Opera singer Vanessa Becerra hits a career high note.
Opera singer Vanessa Becerra hits a career high note.
Professional opera singers come to the first day of rehearsal with music memorized. Then they typically rehearse for three weeks before opening night. But soprano Vanessa Becerra ’12 had barely seven hours to learn a role before making her debut with the renowned Metropolitan Opera in December 2021.
She was off duty in New York when she got a call from the Met. First, she was asked to understudy a role she knew well. But as she was being fitted for that costume, Michael Heaston, artistic administrator of the Met, knocked on the dressing room door.
He brought some unexpected news: Becerra was needed that night in Cendrillon (Cinderella) as cruel stepsister Naomie, a role she had never sung.
It was almost noon. Curtain was at 7 p.m. Becerra considered the hundreds of people she’d be letting down — cast, crew and orchestra — if the production had to be canceled, not to mention the audience filling the opera house’s 3,800 seats.
“This is probably the highest pressure situation I could have ever imagined. But I am totally Texan as far as ‘Go big or go home,’ ” Becerra said. “It was a puzzle. It was challenging. I got to use my math brain. … Music always ends up looking like an equation to me.”
Becerra locked herself in a practice room, alternating between working alone and rehearsing with a coach. At some point, she got a salad from the canteen. She remembered anxiety creeping in during the late afternoon but regained her footing.
“It was really profound to realize that I do trust myself a lot. I trust the years and years of practice, theory and methodology — I trust my technique,” she said. “And now this is my opportunity to give it to this iconic house.”
Because she didn’t have time to learn the choreography, Becerra sang from stage left while an actress in the Naomie costume performed the movements. When Becerra listened to a recording of the performance, she was pleased with how she and the other stepsister achieved the precision of their chattery parts.
“It’s just fun to play the bratty sister and to get to be mean to Cinderella,” she said. “That’s the sort of kooky role that I really, really enjoy doing.”
FROM CHOIR GIRL TO COLLEGE
Becerra was born in Fort Worth to a mother from Lima, Peru, and a Mexican American father. At 6, enamored with Selena and the Spice Girls, she wanted to be a pop star.
Becerra’s mother found an opportunity for her daughter to sing with the Children’s Choir of Texas, then an after-school group affiliated with the Texas Boys Choir, while in elementary school. In January 2001, the organization opened a coeducational charter school, Fort Worth Academy of Fine Arts. Becerra joined as a founding elementary student.
The environment immersed Becerra in music she hadn’t heard before, including opera. In ninth grade, while watching her friends perform in the comedic one-act Italian opera Gianni Schicchi, Becerra said, the art form struck her.
“The trio was the most beautiful, glorious piece of music I had ever heard in my life,” she said. Becerra got a book of arias and taught herself classical works.
In high school, Becerra performed with Singing Girls of Texas and joined the Fort Worth Opera chorus. She also began studying with David Brock, then chair of the vocal division and professor of voice in TCU’s School of Music.
Becerra’s talent and work ethic made an impression.
“One day she was late to her lesson, and that wasn’t like her. And she said, ‘I didn’t have a ride so I had to walk.’ And it was quite a walk,” Brock said. That year she won the high school solo artist competition held by the National Association of Teachers of Singing.
Becerra became a Horned Frog, thanks to a full-tuition Nordan Fine Arts scholarship, and continued her studies with Brock. She also learned from legendary mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne, who visited campus for several days. Becerra later sang the role of Adele in the comedic German opera Die Fledermaus, performing trilling operatic laughs between lines.
Brock said Becerra’s professionalism raised the bar. “Every time I’d walk out my door, she was in the practice room working on something,” he said. “She didn’t just get by. She worked to get better and better all the time.”
ARIAS AND ACTING
After graduation, eager for a performance-focused environment, Becerra pursued a graduate degree at Boston Conservatory.
She returned to Fort Worth in 2014 to make her professional debut in a leading role, portraying an embattled young intellectual in Fort Worth Opera’s production of With Blood, With Ink. The opera follows the true story of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, a 17th-century Mexican nun, poet and champion of women’s rights who was silenced by the Inquisition.
The opera world took notice. “Becerra’s sunny, youthfully appealing soprano created an irresistible characterization,” Opera News reported. The Wall Street Journal noted her “passionate theatrical intensity.”
Another breakthrough came when she earned a spot in the Los Angeles Opera’s young artist program. Becerra held the prestigious paid residency for two years; the experience helped launch her career.
“I first heard her when she was a regional finalist in the Metropolitan Opera competition in Los Angeles … and I remember how she lit up the stage,” said Khori Dastoor, a soprano turned opera director. “I remember her authenticity as a performer. … I made a little note in my notebook.”
The women went on to work together at Opera San José, where Dastoor was general director. When Dastoor became general director and CEO at Houston Grand Opera a couple of years later, she continued casting Becerra.
“She’s an incredibly generous performer. She’s a wonderful colleague, and she elevates the process in the room through her ability to collaborate with others in a way that brings out the best in them,” Dastoor said. “No matter how small or big the room, Vanessa really makes you feel like she’s singing for you.”
Francesca Zambello, Washington National Opera’s artistic director, also has hired Becerra multiple times. Zambello first directed Becerra as Maria in West Side Story at the 2018 Glimmerglass Festival in central New York.
Becerra said portraying Maria, with such songs as “I Feel Pretty,” was a dream role. She later performed the work with Lyric Opera of Kansas City, Atlanta Opera and Liepaja Symphony Orchestra in Latvia, marking her international debut.
In all, Becerra has stacked up appearances with more than two dozen opera houses and orchestras — among them Boston Lyric Opera and San Francisco Symphony — and even an opera on film, The Copper Queen, with Arizona Opera.
A LEADING LADY
In the current season, bookings are keeping the Chicago-based Becerra on the road for months at a time.
“This season is my ‘-ina’ season — Despina, Norina, Adina, Zerlina,” she said, naming the characters she’ll portray in Così fan tutte, Don Pasquale, L’elisir d’amore and Don Giovanni.
“Being away from your loved ones is so, so hard,” she said. “I’ve missed graduations and weddings.” But the outgoing Becerra finds joys on the road, too. Among them is an ever-widening circle of opera friends.
“I love getting to not only meet new people,” she said, “but then we get to be in a room together for a rehearsal period and try to make someone else’s piece of art come to life.”
On her list of dream roles, for sentimental reasons, is singing Violetta in La Traviata. While growing up, Becerra watched Pretty Woman — one of three movies her grandfather had on VHS tape — dozens of times.
In the 1990 film, the main characters attend a performance of La Traviata.
Years later, when Becerra was exposed to opera and first heard La Traviata in context, she felt a jolt of recognition. “I have always loved how full-circle that little moment was. I feel like I owe it to my child self and to my grandpa to sing Traviata someday.”
Becerra, who calls herself “booked and blessed,” said she has had a lot of assistance along the way — from professors who helped her with music theory or Italian diction to mentors who bolstered her confidence and gave her breakout roles.
“There’s an entire village of people who have been holding my hand and guiding me to the point where I can confidently take on these really outrageous tasks, like learning a role that I’m going to debut that day at the Met,” she said. “A crazy thing happened — and maybe it’ll happen again.”