Singing Opera Just Strikes a Chord for Cecilia López


Cecilia Violetta López

’11 Bachelor of Music (Vocal Performance)

College of Fine Arts Alumna of the Year

Cecilia Violetta López’s intense passion for opera can be traced to a student performance she attended while pursuing her music education degree at UNLV. Sitting inside Judy Bayley Theatre on campus, López was completely mesmerized, both by the storyline of the four-act, 19th-century tragedy La bohème and by the amazing voices who brought it to life.

López will tell you, without a hint of hyperbole, that seeing that production literally changed her life. However, she’ll also tell you that she never would’ve walked into the Judy Bayley Theatre that day were it not for a lifelong love of music.

And the roots of that love can be traced to the vast sugar beet fields in Rupert, Idaho, a tiny town 160 miles southeast of Boise where López’s parents settled after immigrating from Mexico. As a child, López would join her older brother and her mother hoeing sugar beets in the non-winter months. To pass the time, her mother would sing mariachi music, and López would joyously sing along to the tunes.

“We would work in what seemed like 10-mile-long rows of beet fields, and my mom could tell that we were tired, hungry, sore, and didn’t want to be out there anymore,” López says. “But that work was the only thing we could do to give us a better life. So my mom would use music to help the hours go by faster. She taught me all the Mexican mariachi songs that she grew up listening to.

“The work was grueling, but it also was a truly magical time. Because it was in those fields where my mom instilled in me a love of music.”

By the time López reached adolescence, it became clear that all that singing in the fields had unearthed some serious vocal capabilities. In fact, she was recruited to sing with mariachi bands at rodeos, quinceañeras, and weddings in both Rupert, Idaho, and in Mexico, where her family would return each winter when the sugar beet fields froze over.

Flash ahead to adulthood, and singing had taken a back seat in López’s life. Then in her mid-20s, she was married and working in the medical field in Las Vegas. At some point, though, her then-husband encouraged her to reconnect with music by pursuing a fine arts degree at UNLV.

After some initial trepidation, López took the leap. Then came that fateful day when she witnessed her first opera, and everything changed. Following three nerve-racking auditions, López was accepted into the vocal department, and she promptly added vocal performance as a second major.

By her senior year, though, López’s interest in teaching music had waned. She just wanted to be a professional opera singer. So she reluctantly pulled out of the music education program and turned her entire focus to completing her vocal performance degree.

López did just that in December 2011, and less than a month later, she was singing soprano in Opera San José, a professional opera company in Northern California’s Silicon Valley.

Since then, López has performed numerous operas across North America — including playing the role of Mimì in La bohème, the opera that first captivated her.

Although she now resides in Albuquerque, New Mexico, López has reconnected with her childhood roots, serving as artistic adviser at Opera Idaho. And while performing occupies the bulk of her time, López also has rekindled her interest in music education through an adjunct faculty position at Boise State.

“The one thing my mom and my dad always taught their kids was to work hard for what we wanted,” says López, who has been named one of opera’s “25 Rising Stars” by Opera News. “They wanted a better and easier life for us, and stressed that if we set our goals high and worked hard, we could achieve our dreams. They were right.”

What was it about your first opera experience that impacted you so profoundly?

Even all these years later, it’s difficult to put into words. At the time, I was a sophomore at UNLV and working toward my music education degree — the plan was to become a music teacher, because I was a new mom and felt it was the most practical thing to do. But when I saw that production of La bohème at the Judy Bayley Theatre, I fell in love. It was a truly transformative experience seeing my friends up onstage using their voices — basically their entire beings — to tell these stories. I was so fascinated by the way their voices projected over the orchestra. 

I also had several friends who were in the orchestra pit playing their instruments. I was completely in awe of the entire thing.

Funny thing is, I had no idea the opera I was watching was a tragedy, so I was completely taken aback that the leading soprano character, whom I thought was going to live, passed peacefully in her sleep. I was moved to tears.

After the curtain came down, with tears still streaming down my face, I walked out of the theater thinking, “What my friends and classmates just did up there on that stage, that is what I want to do.” 

You took somewhat of a nontraditional path to college. What motivated you to attend UNLV? 

It kind of happened by accident. I was married at the time and working in the medical field, and I loved it. I’m very much a people person, and I found it gratifying helping patients on their road to recovery. But it was my then-husband who said, “Look, you like music so much; you grew up with it. Why don’t you go get a degree in music?”

I thought it seemed a little far-fetched, especially because I started my formal education later in life and didn’t think I had the grades to be accepted. But I applied anyway, and when I got my acceptance letter in the mail, I said to myself, “OK, I’m doing this. I’m actually going to start something and finish it.”

After discovering opera and getting accepted into the vocal performance department, your initial plan was to complete a double major. How difficult was the decision to drop music education after investing four years in it?

 To be honest, when I started student teaching during my fifth year, I was really unhappy. I could just tell in the moment that I wouldn’t find fulfillment in that career. Also, it was difficult to find the energy to be in a classroom all day, then go do my voice lessons.

Still, I was at a crossroads, because I really wanted to complete the double major. Also, my parents — especially my mom — always taught me, “If you’re going to start something, finish it.”

I felt like I would be letting so many people down if I didn’t complete both degrees. So I called my mom — a conversation I was dreading — and asked if she’d still be proud of me if I only graduated with one degree. Of course, my mom told me she would be proud of me no matter what, as I was going to be the first woman in my entire extended family — I have about 70 cousins on both sides — to earn a college degree.

After hanging up the phone and with tears in my eyes, I emailed my UNLV music education advisor and professors and said, “This is really embarrassing because we spent so much time on this. But I’m going to graduate with just my vocal performance degree.”  

 And I’ve been riding the opera wave ever since. 

What’s the biggest misconception the public has about opera/opera singing? 

During my career, I’ve come to learn that the outside world sees opera as this mysterious, antiquated art form that only elite society attends. So I’ve made it my personal mission to share with public audiences everywhere — particularly with people who look like me — that opera is for everyone.

Opera singers are just up on that stage telling stories that have existed forever. The only thing that’s different from other forms of music performance is that opera singers are trained to use our voices in a way that’s healthy, sustainable, and beautiful. And we’re unamplified — there are no microphones.

What’s also important to know is that these stories are very real, moving and poignant, and still relevant today. Many people who don’t go to the opera — or who are never exposed to opera — don’t realize this. That’s why wherever I go, I try to demystify the world of opera in hopes of luring more people to the theater — regardless of their skin color, where they come from, or their socioeconomic status.

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