The following interview took place at the War Memorial Opera House, with the much-appreciated facilitation of the San Francisco Opera.
[Below: Baritone Efraín Solís; resized image of a publicity photograph, courtesy of Efraín Solís.]
Wm: Tell me, Efraín, about about your earliest memories of music.
ES: I grew up in the Orange County California town of Santa Ana. My father was a guitarist and was part of the music department in our church Iglesia de Cristo, OC. My mother sang in the church choir as well.
I, myself, began singing in the church choir when I was about five years old, and would have solos from time to time and even did my first play. I always knew that music would be part of my life and everyone assumed I would go into the music department at our church.
Wm: Then you were performing even before you entered elementary school. Did you pursue music in school as well?
ES: Yes, I always participated in music in school. In elementary school I played the flute (I was never truly any good) and was one of the choir nerds all the way through grade school.
Wm: Did your emphasis on music set you apart from your mates?
ES: Not at all. I grew up in a heavily Latino part of Orange County, and in that culture musicians are well-respected. My father came from a music-loving family with 11 boys and 1 girl. Mariachi bands and other Mexican-American music were always important. Although, no one could have expected that I would end up in opera!
I have two sisters and a brother, and the three older siblings were involved with choral music.
Wm: How did you become acquainted with opera?
ES: During my adolescence, Opera Pacific, which was based in Orange County, was still alive. When I was in seventh grade in middle school, I met an amazing music teacher, Jeanette McMahon. She would obtain tickets to the Opera Pacific final dress rehearsals, and arranged for me to attend.
The very first opera I ever attended was Puccini’s “La Boheme” at Opera Pacific, conducted by John DeMain. Incidentally, several years later when I was a San Francisco Opera Merola Program Young Artist, DeMain conducted the Merola grand finale when I first sang on the War Memorial Opera House stage!
Wm: Was it “La Boheme” that caused you to want to become an opera performer?
ES: “Boheme” was what caused me to fall in love with opera, although I didn’t consider the possibility that I would sing opera. However, as I moved into high school, I continued my music training and participated in high school musical theater.
During this time I did work with Jeannette McMahon and Anne-Marie Bullard to prepare for Orange County vocal competitions. Mac (as we called Jeanette McMahon in school) offered me free voice lessons for 30 minutes while we worked on learning art songs and learning breath control. I had learned five or six art songs for the district art song competition in Santa Ana.
[Below: Efraín Solís as Papageno in the 2015 San Francisco Opera production of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute”; edited image of a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
It was during sophomore year at Saddleback High School in Santa Ana that she started giving me Mozart arias. I liked them and bought a CD of Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro”, starring Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. This changed everything.
ES: I liked Figaro’s aria Non piu andrai and learned it. One day I was just playing around singing it in the kind of voice that boys use to mock the sound of operatic singing. Mac started accompanying me on the piano and with wide eyes asked how I was doing that? Did it hurt my voice?
I said, “No, I was just trying to make fun of the guy singing, the way that the voice on the CD sounded to me.”
She said, “You know, you have the ability to sing opera! You have a natural operatic voice!” I said, “Oh, cool!”
Wm: Then what happened?
ES: For two years we worked on keeping my voice sounding natural and I also worked with a pianist for the vocal competitions. Meanwhile, in high school, whenever I was recognized for anything in the competitions, it would be announced in the high school’s morning bulletin. It was nice to be recognized for something positive and to represent my school.
Wm: How did you choose where to pursue higher education?
ES: I had a friend, Andrea Flores, at Saddleback High who had been accepted into Chapman University (in the nearby city of Orange) for vocal performance.
My choir teacher took me to see a show at Chapman. That’s when I really caught the bug. If someone from my neighborhood could sing opera onstage, then I felt the urge to do it also.
Wm: So it was having a role model from the neighborhood that persuaded you that you could pursue an operatic career.
ES: Yes, it was. In our neighborhood, many people never leave the area. They don’t think about the possibility of going to college, or sometimes it’s not really an option. Leaving a community where you feel comfortable and at home is a very frightening thing.
About that time, I won another vocal competition and ended up in the Orange County Register (our area’s principal newspaper). I received a call from Chapman University, requesting that I audition there. The audition was successful and I was accepted. It was the only college I applied to or was even interested in attending.
Wm: Tell me about your experiences at Chapman University.
ES: I was working at a Washington Mutual Bank branch as a teller in high school. Once I was accepted to college, I decided I would study music and nothing else. However, I did add Spanish literature and ended up just one class shy of graduating with a double major. I was at school from 9 a.m. until late in the evening almost every day of the week!
