By Mark Holston.
Opera star Carla Dirlikov Canales was well on her way to becoming a serious violinist when her lessons revealed a superior, hitherto undiscovered talent. She had grown up playing the instrument in the Midland, Michigan school music program and developed a love of classical music at an early age. Wanting to encourage their daughter’s music ambitions, Carla’s parents signed her up to take some private violin lessons. That’s where the young musician came face-to-face with the reality that mastering the challenging string instrument wasn’t for her.
“My teacher would always have me sing the lines first, because string players try to emulate the human voice,” she recalls. “And, the singing came naturally to me. The teacher would get frustrated because I couldn’t play it as well as I could sing it!”
Singing, as it turned out, had always been in the back of her mind. As her family’s economic situation at the time made more private lessons impossible, Carla took it all in stride. “I didn’t want to lose the music outlet the violin had provided for me, so I auditioned for the school choir, which was quite acclaimed,” she notes. “I was accepted, and because of the group’s reputation, in short order I was able to sing at the White House, on Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion radio show, at the Vatican and many other places.”
Today recognized as one of the opera world’s most talented and in-demand young mezzo-sopranos, Carla has been lavished with recognition for both her talent on the stage and her work behind the scenes as an advocate for the arts. In 2015 she became the first opera singer ever to be named one of Foreign Policy magazine’s “100 Leading Global Thinkers.” “If all the world’s a stage, these individuals have trained spotlights on pressing issues and viewpoints that demand more of the global audience’s attention,” the respected publication stated of the 16 noted artists they tagged for the honor.
This past year, Carla also made history when she became the first opera singer to be named to the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities’ Turnaround Arts Initiative. The project targets the nation’s poorest performing public schools for special attention, using well-known musicians, actors, visual artists and others to work directly with students and instructors to integrate the arts into the daily curriculum and help students escape the academic doldrums.
A year earlier, none other than Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor bestowed on Carla a Sphinx Medal of Excellence. According to the organization that sponsors the honor, the program “awards $50,000 career grants to extraordinary emerging classical artists of color, who, early in their professional career demonstrate artistic excellence, an outstanding work ethic, a spirit of determination, and ongoing commitment to leadership.” Award founder Aaron P. Dworkin commented that “the incredible success that Carla has already achieved is a clear indication that diversity and artistic excellence play important roles in music and in our communities.”
Carla’s resume also includes being named a “Cultural Envoy” by the U.S. Department of State and serving as a guest speaker at the Aspen Institute, the White House Initiative for Educational Excellence for Hispanics, and the TEDxMidAtlantic conference. She also serves as an Artists Committee Member and speaker for Americans for the Arts.
Carla is also the founder of The Canales Project (TCP), a non-profit initiative designed to explore issues of identity and culture through music and conversation. The effort is committed to achieving social impact through its One Plus One model which assures that for every public performance it offers another will be presented in an underserved community in the U.S. or abroad. The first project in this initiative will draw upon on her own experiences and identity questions as a Latina in America.
When it comes to her on-stage talent, the singer is frequently the subject of lofty accolades. Opera Magazine wrote that she possesses a voice that “grabs the heartstrings with its dramatic force and musicality.” She participated in a staging of Handel’s Messiah by the Street Symphony in Los Angeles that was selected by The New Yorker magazine as one of the most notable performances of 2015. Commenting on a performance in Mexico, El Diario de Yucatán praised Carla for “executing her rendition in warm vocal subtleties” and observed that “the gentle guest artist discerned a variety of accents and transmitted the legacy of emotion and supplication proclaimed by the verse ‘Reviens! Reviens!’ (Come back, come back).”
“I love singing jazz and musical theater,” Carla says today. “But I finally decided that studying opera singing would be good for the long term, because I would learn how to preserve my voice.” Her first professional experience in opera came quite unexpectedly. “I was 23 and in Toronto,” she recalls. “I had the opportunity to jump in to replace another singer who couldn’t do it,” she says of the character she would go on to perform over 80 times – the lead in Georges Bizet’s Carmen. “That’s a huge role for a singer who is that young, and I had only three days to learn it. But I just jumped right in!”
Since then, audiences throughout the world have experienced her talents and vivacious stage presence, from Carnegie Hall, Avery Fisher Hall, The Kennedy Center, Lincoln Center, and other prestigious theaters in the U.S. to venues throughout Europe, China, and Mexico. Her most recent concert, a tribute to Leonard Bernstein, was staged in Frutillar, a small city in southern Chile, at the renowned, ultra-modern Teatro del Lago.
