San Francisco Opera | Baritone Efraín Solís on “Being Stuck Between Two Worlds”

Baritone Efraín Solís on 'Being Stuck Between Two Worlds'

As he rehearsed the opera Cruzar la Cara de la Luna, baritone Efraín Solís practiced the lines of a son grappling with the agony of his father’s slow decline. But off stage, Solís was grieving as well. It was 2018. He was nearing anniversary of his grandfather’s death, and the opera had stirred up a flood of memories.

“He had such a strong influence on me. And so it was bringing up a lot of those emotions,” Solís explained in a recent interview.

The story of Cruzar la Cara de la Luna hit close to home. An opera set to the sound of a mariachi band, it chronicles the final moments of Laurentino as he says goodbye to his family — and relives the memories of the love he was forced to leave in Mexico.

Solís had been cast that year as Laurentino’s American-born son Mark, both in the opera’s New York premiere and its revival at Houston Grand Opera. At the start of his career, Solís admits he might have hesitated to play a Latinx character onstage. He didn’t want to be typecast, being Mexican-American himself.

“Then I remember talking to a friend and he said, ‘Well, who's going to tell these stories?’” That’s the mindset Solís still carries with him. Operas like Cruzar feel personal.

“Having the benefit of being so closely connected to my culture and my heritage, I would never not want to tell those stories,” he said. Performing in Cruzar, he adds, “felt like I was telling my story in a lot of ways too.” It took him back to his own roots, to the hometown where he first encountered opera — and discovered a talent for song.

Solís, 30, was raised in Santa Ana in southern California. The city is predominantly Latinx — so much so, Solís points out it was a punchline in the TV comedy Arrested Development: The character Buster Bluth emerges from the trunk of a car thinking he’s in Mexico, when in fact, he was only six minutes from his home in Newport Beach.

Like Mark in Cruzar, Solís could relate to “being stuck between two worlds.” His parents were born in Mexico, but Solís was born in the U.S. His was a large family, with many uncles and cousins on his dad’s side. Solís’s grandparents helped raise him, especially when school let out in the summer.

It was a busy environment, with lots of kids running around, but Solís credits his grandfather with instilling good values in him. His parents also taught him to be proud of his heritage — while making sure he never forgot that the U.S. was his home, as much as anyone else’s.

“My parents, when I was growing up, they would say, ‘You’re American.’ But I was reminded everywhere else that I was Mexican American — but Mexican first,” Solís said. “But I go back to Mexico and to them, I'm American, you know? So it's this kind of middle place where I have such strong, strong ties to where my parents are from, but I also have strong ties to where I've grown up, which is in the U.S. You're in this limbo really.”

Music proved to be a grounding force, ever-present in the Solís household. Solís says his father was self-taught: He could pluck out chord progressions for a song he’d only heard once — and deliver notations for how to play it, too. Mariachi music was always around.

His first exposure to opera came with a flash of recognition. “When I found out about opera, I laughed because I thought, ‘Well, I grew up listening to mariachi, hearing mariachi singers at family events and birthdays and quinceañeras and all this stuff. And this doesn't sound very different to me.’”

It all started around seventh grade. Solís had gone to see a dress rehearsal of La Bohème at the now-shuttered Opera Pacific in Santa Ana. And while the music didn’t exactly impress the young Solís at first, what did astonish him was how the performers were singing: without microphones.

He fell in love with the idea that he too could project his voice across thousands of seats, unaided by amplification. And when his music teacher started to give him voice lessons, he discovered he had a knack for the art.

That realization ultimately led Solís to his career. He spent two years training as a San Francisco Opera Adler Fellow, part of the company’s young artist residency program. There, as he puts it, he got “thrown into the deep end.”

When one colleague fell ill, he ended up playing the scene-stealing role of Dandini in Gioachino Rossini’s fairy-tale comedy Cinderella. When another colleague was forced to withdraw following a family illness, Solís landed another plum role: Papageno in Mozart’s The Magic Flute.

“It's funny because when I think about some of the singers that influenced me the most at San Francisco Opera, they turned out to be Hispanic,” Solís said, listing off his Cinderella co-star Carlos Chausson and conductor Jesús López Cobos as examples.

He also was thrilled to perform next to Mexican tenor Ramón Vargas in 2014’s Un Ballo in Maschera. “It was so inspiring to be able to sing alongside someone like him,” Solís said. “Being such a young singer and being able to kind of rub shoulders with such incredible Latin artists just made me even prouder to be a Latino myself.”

From there, opportunities like Cruzar emerged — but Solís noticed there were relatively few Spanish-language operas being presented regularly in the United States. Even when he was studying at conservatory, he recalls Spanish was always treated as an elective, rather than a core language for opera.

If Spanish were to take its place alongside Italian, French and German in opera education, Solís believes the impact would “trickle down” into opera company’s programming choices. “There are thousands of zarzuelas that even I'm not aware of. It would be amazing to see some of those who claim their rightful place in the repertoire,” he adds.

Opera needs to evolve in order to survive, Solís says. And part of that evolution involves embracing new sounds and new audiences — or audiences that have been there all along, waiting to be courted.

“I mean, [soprano Maria] Callas did some of her most legendary performances in Mexico City. I remember listening to this bootleg recording of her singing Lucia and they screamed and yelled and begged her to encore the mad scene,” Solís said.

“And she did it again — the entire 15-minute mad scene. So Mexicans know good singers and they know good singing. I remember finding that recording and thinking that there is a place for things like Cruzar.”

As he — like many performers — awaits the end of the coronavirus pandemic for theaters to reopen, Solís has returned to the San Francisco Bay Area to join the league of resident artists at Opera San José.

It had been a gloomy summer prior to his appointment. Everything he did during the day — from what he ate to how he exercised — tied into his work as a performer. Suddenly, without a stage, he was adrift. And without a steady paycheck, he scrambled to figure out how to restore some semblance of financial security. “I felt, in a lot of ways, I was losing my identity.”

Solís turned to a therapist for help. Mental health, especially now, is a big issue for a lot of singers, he said. ”I started going down this dark tunnel and I thought, 'I need to just talk to someone that's not a friend and get an outside perspective.' He really helped."

With new projects on the horizon at San José, his spirits have lifted. “I think ultimately like we perform because we're very emotional people. For me at least, that is part of my outlet,” he said. “I love that I can leave my crap at the door and really just dive into someone else’s music, someone else’s psyche, and through that release a lot of my emotional baggage.”

Returning to performance gives him a jolt of excitement. This is the dream, he says. And he feels honored to portray characters like Mark in Cruzar with an authenticity born of firsthand experience.

“It’s not something that I think one can study. I grew up Hispanic. I grew up with my abuela and mi amá and mi apá. I grew up with mariachi music around me. I didn’t have to go study this culture that I grew up with.”

Ultimately, though, Solís wants to be seen as a performer in his own right, free of stereotypes and pigeonholes. “Most singers of color would want the same — just to, at the end of the day, be considered a singer.”

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