After Valeriano Lanchas won the Pavarotti International Voice competition at the age of 19, the great Italian tenor took him aside for a warning. “Offers would pour in, but you’re not mature enough, he told me, either vocally or emotionally. If you want a satisfying career, first get a serious training in opera.”

Valeriano Lanchas in The Magic Flute, courtesy Opera de Colombia

Despite his success, Lanchas sometimes fights against opera’s somewhat waning popularity as an art form.

Immediately enrolling in the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia (while attending performances in N.Y.C. every weekend), Lanchas has since proved the wisdom of that advice. He is the first Colombian opera singer since Martha Senn to have won an international renown and at a relatively young 36, could go much farther.  He’s recently had feelers from the Met and Covent Garden but cautions us that they might take five years to work out, if they do at all.

In addition to being the long-established star of the Ópera de Colombia (“it’s my home, Colombia is who I am”), he has sung with major companies in the U.S., France and Spain, where he will shortly sing the title role in Prokoviev’s Ivan the Terrible.

“Singing in Russian, in an alphabet you can’t understand! But I’ll have a diction coach for that.”  He’s likewise performed alongside such greats as Anna Nebtrovko, Juan Diego Flórez, Samuel Ramey and Plácido Domingo, as evidenced by a photo of the two (both in mufti, Valeriano clasping his shoulder) perched on the top of the upright piano in his bright, spacious but unadorned apartment overlooking the downtown Parque de la Independencia.

“I’ve been here a year and a half but, traveling ten months a year, haven’t time to decorate it yet. Nevertheless, it’s not like the old days, when you had to live full-time in Europe or New York. My manager arranges the bookings on that end and with jets, faxes and so forth, I can travel without uprooting myself from my family and friends in Bogotá. It’s hectic, but you adapt. I’ve become an expert at folding up my tuxedo so it comes out of the suitcase without wrinkles.”

Life and career, inextricable

The piano also holds the score for the Marriage of Figaro, which he performed in Bogotá last September, the Wound-dresser, a difficult contemporary chamber-piece based on a poem by Walt Whitman, and, on the keyboard, some markers he points out to humorously remind us it’s not just for show. “I carry the scores everywhere. And I don’t sing in the shower, I study.”

The same applies to his old-fashioned gramophone and collection of L.P.’s. “When you listen to the same piece on vinyl, C.D. and an MP4, you realize that digital technology limits the register of sound.”  Valerianos’ cherubic features, broad chest and impressive sound box make him perfect for Central Casting’s idea of an opera singer. “To sing well, you open your throat. All the effort is from the diaphragm. I get people to stand on my stomach to show how strong mine is.” For a bass-baritone, though, his speaking voice isn’t that grave or rumbling.

Dressed in jeans, white shirt with rolled-up sleeves and reddish track shoes, Valeriano spoke unpretentiously about his life, music in general and the current state of opera in Colombia, but with an underlying seriousness about the dignity, long tradition and rigorous demands of a high art.

“I was born in Bogotá, my father – who is Spanish – was an amateur pianist, my grandparents had a lot of opera recordings and from an early age, they took me to live performances.”

Still a city of culture

Surprised to learn that there were eight different operas in the season then, compared two or three now, I remarked that it was as if the city had become less, not more, cultured.

“Melchior, Marian Anderson, Stravinsky performed in Bogotá. You would come out of the theater in what is now the Zona Rosa and there would be bookstores open till 2 a.m. Nowadays it’s all discos and fried chicken restaurants. Once, at the stage door of the Teatro Colón, a woman asked me what her little daughter had to do to become famous, like me. Buy a gun and kill someone, you’ll be in the papers, I told her. People just want to be famous for being famous.”

This was underscored in his anecdotes about the stars he has known. Like the time he ran into Samuel Ramey, the legendary bass (born in Kansas!) at the studio of his own voice coach in New York. “The man who has recorded more operas than anyone in history: there, with his score of Mephistopheles and pencil. ‘I don’t have the voice I had when I sang it at 32,’ Ramey explained, like a humble beginner.”

