was all around her as a kid. “My mother would take us to work in the fields of Idaho,” she tells host Naomi Lewin in this interview. “We would have nothing to do but work. So that is where she taught my older brother and me all of the songs that she knew, and that was our pastime.”

As López has worked her way into regional U.S. opera companies – she’s recently made professional debuts with Opera San Jose and Opera Las Vegas – she has journeyed well beyond her musical roots. This week, she gives two performances as Violetta in La Traviata in New York, as part of the Martina Arroyo Foundation’s Prelude to Performance series.

López’s parents came to the U.S. in the 1970s to work as laborers and settled in Rupert, an Idaho town of about 5,000 people in the state’s farm belt. The work was grueling at times – "moving pipelines for irrigation, hoeing beets, you name it,” López recalled. But as a teenage singer she became accomplished enough to get mariachi gigs at weddings, rodeos and quinceaneras (15th birthday celebrations) both in Idaho and in Mexico, where her family returned during the winter months. “That was my passion, I loved doing it,” she said.

She also remembers hearing Beverly Sills sing on an episode of “Sesame Street,” her first exposure to an opera singer (Placido Domingo was familiar to her, but for his crossover efforts in Latin popular music).

Soprano Cecilia Lopez with family in Idaho
Soprano Cecilia Lopez with family in Idaho. Her mother now owns a restaurant in the town of Rupert.

When López entered the University of Nevada-Las Vegas as a music education major, she started voice lessons, an admittedly jarring experience. "Everything I sang mariachi-wise was handed down from my mom," she said. “When I actually took formal classes at the university I didn't know what to make of it.” While mariachi music involved a kind of "belting," falsetto style, she now had to focus on breath control and on languages other than Spanish and English.

While at UNLV López began singing Puccini roles (Nella in Gianni Schicchi, Kate Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly), as well as parts like Pamina (The Magic Flute) and Poppea (L’incoronazione di Poppea). She made her professional debut in the title role of Puccini's Suor Angelica with Opera San Luis Obispo; in 2013, she was the cover singer for Angela Meade at the Caramoor Festival.

López came to WQXR along with her eight-year-old daughter, Sara, who is already getting a lot of exposure to opera. “She's been there with me since the very, very beginning of my opera studies at UNLV,” she said, noting that librettos often double as bedtime stories. "There are a couple arias that she can sing pretty well."

Listen to the full interview at the top of this page and watch López in Il Trovatore at Opera San José below (Youtube):