I studied with Dr Peter Atherton, my first real voice teacher.
[Below: Efraín Solís, left, with his voice teacher, Dr Peter L. Atherton, on the occasion of Solís winning the Metropolitan Opera regional competition in San Francisco; edited image of a publicity photograph.]
He was a godsend. He became my voice teacher, father figure, mentor. He taught me discipline, how to care for my vocal instrument and to dedicate myself to what’s on the page, how you can express yourself by truly reading what is on the page, how to establish my technique.
Because there was no masters program at Chapman, the undergrads had various opportunities to perform. I was in Mozart’s “Cosi Fan Tutte” and Johann Strauss’ “Die Fledermaus”. I could not have had better undergrad experience.
Wm: We’re getting close in time to your acceptance into San Francisco Opera’s Merola program. How did a Chapman University music student come to the attention of the San Francisco Opera?
ES: When I was 19, I entered a competition that took place in San Francisco. Sheri Greenawald, who runs the Merola program and the San Francisco Opera Adler Fellowships, heard me. She said, you have to sing for Cesar Ulloa, who was the voice teacher for the Adler Fellows and at the San Francisco Conservatory.
Two years later I was in search of a graduate program and it was arranged for me have a 30-minute voice lesson with Cesar. At the end he said, that I should consider coming to the San Francisco Conservatory. He said I could pursue my voice education at the big schools, but if I spent two years at the Conservatory, they could put more emphasis on my voice and technique.
He also advised that in a large school, I might not be singing a lot of roles, but in a small conservatory it would be a different matter. There would be much more opportunity for being recognized. I said I’m up for it. I moved there in 2011.
[Below: Efraín Solís in the title role of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” with Sara Duchovnay as Zerlina at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music; edited image of a Betsy Kershner photograph, courtesy of Efraín Solís.]
It was a very special moment when I found out I was accepted into the Merola program because of my teacher, Peter Atherton. He had attended the Merola program when he was a young artist and to see both our names on the alumni list still puts a huge smile on my face.
Wm: Your career has moved faster than anyone could have imagined. Obviously, the San Francisco Opera establishment was convinced that you should be under their tutelage.
You not only were accepted into the Merola Program, on graduation you were designated as an Adler Fellow. Then last Fall, you took on the major role of Dandini in Rossini’s “La Cenerentola”, replacing the previously announced Fabio Capitanucci.
Walk me through what happened.
ES: I was covering the role of Schaunard in Puccini’s “La Boheme” and preparing for two “La Boheme for Families” performances. I was then asked to cover Dandini as well.
The week before opening, Gregory Henkel, San Francisco Opera’s Director of Artistic and Musical Planning, asked me to sing some portions of the role for the Maestro and director. I thought it was merely for the conductor and musical staff to be sure that the cover was ready.
Then I got the call that Capitanucci was sick and that I was to be Dandini in the upcoming piano dress rehearsal. I was shocked. I wasn’t expecting that at all. Still I thought that they were just making sure someone would be ready to go on.
I had an ongoing part (Sciarrone) in Puccini’s “Tosca” and was prepping the role of Schaunard. I had a “Tosca” Sunday matinee. I had only one day to memorize the part of Dandini on the Monday before the piano dress.
The following day, a Tuesday, I jumped into the piano dress rehearsal. I had never sung any of the ensembles with any of the other parts! Somehow, miraculously I remembered all of the staging, except in the sextet, when I became aware I was on the wrong side. Although it was kind of a blur, I remember carefully moving around to the other side somehow.
[Below: Dandini (Efraín Solís, front, in top hat) enters with his retinue; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Wm: The “Cenerentola” production, which was created by the great Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, is the oldest existing production in the San Francisco Opera inventory, personally staged by him in 1969.
Two legendary basso buffos, Sesto Bruscantini and Renato Capecchi, were among the artists who sang Dandini in this production on the War Memorial Opera House stage. For your first major onstage role to be in this most venerable production should have special significance to you.
ES: It certainly did. Ponnelle designed and staged the production so that every line in the score is accounted for in what happens onstage. You have to find the meaning in every line and be constantly synchronized with the music, and yet that process is in its own way liberating. The revival was staged by Greg Fortner, who, along with Italian coach Alessandra Cattani, helped me tremendously.
Wm: I’m delighted that you were able to sing the role here. You did such a great job!
ES: San Francisco Opera’s “Cenerentola” cast was fantastic. I particularly bonded with the Don Magnifico, Carlos Chausson, and so enjoyed being onstage with him every performance. Every night was like a lesson in commedia dell’arte!
Wm: I have strong memories of Chausson’s great performances at both the San Diego and Zurich Operas.
