Renowned Cuban classical singer Bárbara Llanes says her career is more than work. It’s her hobby, it’s what she does for fun, it’s her raison d’être, it is life itself. If she’s not singing, she says, it’s because she’s unwell or has a problem.
And indeed, as we head to our interview location together, she is in her own musical world, singing a song to herself, unaware of her surroundings or unconcerned.
Born in a small town called Bejucal in the western Cuban province of Mayabeque this young songstress is interminably in love with her job, a career she fell into almost by accident when she heard an aria from one of Mozart’s operas that had such an impact on her that from that very moment, she began a quest into the world of opera and classical singing.
“It was hard to find a mentor to guide me through this complicated art form, it’s a long story, but I managed to find María Eugenia Barrios, who was my teacher for a long time and who gave me not only the freedom to sing but also the enjoyment of interpretation. I’ve been very happy singing this type of music,” she says.
Recounting her initial forays into classical singing she recollects her first concert, when she was still very young, with the Cuban National Symphony Orchestra conducted by famed Cuban musician Leo Brouwer. She sang Polish composer Henryk Górecki’s Symphony Number 3.
“That was a big step,” she recalls, “because no-one knew about me before that moment.” “After that I started Classical Studies with Alina Sánchez, which really gave me so much. A short while later, I started my career as a soloist.”
Asked what her most moving moment as a singer has been, she says she has had many emotional moments. “There’s a piece that I have been singing all my life. It has been very important for me from a musical point of view as well as spiritually. It is José María Vitier’s Misa cubana (Cuban Mass).”
“That piece was written more than fifteen years ago, and over that time we’ve been to festivals all over the world, given concerts in very important places. In the Vatican, in Spain, in Mexico and other countries, and particularly in the city of Guanajuato where I gave my first concert abroad. I sang that piece there and the audience gave me a standing ovation, they chanted my name, it was really very emotional.”
This successful singer with numerous national and international awards under her belt clearly loves her work, but she also adores the work of composing and arranging.
“I love musical theatre, and right now in Cuba this genre has almost disappeared. But when I met a theatre group called Las Estaciones (The Seasons) I had a feeling I could make my dream come true.”
“I saw amazing design, beautiful figures, marionettes and gorgeous lighting in a children’s production of Claude Debussy’s Toybox. It captivated me. So I went to the director Rubén Darío Salazar with a proposal for a children’s production formed of poems laced together to create a story.. The show was called Canción para estar contigo (A Song To Be With You) and we put it on in Mexico, we made a film too.”
“This year,” she continues enthusiastically, “we’re doing another show. I want it to be full of Caribbean rhythms, featuring various singers and musicians on stage.”
Bárbara isn’t one for looking to the future, she thinks it’s more important to be in the present. But she did talk about her busy work line-up over the coming months.
“In May I will be singing Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet in the Avellanada Hall of the Cuban National Theatre. In November I’ll be taking part in the Havana Classical Music Festival, a project led by the excellent Cuban pianist Marcos Madrigal who has invited important musicians from all over Europe. I’ll also have shows at the Havana Grand Theatre, and I’ll be recording several discs.”
She ended with a little advice for young people interested in classical singing.
“It’s important to have humility. That lets you be a perfectionist. From the moment you start thinking that because you’ve got a good voice, you have the world at your feet you are impeding your intellectual and professional development. I’d advise [young people] to work hard and be inquiring, and to strive for excellence. You can’t just rely on the talents you’re born with, you need to find a good teacher and be intelligently able to discern who is giving you good advice and who is not. A lot of study, a lot of devotion to this profession, it needs a lot of that.”