César Ulloa

César Ulloa: Wisdom From a Master Teacher

Jason Victor Serinus on July 18, 2012
Cesar Ulloa
César Ulloa

It is impossible to overstate tenor César Ulloa's importance to the young singers who participate in San Francisco Opera Center’s Merola and Adler Fellows programs. As their master voice teacher, Ulloa provides a vital source of training, feedback, and support. Even after singers embark on major careers, many continue to count on him as their primary teacher, returning to the fold whenever possible for additional instruction.

Nor does Ulloa work just with San Francisco Opera Center. He is presently on the faculty of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and of the Plácido Domingo–Thornton Program at Los Angeles Opera, and serves as principal vocal instructor and musical consultant for S.I.V.A.M., Mexico’s most prominent young artists program. He is also vocal coach for L’Atelier Lyrique de L’Opéra Montreal and Palm Beach Opera young Artist Studio; and he teaches at Dolora Zajick’s Institute for Dramatic Voices. All this, in addition to teaching master classes throughout the world, and being an adjudicator and vocal consultant to a number of musical institutions and foundations in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico.

Ulloa’s work is entirely based in practice. Almost 40 years ago, after Maestro Nicola Rescigno pulled him out of the Dallas Opera Chorus and started him on small roles, he debuted as Giuseppe in La Traviata opposite Beverly Sills. An international career that lasted over 15 years enabled him to share the stage with and learn from many of the greats of the ’70s and ’80s.

As a critic, I find Ulloa’s insights invaluable. I hope you will find what follows equally enlightening.

Why is the Merola Program so great?

Because Sheri Greenawald, San Francisco Opera Center’s director, hires teachers who have been successful performers and know what it really takes to be a successful opera singer. They have worked with great conductors, and have all that tradition in them that they can pass on to the young kids. You might not hear this all in the first Schwabacher concert, at the beginning of the program. But you’ll see, by the end of Merola at the Grand Finale, that they’ve really grown, and they really get it.

I think Merola attracts some of the best talent in the world, thanks to Sheri and Mark Morash, director of music studies, who go around the world scouting for them. But it’s difficult at times for these young singers. They sing and rehearse a lot. We want to make sure that the technique works really well for them and that they stay healthy.

At the first Merola Schwabacher Concert, singers sometimes don’t vary tempo or tone. Some sing very strict time, and don’t take the liberties I’m accustomed to hearing on recordings of the greats. How can anyone tell if this reflects the conductor’s choices, their training, or the singer’s lack of imagination or, perhaps, unfamiliarity with the idiom?

The first Merola concert is pretty early in the 12-week program. A lot of our singers are trying out new things, including things they may have learned the week before with one teacher. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. But what’s great about Merola is that we give them opportunities to get out there and perform.

Their nerves have a lot to do with what you hear. They learn from each performance. They come back to us, talk about what worked and what didn’t, and we move on from there. It’s layers; you keep putting layers on. You’ll see the difference at the end of the summer program, at the Grand Finale. You’ll really see the work all the coaches and teachers have done.

I think Merola attracts some of the best talent in the world, thanks to Sheri Greenawald and Mark Morash.

Conductors may want to stick to a certain tempo, for good reasons. For example, sometimes they take a slower tempo to help the singer with what is coming up later in the music. We try to help them to get through the piece in a vocally healthy way. A lot of times with young singers, you don’t want them to get too slow and possibly sing too heavy, because they may be trying out arias for roles they may do a few years down the road.

Pacing and taking your time is something Merolini [nickname for the Merola participants] learn from experience. A lot of young singers want to rush taking their breath; as a result, they don’t really take a good-enough breath, or perhaps take too high a breath. We always say, “Take your time. You have to prepare your body for singing every time; you can’t just rush into it.”

Sometimes the tempi you’ve heard from the old, great singers is different. The coaches do work on phrasing, and teach the traditions that singers follow. But at this point in the game, a lot of Merola participants are so young that sometimes they are not ready to do what’s traditionally done. They may have to take another breath to get through the phrase. Maybe in another year or two, they will be able to sing differently.

So breathing is something that often opens up with age.

Sure. A lot of the teachers who come here for a week or two work on the breathing mechanism. We have such great voices coming through Merola. But some of them are not yet fully “cooked,” and some need more help than others.