For you, lightning struck twice, because you are replacing a young colleague, Philippe Sly, in the even more significant role of Papageno in Mozart’s “The Magic Flute”.
ES: Philippe has had to return to Canada because of a family illness. We’re good friends and he was one of the first people I heard from congratulating me, once the announcement was made.
Wm: I’m not sure how many singers, besides Philippe, still in their early 20s, have sung roles of the caliber of Dandini and Papageno on the War Memorial Opera stage. How do you approach this responsibility?
ES: There is a big challenge in playing roles like Dandini and Papageno. Neither character pretends to be something they are not in their real life. Therefore, I have to be as honest as they are.
Wm: Even when Dandini and the Prince are disguising themselves as each other, it is only to test which of the other characters are reacting to them as persons rather than to their rank and power. Obviously, you feel that even in this Rossini comedy that the audience should see Dandini’s true self. Some artists just play him as an “over the top” caricature.
ES: It’s hard not to turn a character who is supposed to be funny into a caricature. But Papageno is supposed to be an “everyman”. I’m working with director Harry Silverstein in finding out who Papageno is. He is not a complicated person, but he also teaches us a few good lessons along the way.
Wm: You were here when the “Magic Flute” production in which you will star had its premiere. You are taking over the part in the production that baritone Nathan Gunn performed. Does that affect how you are approaching to?
ES: When I found out that I was going to be Papageno, I thought about Nathan right away. I loved Nathan’s performance. He is always himself, always very human. That is what Papageno is like. He runs around quite a bit, but you know what he is feeling.
He doesn’t put on any airs. He is completely honest. If he’s scared, he’ll let you know. In his second aria, he says that he’d give just about anything to find a pretty wife. By the third verse, it’s hard not to get emotional.
Wm: What do you think of the Jun Kaneko production and costumes?
ES: What I love about this production is that there are not a lot of sets. I am completely in it. The singers do have to really work at creating connections with each other and with the audience.
Wm: I first started attending opera, just as you did, as a junior high school student, but when I started it was typical for a few famous artists – mostly European recording stars – to appear at San Francisco Opera only for two or three performances.
The smaller roles were regularly sung by artists with smaller voices. It seems now that virtually every role in a major company is sung by a singer capable of performing lead roles. I attribute this to the success of the Young Artists programs and the North American college voice programs that have created a deep reservoir of talent competing for those Young Artists program spots. From your perspective as an Adler Fellow, do you agree?
ES: Yes, I think that a shift in the ways that operas are cast has taken place because the Young Artists programs are attracting such high caliber singers.
Being in close proximity to the opera administration is important also. Here, San Francisco Opera General Director David Gockley has the opportunity to hear us. If he thinks we are ready for a big role, he may choose us rather than bring in another artist from elsewhere.
Recognizing talent early has been one David’s strong suits. He is always thinking ahead about the future and he’s not afraid of taking chances.
Wm: It’s as if you, as an Adler Fellow, have moved to the front of the line.
ES: I’m very thankful to Mr Gockley and the company for taking a chance on me last year and this year again. The whole company was so supportive of me last year when I stepped in at the last minute – especially the San Francisco Opera Chorus.
I also want to make special note of the Opera Chorus, which itself includes individuals that can take on some of the supporting roles. I was very proud of the Chorus that performed so many individual roles in last month’s San Francisco Opera production of Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd”.
Wm: What are some of your upcoming projects? I’ve heard you have prepared the role of Doctor Malatesta in Donizetti’s “Don Pasquale”. Any prospects for performing that somewhere?
ES: Nothing that I know about so far. However, I have been announced to sing Mercutio in Gounod’s “Romeo and Juliet” at the Virginia Opera in a production that will also be seen at Opera Carolina and the Toledo Opera.
[Below: the valet Dandini (Efraín Solís, left), disguised as a prince, becomes an object of attraction for Clorinda (Maria Valdes, right); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Also, my Clorinda in “Cenerentola” and my Papagena in “Magic Flute”, Maria Valdes, and I will be performing a recital together with Steven Blier and his New York Festival of Song.
Wm: What are your dream roles for the near future?
ES: At the San Francisco Conservatory I sang the title role in Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” and want to return to that role. I love Mozart roles, also having covered Figaro in “Marriage of Figaro”.
I like the part of Count Almaviva in “Figaro” as well. Besides Mozart’s Don, Figaro and Almaviva, I’d like to do more bel canto roles as well as some Handel.
Wm: Hopefully, Mercutio will lead you deeper into the French repertory as well.
Thank you for your time, Efraín. I look forward to seeing your Papageno.