By Shari Alexander.
San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. “When you find yourself living in Paradise, the impulse to give back is irresistible.” So says John Bills, retired tenor from the Metropolitan Opera and now artistic director of Opera San Miguel in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. His not-for-profit company sponsors a nationwide contest each year dedicated to discovering and giving career assistance to the most promising young singers in his adopted country.
San Miguel de Allende, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is home to some 15,000 ex-pats from the U.S., Canada and Europe, drawn by the “eternal spring” climate and rich cultural life here in Mexico’s most beautifully preserved Spanish Colonial city. Located hundreds of miles from the centers of drug violence, San Miguel de Allende is an oasis of 16th Century architecture, art and music.
“Mexico is a country rich in talent, and the best of its singers possess a warm Latin quality and a unique ability to express the out-size passions of opera,” Bills says. “But it is also a country poor in opportunity for these young voices to grow and thrive. This is a problem we are trying to address.”
In 2008, Opera San Miguel presented its first Concurso, which quickly became one of the most prestigious and respected contests of its kind. All of its prize money is raised privately from the local international community and businesses; the company receives no government funding.
“We think we have created a unique experience for our contestants,” says Mr. Bills, “one that offers important educational and career benefits in addition to cash grants.” After a first round of auditions in which more than 200 applicants are considered, 10 to 12 finalists are chosen to come to San Miguel de Allende for a week, during which they are given musical, dramatic and language coaching, master classes, and career counseling, conducted by important figures in the international opera world who sit on Opera San Miguel’s Advisory Board.
The week culminates in a sold-out final round and concert held in the city’s charming 19th Century opera house, Teatro Angela Peralta (aptly named for the renowned Mexican opera star), at which prizes are announced.
According to Mr. Bills, “We don’t just hand our winners a check. We require them to submit a proposal for how they will spend the money, and it must be for clearly defined career advancing purposes. We are investing in their futures and we feel we have a fiduciary responsibility to our donors to support only worthy projects.”
In the short time Concurso San Miguel has been in existence, its finalists and winners have gone on to demonstrate the wisdom of that system. One is now the principal tenor of the Bucharest National Opera in Romania, another was a finalist last month in Placido Domingo’s Operalia contest, held this year in Beijing, China. And at a recent run of Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci at the National Opera in Mexico City, six principal roles were taken by alumni of Concurso San Miguel.
In 2013 the company hopes to present its first fully-staged opera, cast with singers discovered through its Concurso. “Nobody makes a career in opera on their own,” Bills says “We all stand on the shoulders of the teachers, coaches, conductors and directors who encouraged us and helped us through the tough days, and the established singers who taught us by example.”
“For me, and for the members of our Advisory Board, our Concurso is a way to pass on to the next generation a real legacy of experience, advice, and practical career assistance. Our goal is for Concurso San Miguel to become the springboard for the careers of the next generation of opera stars. I think that is a goal worth striving for.”
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