Child who fled Castro is now opera teaching star

By Lin Ferguson -
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International master tutor at New Zealand Opera School, Cesar Ulloa. PHOTO/NATALIE SIXTUS
International master tutor at New Zealand Opera School, Cesar Ulloa. PHOTO/NATALIE SIXTUS

Acclaimed voice tutor Cesar Ulloa believes music is a powerful force that can soothe, excite, delight and delve into the listener's memory banks.

The latter happened more than 30 years ago when he was a successful opera singer and sitting in the audience for Gian Carlo Menotti's opera The Consul.

"It took me right back to when I was a little boy in Spain."

The family had escaped to Spain from Cuba when he was just six.

"I was born in Cuba and remember vividly my father risking everything to take us out of Cuba and away from the despised Fidel Castro regime."

The synopsis of the opera The Consul is about a man on the run with his family heading towards a better life .

Because much of the first part of the opera is set in the consul's office where hundreds of immigrants are waiting to obtain visas, Cesar remembered the long hours sitting in the consul's office in Madrid with his mum.

"I went with my mother every day to the consulate for a whole year before we finally got a visa to the United States."

The Consul won Menotti 1950 Pulitzer Prize for Music and also the 1950 New York Drama Critics' Circle award for Best Musical.

"And for me it for me a performance I never forgot."

The family finally moved to the United States and settle in Dallas, Texas.

Cesar, now living in San Francisco, is one of the two international tutors at the New Zealand Opera School at Collegiate School in Whanganui.

It is his first time in New Zealand and already he is disappointed he can't stay longer and travel through the country but work beckons and he needs to be working the day after he arrives home.

Cesar, a man with warm brown eyes and a gentle smile, said he never started out to be a singer.

"I was very musical and played the piano and the trumpet I didn't really think about singing a lot."

But at school he was drawn into to being in the choir because it meant you got to go away on trips.

At one choir concert renowned American mezzo soprano Marilyn Horn was in the audience.

"She came backstage and told me she hear me very clearly throughout the performance and that I really should be singing seriously."

Cesar took her advice and never looked back.

He studied voice with great tenors Thomas Hayward and Franco Corelli.

And he has never forgotten being named winner of the American Opera Auditions at Carnegie Hall.

"I was among the finalists but when they were announcing the winners and by the runner up and I hadn't heard my name I left thinking well that was that and I gave it a good shot."

"I'm walking down the street and my teacher was running after me telling me to come back ...you've won , you've won, come back... he yelled.

"I ran back with him and ran up the aisle of Carnegie Hall so amazed I could hardly speak."

After singing solidly for 15 years with the Metropolitan Opera, New York City Opera, Washington Opera, Canadian Opera, L'Opéra de Monte-Carlo, Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, Boston Symphony, Milwaukee Symphony and The Cleveland Symphony, he decided the constant travel wasn't for him.

Today he is the Chair of the San Francisco Opera Center Merola and Adler programmes for young artists.

Two of the young artists in his programme are the Samoan Pati brothers Pene and Amitai (O Sole Mio).

His more than 30 students perform regularly on the major operatic and concert stages of the world.

Cesar is a master teacher and young up and coming singers excite him, he said.

"I love to teach and I am fortunate because I easily hear if there is a problem in a voice."

He said when the Pati Brothers came to him from the Cardiff Academy and master tutor Dennis O'Neill he actually questioned whether there was anything he could teach them.

"They both have God given voices. I am really just their guide."

Pene, he believes, is a young Pavarotti.

"He is about to sing his first major role of the Duke of Mantua in Rigoletto for the San Francisco Opera Company."

Cesar is a great friend of Dame Kiri Te Kanawa and works with her frequently in Britain and Wales.

"She is a great teacher and we both love to work with young voices."

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