Angie Villela, 17, studies voice with Michael Chipman, music theory with Kathy Sawada, and piano with Vanessa Fadial. A recipient of the Herbert Zipper Scholarship and a native Angeleno, Angie has been at Colburn for six years.
This interview has been edited for length, content, and clarity.
How did you start taking lessons here?
I started off in ballet when I was about six years old. My brother had the Summer Encounter scholarship here at the Colburn School, but my school wasn’t eligible to be part of Summer Encounter. So I applied for the Herbert Zipper Scholarship and I studied really, really hard and I got the scholarship in 2011.
What have been some memorable experiences here?
All my Mayman Friday Night [Recitals], all my performances have always been memorable to me. I guess all the nerves and the jitters, they just pop up in every performance. They always make me see there’s always something I can improve on. It’s like a stepping stone of progress, so that’s something I love.
What have been some highlights of your musical career so far?
I represented the US and Mexico in Peru, Lima and Cusco, and I was in the top ten of the best sopranos in Baja, California. And I was singing with Plácido Domingo. So the singers that came out of the competition Operalia, I sang with them. And this year I’m representing the US and Mexico again in Europe. I can’t say much about that yet.
How did you go from taking ballet to deciding you wanted to sing?
First I started off just watching my brother play instruments. I was, you know, monkey see, monkey do, right? So I saw him play violin and then I was like, “Well I want to do that too.” And then I started getting into classical music. Then seeing a whole ballet production in a whole opera house, seeing it transform into an actual opera like Don Giovanni, that really inspired me to be able to go on the stage and become a performer.
And I started off singing—not classical—I started singing Mexican regional music. So that was actually the first thing I was doing and then escalating my way to a different technique. Shifting worlds, technically, and shifting languages also.
Can you tell me more about your musical background?
I started off playing and performing mariachi music, which is really, really different from opera and classical. You don’t really perform with sheet music or memorize something from a piece of music. It’s like storytelling in a sense. You jot it down and then you listen to it over and over again so that you know what it sounds like, and you play it. So my training was based off of ear training. It was just like, “Okay well this note is lower, this note is higher.”
After that shift, I started getting new books and focusing on actually playing what I was being given. So I started with Suzuki, and I started practicing and practicing and then I got to a little more of Bach, more of preludes and etudes. So once I got that situated with my musicianship skills, I was like, “Well I’m going incorporate this for my singing as well.” And then I got the guts to audition here at the Colburn School.
How was the transition from mariachi to classical?
It was really different. Going from a chest and throat type of voice to going into different registers, it was a complete shift for me, and it’s hard work that I had to put a lot of time and effort into.
Do you still sing mariachi?
I do sing mariachi, because it’s still part of my roots, it’s part of my culture, it’s still something I love to do, and it’s not something that’s going change.
Is it different for you now, having that classical training?
My vocal technique now compared to before, it’s more big, and it’s much more different. So when people tell me, “Oh, well, you’re only singing opera now,” I just know how to blend all my registers now.
What is like being a woman of color in the classical world?
I’ve been told that I’ve been too brown to sing the opera. Multiple times. Not here at the Colburn School. But multiple times I’ve been the only brown person in a competition. The only brown person to sing opera and I’m really proud because I make not only Mexico, but Latin America and the whole region stand out, and make myself and my family and my roots prouder of who we really are.
What do you hope to do with your music in the future?
In the future, I definitely want to study in college. I want to become a voice major. I want to become the next Anna Netrebko. For sure I really want to study with the best, I want to travel, I want to perform, I want to be able to teach as well.
That was never a mindset of mine before. But now thinking about it, I have a great teacher here, Mr. Chipman, that has guided me so much and I thank my life to him technically. I want to encourage a child, I want to encourage another kid from my skin color, or that kid that comes from an economic background that can’t afford three thousand dollar lessons, I want to be able to inspire them to work as hard or twice as hard to be in a position like mine.
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