Leah Crocetto also learned an immense amount during the three years she was an Adler, because she was given a number of opportunities to perform new roles.

I spend the summer working with the Merolinis. Susanne Mentzer was just here, and now we have Carol Vaness. They’re both incredible singers and performers who bring so much to Merola singers. If you’ve never stood in a 3,000- or 4,000-seat house and sung over a 100-piece orchestra, as they have, you may not know what it takes. It’s not just about the pretty sound.

I’m lucky, and I’m humbled that they keep me here through the summer. I go to the dress rehearsals of the operas, and the sitzprobe [a seated rehearsal with the orchestra] with Sheri and Mark. We take notes about what needs more work. We keep polishing them to help them get to the next level.

Some Merolini are already far along the way when they arrive. I remember what an impression Leah Crocetto made on me the first time I heard her. And David Lomelí, who made a similar impression, was already my student for a few years prior to his arrival in the Merola program.

Leah also learned an immense amount during the three years she was an Adler, because she was given a number of opportunities to perform new roles. But she always had this innate, God-given gift for singing. I remember the first time I heard her sing in Yerba Buena, I went up to her and said, “You don’t know who I am. But you have a gift from God. Don’t let anybody futz with it too much.”

I followed my own advice. For three years, I listened and suggested a little here, a little there, but I never touched what was already there. Her voice just got better and better as an Adler Fellow. Some people just have it. She can even sing jazz and cabaret. She’s an immense talent, a great, great talent.

Many older singers embellished arias by Rossini and other bel canto composers far more than singers do today. To what extent is all that extra embellishment considered old-fashioned?

Embellishments depend on a singer’s technique and how flexible it is. At Merola, our coaches, whether they be Warren Jones, Mark Morash, or John Churchwell, try to find new cadenzas, interpolations, and ornamentations that fit the singers’ voices. When we had Martin Katz for L’Elisir d’amore, for example, he added a lot of bel canto ornaments.

During the process, I take them, hear what they’re doing, and tell them if it works or perhaps if it stretches them too much and they need to find something else. You don’t want them to copy another singer that they heard on a recording, because what that singer does may not work for them. In fact, it probably was written specifically for that singer.

The good thing about this program is that everybody works together. It’s very open, at least with me. Sheri, Mark, and I work as a team, and discuss whether something works or not. And we go from there.

I grew up with the Dallas Opera, singing in the chorus at age 19. For two years, all I heard was Caballé, Carreras, Horne, Kraus, and Vickers, both onstage and warming up their voices with different vocal exercises. I still have those sounds in my head. It really trained my ears.

My job in Merola is to keep singers vocally healthy through the whole program, because it’s a real boot camp.

I learned so much, especially how important breath management is to good singing production. I’m really lucky, because these experiences have helped me be a better teacher all around.

In your teaching, you try to create the space into which a singer can grow. Do you have an intuitive sense of how far a singer can go, or are you constantly surprised?

Some of them surprise me, but most of the time, I sort of know what will be coming in two years. That’s something you learn by being in the business and teaching for so many years. Your ear has to really be in tune.

Sheri has a really good ear for that. She’s fabulous; she knows. We’ll start working with someone, and she can really hear what’s coming.

My job in Merola is to keep singers vocally healthy through the whole program, because it’s a real boot camp. They sing more hours in one day than they’ve probably ever sung before. I have to make sure that they stay healthy. And that’s besides teaching them technique! It’s grueling for them.

We get people who are on different vocal levels. Some are more polished than others. Some may not have had teachers for a year or two, or are going through a change. It depends. Some have more technical issues — the jaw, the tongue, or the breath — but the instrument is there.

Some I need to work with more than others. Sheri may say, “Work with this one a little more, because she’s going to sing so-and-so in concert and I need you to work the vowels.” Everything has something different they need work on. And some are very polished, and arrive more put together.

Sometimes singers arrive with a tendency to push. So we need to teach them how to pace, so they don’t always sing full throttle and find themselves unable to get through the whole act. They learn by performing, as well as by us showing them where in the music they are perhaps giving too much before the big climax, where they then will need to sound vocally fresh. Some of them know when they push, but it’s not that easy when you’re young. You have this energy, and you want to prove yourself by throwing your voice out there.

