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Phoenix native shares what he loves about being in the opera

By Mark Brodie
Published: Tuesday, March 19, 2024 - 12:15pm
Updated: Tuesday, March 19, 2024 - 4:51pm

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Man in suit poses
Jamie Kraus Photography
Opera singer Armando Contreras.

Opera singer Armando Contreras was raised in Phoenix and still lives in the West. The baritone has performed at the prestigious Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown, New York, as well as with opera companies around the country. This past fall, he came home for a performance at Gammage Auditorium in a production of "The Old Man and the Sea."

Contreras recently spoke with The Show about his career, singing in front of a hometown audience and how he got into opera in the first place.

Full interview

ARMANDO CONTRERAS: I was in the Phoenix Boys Choir. I was in the Phoenix Boys Choir for eight years and I was in two productions with Arizona Opera in the children's chorus of those operas. So I was in "Carmen" and I was in "La Boheme." And from the beginning, I was at probably 9 years old at that point, and I had already loved opera just being in it. I thought it was so thrilling. Even though I didn't know what they were saying or what I was saying, it was, it was just so fun to be on stage. So I knew at that point that there was something that I wanted to always do and I had always been singing around the house as well. And then I, in high school, my voice changed and changed for the worst. So, definitely kind of lost interest the first couple years of high school.

Then there was an audition opening up my junior year to sing with, I believe there, yeah, with Phoenix Opera, which is just a, a smaller company than Arizona Opera. And they were doing "Aida" and they needed some more chorus members. So I auditioned for it and got in and then my love for opera was, was reignited and I just had so much fun being on stage. Such a, it's such a thrill to be on stage when people are singing beautifully, but also at the top of their lungs. So after that, then I went to the Cleveland Institute of Music for my undergraduate degree. Then I got my master's degree and my art certificate degree at the University of Missouri in Kansas City. And then had been working some internships with some opera companies, doing some smaller roles. And now I have representation in New York and I kind of travel all over the place and was lucky enough to come back home.

MARK BRODIE: Yeah. Well, so what about opera specifically does it for you? Because like if you like being on stage with singing, there's a lot of different things you can do. I would imagine like a lot of 9-year-old boys are not super into opera.

CONTRERAS: Yeah, you know, I, I had this conversation the other day with a colleague of mine that actually specializes in musical theater and I think musical theater has pretty similar traits, but for me, opera, without amplification, although now opera actually does have a lot of am amplification. But when I started, you know, there wasn't a lot of amplification and for a singer to, to be singing so viscerally, so much emotion in opera, right?

We, we see everything from love to anger, to crying, to hate, all these different things and that the voice can express all those things that so beautifully in its, you know, purest form. I think that's what brought me to opera because like a, a rock singer can do that, too. But you know, a rock singer has the microphone, there's just so much happening around them. Where opera singing is just we've gotten the voice to just this, you know, beautiful pedagogical place that can just do so much. And I've always found it so impressive and so mysterious and I still find it very mysterious. And it just, it always drew me.

BRODIE: Do you understand now what you're singing?

CONTRERAS: If I tell you no, then I'm going to get in trouble with all my conductors and all my directors.

BRODIE: So we'll go with yes.

CONTRERAS: I do, I do now. And actually the one we just did in Arizona was in English. So that helps out. But yes, now I always translate it. And in fact, in school, I took French, I took Italian, I took German and not only the languages but also how to pronounce them. So I took additional classes in diction class to make sure I'm doing it right, in case there's a German speaker, Italian or French speaker in the audience.

BRODIE: Interesting. So you were just back in Phoenix to perform in a production of "Old Man and the Sea." What was it like taking that story, turning it into opera and performing it in your hometown?

CONTRERAS: Yeah, I think what's great about this production is that your expectation with the book is going to be so different for what it actually is on stage. So the book itself, right? It's, it's very brief and concise, but there's a lot of emotions and, and there's just a lot of detail inside of, you know, only 50-page book. And in this production, we had this great, great director Karmina Šilec from Slovenia who, who took the concept of "Old Man and the Sea" and really made it very abstract, very avant garde, very very nuanced and minimal. So instead of, you know, me being in a boat, I was actually walking on a treadmill.

It's, it's, it's just, it was such a unique experience. But, but the core of it doing it on stage was really to amplify the emotions of, of the old man. And Paola Prestini, who, who was the composer of this, of this work, Paola also put in the life of Ernest Hemingway. So that the, the life of Ernest Hemingway is kind of juxtaposed to Santiago and kind of seeing all the pain that Ernest Hemingway had to go through in his life. And it's just, it's just this big emotional journey that I know people, you know, do not expect when they go in.

Going back home was great. I got to stay with my parents. I have a, a 1-year-old son named Theo and we live in Colorado with my wife, Logan. So it was nice to come home. My mom got to see Theo and my dad and my whole family was there some colleagues from the Phoenix Boys choir, too. I also went to Brophy College Prep. It was nice to see some people. I was actually able to work with them one of the mornings. So, yeah, it's just, it's great to have family. You just, it makes you feel so comfortable when you're on stage because it's just a really proud moment. I got to sing a lead role at the Gammage. It just never, you know, who, who would have thought that I'd come back to do that. So, a lot of fun. So happy to be back home.

BRODIE: So I'm wondering if you see a performance, a show like this, like "Old Man and the Sea." Like, do you see that as a way to maybe broaden opera's audience to, to maybe folks who are not quote unquote traditional opera fans or maybe don't know a lot about the, the genre but maybe know this story and come to see it and maybe get hooked hooked on hearing opera?

CONTRERAS: Oh, yeah, I mean, this opera and opera being written today is nothing like what people may think opera is, right? We may think of opera like "Carmen," "La Boheme" and these very traditional stories, and even the "Old man and the Sea" is a traditional story in American literature. The way that it is presented is just so nuanced, it's so contemporary, it's so minimal that people that enjoy that in other, in other facets of art. I think they'll really enjoy this opera and their concept of opera is just gonna absolutely change just like it's changing in the industry in America.

BRODIE: Is there a role that you have not yet had a chance to play that you are just dying to play?

CONTRERAS: Oh boy. Well, we can be here for another hour there. Let's see, I'll think of one traditional and one contemporary. So traditional, I haven't done Don Giovanni yet by, by Mozart. And that's a really fun role. Don, Don Giovanni is not a good guy. And sometimes I like to play the bad guy because I like to be a good guy in real life. So playing, playing a bad guy on stage is kind of fun. So I would love to do Don Giovanni.

Let's see, a contemporary role that I haven't done. I think "Dead Man Walking" is a great, Joseph de Rocher in "Dead Man Walking," which is being premiered at the Metropolitan Opera. People might be familiar with sister Helen Prejean's book "Dead Man Walking." Also the movie with Sean Penn. He's, he's in the movie. That's a really important story that's being told right now at the Met. So that would also be a really cool role to do.

BRODIE: Yeah, those are two pretty different roles. My goodness.

CONTRERAS: Baritones get to do some some pretty cool stuff I think in opera.

BRODIE: Yeah, it sounds that way.

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