Carla grew up experiencing and balancing three distinctly different cultural realities. In some ways, she was a typical American youngster from the Midwest, but the influence of her mother, a native of Mexico City, and Bulgarian father played significant roles in her intellectual development. “My father was a scientist, working on his doctorate in Prague, where he met my mother,” she explains. “When he was offered a job in the U.S., he proposed to my mother.”
As a child, she was influenced very much by both of her parents’ cultures. “I didn’t really learn about American culture until I went to school,” Carla says. “Both taught me their native languages and I didn’t really acquire English until I went to school. But once I was in school, my dad made it a point that I should become more ‘Americanized.’ He was teaching at a university and wanted to improve his English, and he wanted my brothers and myself to speak to him in English. With my mother, it was quite the opposite. She raised us as dual citizens, and for her, it was in a traditional Mexican way.”
Her mother’s Mexican heritage has become a big part of how the singer sees herself. Although her ability to speak Bulgarian has faded, she is fluent in Spanish and, thanks to the demands of her opera career, several other languages. “I’ve been fortunate to have been embraced by the Hispanic community,” she comments, “But in reality, when it comes to filling out the census, I probably need to check the box ‘other,’ because I also have this Bulgarian background. In my case, I’ve been a true hybrid. It’s a little bit of neither here nor there. In Mexico, as a kid, they perceived me as an American, as I was taller than all of the other kids and I had a funny last name (although recently she has started using her grandmother’s surname, Canales). So, it was hard to integrate there. Here it’s been a little difficult as well because I might say that I’m a Latina, but people will point to my height and last name. They might be thinking, ‘You don’t really 100 percent look like us.’ But, there are many of us out there who would check that ‘other’ box. My parents met by chance, but in the future we’re going to see more children who are the products of globalization.”
Currently, Carla has embarked on an ambitious research project she will use as the basis of a book she wants to write on Federico García Lorca, the Spanish poet, theater director and playwright who was influential in the early part of the 20th Century. Her travels to track down new information on Lorca and his fascination with duende – a concept that reflects the qualities of passion and inspiration with a spiritual connotation – will include trips to Argentina and Spain.
“I was introduced to this concept through Carmen,” Carla notes. “He wrote a short book called In Search of Duende, in which he outlines the power we can all feel but that no philosopher can explain. It had a very deep impact on many, including Bizet, who wrote Carmen. So, I see Carmen herself as a child of duende. Translated into English, it could mean “soul,” but it’s about that power of attraction that we feel as an artist in a performance setting.” The first place Lorca lectured on this topic was in Buenos Aires. “I’m interested in retracing him and his work,” she adds in anticipation of her first trip to Argentina to do on-the-ground research.
On the topic of the four century-old opera tradition and its relevance in today’s world, Carla is emphatic in her belief that the art form retains its inherent attraction to audiences because of the universality of its themes. “Originally I was drawn to opera for two reasons,” she states. “The power of the human voice to project without amplification, and the beauty that a human being is capable of creating with their own body. People may mock the implausible plots, but that’s not the point. The reason that opera is so grand is simple: this art form draws on the most complex human situations in order to evoke catharsis.”
Catharsis, the singer reminds us, is defined as the process of releasing and relieving yourself of strong emotions. “It is my greatest hope that this process might lead to a deeper level of empathy, because this is the true power the arts can have on the world,” she comments. “Opera achieves this by spending time on what affects us most – the emotional peaks and abysses. It offers us a reflection of who we are, how we relate to others, and what it means, collectively and individually, to be human.”
On her journey as an opera singer, Carla says she has found one thing to be true: that all people, regardless of nationality, race, age or gender, share the capacity to feel emotion. “This is our deepest universal sense: we all cry, laugh, love, feel pain, and embarrassment. We all speak a common language, that of the soul. My job as an artist is not to show you who I am on stage, or even to show you my character’s personality. It is to hold a mirror to the audience and ask you to reflect upon yourself.”
In the part that has become her calling card, from Beijing and Mérida to a festival on the Greek island of Syros, Carla sees significance for several reasons. “First and foremost, Carmen was the first female character to be killed onstage,” she points out. “This was outrageous at the time, to the point that the first of several singers that Bizet approached to sing the role refused; they found this death too vulgar and shocking. Also, for many people, Carmen represents the first verismo opera – that is to say, it’s the first opera that is about ‘ordinary’ or ‘true’ people, rather than nobility. Carmen is the protagonist, and one could argue that she is not of high moral virtue, but without any argument it can be agreed that she is not of high wealth.”
Most importantly, Carla asserts, is that Carmen represents a strong woman who is unafraid of death. “In fact, she isn’t afraid of anything,” the singer states of her most often-performed role. “She lives her life in the moment, and is committed to her freedom to choose. She is the femme fatale of opera, and though everyone will have an individual opinion of what that means, it is what she represents in each of our imaginations that creates her legacy.”
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