Likewise, offstage, Netrebko is far from the imperious diva the public sees.  “No one is more supportive. She suffered a lot at the start of her career, when the Soviet Union collapsed. For a while, she survived by cleaning the toilets in the Moscow opera house.”

Contrasting the dedication of true artists like those with the ruling Factor-X mentality, Valeriano is grateful to those who, like Pavarotti, instilled the importance of discipline, modesty and the organic growth of talent.

“One day, as a kid – and I still don’t know why – I decided I wanted to be an opera singer. So I began practicing, but luckily, my parents didn’t trot me out like a monkey at the circus. My schoolmates didn’t  know either. At 16, I auditioned for Gloria Zea . When I announced it would be Sarastro from the Magic Flute – difficult enough for a polished voice – she murmured ‘oh, another kamikaze.’

Gloria spotted my potential. Seeing I was too young, however, she told me to come back in a year, and only on the condition that I kept studying and not just music, I had to show her my report cards too. I felt crushed, but she was really caring for me. You can easily injure an adolescent’s voice.  Such experiences have taught me that the goal of an opera career is to grow, learn, sing in the best theaters, realize yourself.”

Valeriano Lanchas in Manon, courtesy Opera de Colombia

Trained in Philadelphia, Valeriano Lanchas quickly became one of Colombia’s most internationally acclaimed opera singers.

Despite the superficiality of our age and the country’s idiosyncrasies, Valeriano is optimistic about broadening what has always been a very limited public for opera in Colombia.

Opera for everybody

As promising signs, he cites the free “Opera in the Park” recitals in Bogotá, Cine Colombia’s live broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera and, especially, the professionalism of Ópera de Colombia, with its blend of local talent and first-class singers and conductors from abroad.

“Before, a career in opera was like being an astronaut here.  Now, there are loads of good music faculties. Half of our choir, youngsters of 17 or so, are studying to be future soloists and their generation as a whole is becoming more receptive to the genre.”

A further help, he believes, would be outreach programs, like one in D.C., where children are taught the basics of opera at school before seeing a performance. “I remember a Tosca in Washington, where the famous baritone Juan Pons, playing the villain, was delighted because the children booed him for the first time in his career.”

He doesn’t accept the chauvinistic argument that subsidies in Colombia would be a waste of limited State resources on an elite and alien art form. “Strictly speaking, vallenato is sung in a ‘foreign’ language –   Spanish – and uses an ‘imported’ instrument – the accordion,” nor that loving opera means one is snobbish about music. Following the footsteps of  immortals like Ezio Pinza in South Pacific, Lanchas appeared in the musical Oliver Twist two years ago and reminds us that some of the famous names of Colombian popular genres, like Lucho Bermúdez and Pacho Galán, had a solid grounding in classical music. Another indication of his ampleness is the biography of Mick Jagger he has been reading.

He nevertheless insists on the distinction between making opera accessible and vulgarizing it. “I recently said no when a magazine wanted a photo of me in a park in evening dress. I don’t agree either with performing in, say, a marketplace. Opera is like a religion. The theater is the church. Everything in its due place.”

Valeriano isn’t fussy about the regimen required to meet the exceptional physical and mental demands of opera. “As a beginner, I remember seeing well-known singers who couldn’t perform without their special honey or cough drops and I swore I wouldn’t depend on any external aids, just my voice.”  He walks a lot, avoids parties during the season and shuts himself off on the day of a performance, when he sleeps, studies the score, doesn’t talk and won’t take phone calls.

“A great advantage is being from Bogotá, where it may go from rainy to sunny to freezing in a single day. The changing seasons in Europe don’t bother me. Then there’s the altitude.  When I sing at sea level, it’s like having three sets of lungs!”