When I reviewed the Merola Grand Finale maybe two years ago, some commenters made me sound like a child molester. People said things like “I hope these young, impressionable singers never read your review.” But I don’t understand why we think it’s OK to send young men and women into combat at age 18, but it’s not okay to criticize Merolini who may be in their mid or late 20s and working toward major careers. After all, people like Callas, Björling, and Domingo made their debuts at far younger ages than many of the Merolini are now.

The old singers may have debuted at 19, but the training now is very different. Older singers began their training much earlier. They would go to their teacher’s [studio] three, four, or five times a week. If they went to their teacher every day, by the time they were 19, they already knew how to sing. They had a technique.

Nowadays, in conservatories and universities, voice students may have one lesson a week. Then, in the summer, most of the time they don’t see their teacher. It’s the same during their month off during Christmas. By the time they reach Merola, some haven’t had years of training, and don’t have the technique that those earlier singers had at the same age.

Nadine Sierra started with me when she was 13½, while she went to school in West Palm Beach, where I lived. A lot of other singers start only in high school, and don’t have the training she already had when she won the Metropolitan Council National Auditions and came here as a Merolina and now an Adler.

Cecilia Bartoli worked with her mother for many years. Pavarotti, Freni, and Scotto all went to the greatest coach and teacher in Modena [Italy], where they lived. I spoke to Pavarotti when I sang with him, and he told me that he went every day to his teacher. Before he sang an aria, he only sang scales for a few years.

This is what we’re lacking. At the Conservatory, people get one lesson a week. In the beginning, you have to be with them when they vocalize and warm up, because they can do it wrong. When they get bad habits, the muscle memory starts kicking in.

Some singers may have it easy. They may start at 19, and at 24 they’re singing in a major house. But that’s not the norm these days. Yes, some people are born with it, or start with a lot. They may not be polished, but a lot is there already. They have it!

A lot of times we’ll get someone whose voice we like, but perhaps they don’t show good connection to text, or they lack acting skills. Then we give them a role, and everything just opens up. I can’t say names, but we’ve had people who have really bloomed in the productions.

A lot of it has to do with the directors we bring here. We have movement classes, acting classes, breathing classes. We stretch them on all levels, and really open them up.

Also, a lot of young conductors have never apprenticed with the great maestros. People used to apprentice with Levine, Mehta, or Bernstein for two or three years, and the teaching and traditions were passed on. We must continue to pass on the traditions to all of the young singers coming up in the business.

Of course, not all great singers are good teachers. And some are very hard on their students, Schwarzkopf being a case in point.

This is true. My teacher was tenor Thomas Hayward, who sang at the Met for many years. He gave me the foundation. When he died, it was very hard to find another teacher. I went to Franco Corelli, and we worked together for three years. You can say that maybe he wasn’t a natural teacher, or someone who had been teaching for a very long time. And he basically taught himself how to sing. But I learned so much from him just by talking with him and listening to the way he worked by himself to find the “low” support that enabled his larynx to stay more flexible and low.

When I sang with the great singers, I asked a lot of questions, because I knew one day I wanted to teach. I think that’s where I got a lot of my information. I did Tales of Hoffmann in San Diego with Richard Bonynge conducting, and [Joan] Sutherland was there for weeks just sitting around knitting and listening to rehearsals. I picked her brains about the “oo” vowel and the high notes.

I tell the young singers that you’re going to get a lot of teachers and coaches, and they’re going to tell you all this different information. It’s all great information, but you can’t try to do everything when you get up and sing; if you do, you’ll get confused, and you won’t be able to sing. By the end of the summer, you will have picked out what really works for you.

What, in the end, do you want to say about your position here?

I’m really lucky to have this job. I started with the Adlers in 2005, when Sheri would fly me here from Florida. Then they asked me to be part of the Merola program. It’s really humbling. I feel really lucky, because they are giving me the opportunity to work with such incredibly talented singers.

It’s a big job, and it’s kinda scary at times that I have this responsibility. But I’m so happy every time I come in here. Every time I open that door, I breathe and sigh, “I’m teaching the Adlers!” It’s really amazing. They could have had any other teacher.

Just today, I had worked in a lesson with one of the Adlers, Marina Boudart Harris. Wow! I was carried away by the beauty of her voice. Once day, she’s going to make an incredible Elsa in Lohengrin. You don’t get to hear that every day. To be here week after week, and have the opportunity to share in a singer growing into their full potential, is thrilling.