La Traviata: Cecilia Violetta López
By Tamara Vallejos
Even by the highly imaginative standards of opera, soprano Cecilia Violetta López (who makes her Opera Colorado debut as Violetta in La Traviata) has a backstory unique among those of her colleagues. The Mexican-American daughter of migrant workers from Michoacán, López was born and raised in the tiny town of Rupert, Idaho, and grew up working the fields alongside her family. Her childhood summers offered her a formative music education, but not in a classroom or studio; rather, it took place among rows of crops, singing with her mother. It wasn’t until her 20s, while studying music education, that López stumbled upon opera—and a new layer to her American Dream.
Tell us about those early years in Idaho. How old were you when you began working in the fields with your family?
I started earning an income—about $2.50 an hour, though probably even less—when I was around ten years old. But I had started working in the fields with my mom even before then. She’d come open the door in the mornings and say, “Mija, it’s time,” and I would just groan and be like, “Aw, man, here we go.” I hated it! It would be hot, or then it was cold, or windy and rainy, and we would still have to be out there. But it’s what we had to do; we were working for the betterment of our lives, living the dream.
What role did music play during those summers?
I remember, working in those beet fields, and just being bored, tired, exhausted, and hungry. And my mom would leave her row, come find my older brother and me, and help us catch up so the three of us could hoe beets together. And then she would break into song, la música ranchera, the songs she grew up singing as a kid. We’d learn them, and eventually she would say, “Okay, you sing the melody and I’ll sing the third.” At first, I was like, “Well, what does that mean?” But, eventually, I learned to sing in harmony because of her, and those hours would seem like seconds because Mom had created magic. It meant so much to me. She was trying to do anything that she could for her kids, if it meant assuring us that things weren’t so bad. “Yeah, we’re working out in the fields, but we’ve got each other, and we’ve got the love of music.”
You obviously learned a rich musical history through your mother, but at what point did opera enter the mix?
I learned to speak English from watching Sesame Street, and back in the day they would have singers from the “golden age,” like Beverly Sills. I remember seeing her while watching one day and thinking, “Okay, this lady is singing, and she’s interrupting my regularly scheduled program!” That was my only exposure to opera while growing up. But in college, I went to a production of La Bohème, and that’s when I fell in love. The music just grabbed me and gave me goosebumps. And then, just before the end, I thought, “But she’s going to be okay. Mimì has to be okay.” So I was a sobbing mess when it ended, because I was so certain she was going to live! I walked out of the theater and got into the car, and I was still an emotional wreck. But I looked over to my then-husband and said, “I want to do this. Whatever just happened in that theater was so powerful.”
So, your parents weren’t familiar with opera, either. What did they think when you changed career tracks, from education to performance?
Now, they understand what I do for a living. But when I first started, they would say, “Estás en el escenario, just gritando.” And I would say, “No, I’m not just on stage yelling! I’m actually trained to do this, and there’s a storyline where I’m speaking in a different language…” And then I realized I was going about this in the wrong way. So I said, “You know, Mom, operas are just like novelas.” And from then on, the new question became, “Well, do you die in this one?” [Laughs]
Madama Butterfly at Opera San José was the first time they saw me in a professional production. That whole story is about love and sacrifice, which was relatable to them. But it was also when they were like, “Oh! What Cecilia does is a lot of hard work.” After the performance, my family came to my dressing room while I was taking off my geisha makeup. My dad never speaks English, but he did on this occasion, which I’ll never forget. And he just looked at me and said, “Cecilia, I’m so proud of you.” Those were the words I needed. It meant he got it. Maybe I speak for everyone, or maybe only for myself—but those little moments? You take them with you, to ignite you and keep you going. Because it’s a lot of work, what we do as performers. It means often being away from family.
Now you join us at Opera Colorado, to make your company debut in what has become one of your signature roles. Why is the character of Violetta so close to your heart?
I identify a lot with Violetta. I’ve gone through my own life putting up walls and saying, “I’m a strong woman.” And I am. But at the same time, there’s a vulnerable side of me, and of Violetta, that wants to be loved but is afraid. Granted, I’m not dying of tuberculosis like she is. But I find that even more admirable, because she’s still fighting. (See what I mean? It’s the same drama you have in novelas!) La Traviata is a very feminine, strong opera, and I think Violetta embodies all those qualities that I would like to embody, too.
Tamara Vallejos is Opera Colorado’s Director of Marketing & Audience Development.