In July, José Luis Maldonado (MM ’18) was given the opportunity to cover world-renowned opera singer Sir Bryn Terfel in the Aspen Opera Theater production of Falstaff. “When I found out I was covering him, I cried tears of joy!” says José.
José sang the role of Falstaff for the first time just four years ago in the Martina Arroyo Foundation training program for young singers. He talks to us about this summer’s exhilarating experience covering for one of his idols, reminisces about his valuable time at MSM, gives a shout out to MSM President Jim Gandre, and shares valuable advice to young singers.
How do you feel about covering opera icon Bryn Terfel in this performance conducted by Houston Grand Opera’s Artistic Director Patrick Summers?
José: JOY! When I found out I was covering him I cried tears of joy! I’ve been following Sir Bryn Terfel since I started singing 12 years ago. He was the first opera singer I ever saw, and I was fortunate enough to attend one of his concerts at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in my hometown of Los Angeles, California. I waited at the stage door after the performances and we took a photo together (see picture below) and he signed the copy of the Metropolitan Opera CD I had.
I remember asking him “Mr. Terfel, I’ve just started taking voice lessons, what advice do you have for young singers?” and he wrote “learn songs” in the back of my CD booklet. I’ve learned a lot of art songs since then, and he was so right.
I realized over my years of studying voice, the more songs you learn, no matter if it’s German Lied, French Chanson, or Italian Art song, you learn about the culture, history, composer, and so on, not just how to sing in that language. That was some of the best advice I ever received.
And here we are, 12 years later in a rehearsal for Falstaff and it’s been a joy for me. He arrived later in the rehearsal process so I had the time and privilege to work with all the singers and the production team. He really is one of the nicest people, yesterday Mr. Terfel thanked me for stepping in for me all these weeks. It has come full circle and he even remembered the photo I took!
What is your biggest piece of advice you’d like to give to young singers for covering a title role?
José: For me, the most important aspect of covering was needing to understand how Bryn Terfel sang and performed Falstaff since he’s known for this role. Watching him sing in the sitzprobe (first run-through of an opera) was a masterclass in itself.
If you’re covering a role you have to do double the work and you have to know it as if you are the one who’s going to perform. Especially today with COVID, covering is so important and is not a relaxed situation, preparation is the bare minimum — you have to go above and beyond. I made sure to work extra hard with the coaches, I walked the staging every chance I got, even in my bedroom! I was fortunate to get lots of rehearsal time before Mr. Terfel got here, but that’s not always the case.
My last piece of advice is to ask questions. The more questions you ask the more it will be embodied so you have to supplement the time you don’t get on stage.
“Take advantage of all the opportunities and be curious — you have to be a go-getter. You have to be proactive, it’s your education and you have to invest in yourself and be the boss.”
How has MSM prepared you for the professional world?
José: I absolutely loved my time at MSM and it has prepared me for the professional world so well.
MSM is a great environment for musicality, comradery, and overall learning. I had a really top-notch and high-quality education and met so many fantastic musicians there. They have so many opera ensembles like Baroque opera, contemporary opera, opera scenes, and main stage opera. Thomas Muraco’s opera ensemble was one of my first MSM opera experiences and we did Cosi fan tutte with minimal cuts. I sang Don Alfonso which was a challenge for me because it was my first time doing recitative in my life. Maestro Muraco was tough but a great teacher and mentor. It was an extremely rewarding experience and I walked away with so many new tools in my musical toolbox that I still use today. I’m starting my DMA in the fall at Michigan State University and I feel extremely prepared because of MSM.
Another rewarding experience I had was my time performing in the mainstage opera productions. My first large scale opera with MSM was Johann Strauss II’s The Gypsy Baron. I sang Kálmán Zsupán, King of Swine and the opera was sung in German with English dialogue. It was incredible, the preparation for the opera was on the highest level, we even learned the pet name for pig was “Schnucki Putzi”! I was also fortunate to sing Don Magnifico in MSM’s production of La Cenerentola in the spring of 2018. Everything was professional, even the costumes — I recall that Elizabeth Clancy did the costumes both years and she even modified my tuxedo so I could use it afterwards. I’ve taken that tuxedo everywhere with me Italy, Mexico, China, and here at Aspen!
There were many long hours and a lot of work, but MSM was truly my Olympic palace. There was always work to do and opportunities to go after.
Why did you choose to study voice at MSM?
José: I grew up in East LA and I was fortune to have a really fantastic teacher at a community college. I was told by her that I should either go study in on East Coast or get blessed by the East Coast. I met Maitland Peters when I went to MSM and took my trial lessons for my audition. He reminded me of my grandpa with his spirit and energy, and he taught voice using fundamentals of singing which really resonated with me, since I’m also a big fundamentals guy.
Between reputation and the East Coast, MSM was the place. The moment I walked into the school, it just felt right. It felt like home.
What is your favorite MSM memory?
José: A big shout out to President Gandre, one of the nicest people ever! When I came to MSM the first thing I noticed was how kind President Gandre was to everyone. That was one thing that drew me to the school, it didn’t matter if you were faculty, students, or staff. It’s one of my fondest memories, watching President Gandre be so kind to everyone.
One of the greatest privileges I had was being the Student Commencement speaker in 2018 and an Ades Vocal Competition finalist. The opportunities I received at MSM beyond singing were immeasurable. It really helped me grow not only as a musician but as a person as well.
I absolutely loved the collaboration aspect whether it be with pianists, musicians, or other singers. There were so many great people as well, Nils Neubert, Paolo Marchettini, Thomas Muraco, and my teacher Maitland Peters to name a few.
Another great memory was being a Resident Assistant (RA) during my second year of grad school. Baritone Joe the RA! I was the RA for the eleventh floor which was for sophomore students. A funny story actually: one of my former residents who has now graduated with his Master’s degree is one of the double bassists in the Falstaff orchestra here at Aspen. There’s also a trumpet player here who was in MSM Precollege and he used to come to my performances at MSM. Sometimes I feel like Aspen is like a big MSM reunion!
I had so many great memories from my time as a student! But the most memorable thing about MSM was community. The community was everything. And of course, I loved Manny! Go Manny the polar bear!
What are your words of wisdom for incoming MSM Voice Students?
José: Take advantage of all the opportunities and be curious — you have to be a go-getter. You have to be proactive, it’s your education and you have to invest in yourself and be the boss. It’s ok to ask questions, you have to know you don’t know everything.
I started out as a business major and when I switched to music, I kept the mindset that this was my business and my investment so I had to take care of myself.