The audience inside Colombia’s iconic Teatro Colón falls into a deep silence when soprano Betty Garcés begins to sing an Aria from Francesco Cilea’s opera Adriana Lecouveur. For many in attendance it is the first time they are seening a live performance of the Buenaventura-born singer whose voice has been called one of the most promising to emerge from the country in recent history.
The repertoire of the Colón’s “Noche Lírica” with Garcés, and Colombian baritone Valeriano Lanchas, includes works that span the musical timeline, from Mozart to Cole Porter and Gershwin’s “Summertime.” When Betty unfurls her full operatic voice there is a transformation in the audience, spellbound by a talent who emerged from precarious conditions in one of Colombia’s most impoverished cities, the port of Buenaventura. The audience erupts in a spontaneous standing ovation.
Betty’s path to leading lady of opera began with ocean gazing and sunset watching, as she recalls. Like so many other young women in this predominantly Afro-Colombian enclave, the Pacific is always present, but few can afford a journey across the estuary from Buenaventura to see the majestic humpbacks at play, or visit pristine destinations popular on the national tourism circuit. “I loved the sea with all my heart, and I could sit for hours on a stone looking at the exuberant nature,” said Garcés.
Growing up in city that spun to vinyl, Betty fell in love with the sound of gospel, the uplifting soul of American-African churches that continue a musical tradition dating back to slavery and the cotton plantations of the southern United States. Raised in a musical household of educators and a salsomano father with a great collection of records, Betty recalls how she “learned the solos of the instruments.” She used to sit in a corner of her home “very calmly, taping away at the music inside my head.”
With great financial effort from her parents, Betty finished high school in Cali, the largest metropolis near Buenaventura. Her parents took the decision to send her to the capital of Valle del Cauca to “protect her” as the security situation in Buenaventura began to deteriorate.
The guitar was her childhood instrument, and she was given one by her parents. She jokingly confesses that it was “archived for many years and I only managed to learn only three songs.” But it was her voice that got her an audition at the prestigious Antonio Maria Valencia Conservatory of Music in 1999. She didn’t sing an opera aria or European ballad, but the contemporary song from the Spanish pop band Mecano, “Hijo de la Luna.” One could state that Betty’s illuminating voice was first touched by the rays of “Son of the Moon.”
She had no vocal repertoire, let alone contact with the European song tradition. Her teachers took her under their wings and began to train this student “from zero.” Her “diamond in the rough” talent seemed undeniable; all she need were dedicated mentors. During her third semester she realized she could produce sounds that others couldn’t. “I never had grand aspirations while studying in Cali.
I wanted to sing and do concerts in and around Cali, maybe even Colombia.” Before graduating from the conservatory in 2007, Betty walked on to the stage for the first time and gave a concert that consolidated her dream of being an opera singer. It was an intimate event hosted by the Casa ProArtes. The young Afro-Colombian singer was introduced as “Betty Garcés.”
Despite all the earthly talent, Betty believes divine intervention was also responsible in determining a greater life plan, guiding her through “critical moments” in Buenaventura, to success on the world stage. Germany would be her foray into professional opera, thanks to Francisco Vergara, a Colombian baritone with the Cologne Opera – Kölner Oper. Vergara set out to raise important funds to sponsor Betty’s trip and get her enrolled in a music specialization course at the Musik Hochchule Ko?ln, one of Europe’s largest academies of music.
The year was 2009, and the aspiring opera singer arrived in the middle of winter not speaking a word of German. She had landed far from home. “I only knew Buenaventura, Cali, Buga and Palmira,” recalls Betty.
“Bogotá because I needed my visa.” But hard work and determination got her through the first months in Germany. “Vergara was always present, helping me with everything,” recalls Betty of her audition with American soprano Klesie Kelly-Moog, voice professor at the academy. Many of Kelly-Moog’s students have won awards at international competitions and are members of leading opera companies. The teacher was more than impressed with her future pupil from Buenaventura, and Betty was granted a full academic scholarship that entailed learning German Lied, Italian opera, stage performance, and languages. “It was a totally different world than the one I had lived,” said Betty.
When not in class, the vocalist boxed airline food at a catering company, earning 7 euros an hour. Her bosses were Russians and screamed at their workers in German. Most of the laborers where of African descent.
As an Afro-Colombian in a foreign land, Betty has not been immune to racism, but not the “aggressive kind” of her homeland. Even though she could be considered by some as “too exotic” or “mismatched” for roles in a Wagner or Strauss opera, she took it all in stride, preferring to look at the positive aspects of a career that now spans continents. “It’s not easy to be loved in one’s own country, but I have been blessed to have been received in Colombia with so much love,” she said.
In 2012, Betty graduated from the Cologne Music Academy and performed as a soloist in Mozart’s “Magic Flute.” She was then invited to Bogotá and debuted in a concert celebrating Afro-Colombian heritage alongside musical legends “Toto” La Momposina and Leonor González Mina – “La Negra Grande de Colombia.”
“When I left Colombia no one knew me,” said Garcés. “When I sang at the concert in Bogotá, I was the different one and the public’s applause was so greatly appreciated.”
A great admirer of sopranos Jessye Norman and Rene?e Fleming, Betty is completely immersed and dedicated to a life in opera. Her schedule this year includes a tour of Australia and performances across Europe. And she has found a role that suits her current predicament, Mimi of Puccini’s “La Boheme.”
“For me, its very important to present a sincere heart on stage,” she said.
From Verdi to Wagner, Betty is ready to face a bold musical future, one that surely includes performances at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, and a “dream,” the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
Colombia is as close to her heart as gospel and while singing to audiences around the world she likes to incorporate traditional songs from the Pacific, the interior, and the coast. But she returns to the divine, saying “the artist isn’t me. It’s God.”
Ms.Garcés will perform at the VI International Classic Music Festival 2023 with two concerts at Teatro Mayor Julio Mario Santo Domingo (April 7 and 8), and will give a matinée at Teatro Colsubsidio Roberto Pérez Arias on April 6. The Festival is dedicated to composers of La Belle Époque.