A Colombian soprano breaks the molds of opera

Colombian soprano singer Betty Garces performs during a rehearsal at a theater in Bogota on July 28, 2022. — Photo AFP

Betty Garces grew up in a poor port city on the Colombian Pacific coast to the rhythm of drums and marimbas, always with a background sound of violence.

Until her teenage years, she had never heard of opera. Today, she is one of the few black sopranos in Latin America.

Garces hails from the town of Buenaventura, which ironically translates to “good fortune,” but is best known for its rampant poverty, crime, and drug-related violence.

Wedged between the jungle and the Pacific coast, 91% of the city’s 315,000 inhabitants are black, 41% are poor and 18% are unemployed.

“The environment I grew up in Buenaventura didn’t give me many opportunities to dream,” the singer, now 39, recalls of her youth.

When she was 14, her parents – a math teacher and an artist – sent her back to the city of Cali, some 120 kilometers (75 miles) to the east and considered safer.

They did the same with her two sisters when they turned 14, “to protect us,” Garces said.

It was in Cali that she first encountered the musical genre that would change her life.

At the conservatory where she studied music, a teacher made her listen to an interpretation of Richard Wagner by the African-American soprano Jessye Norman.

“At that time, I don’t know what happened here inside, but everything moved,” Garces said.

“I started studying singing without having any idea what opera was…

“I had no idea what I was saying because I never heard anyone speak German. But the connection was strong.

A scholarship took Garces to Germany in 2009, and she has lived there ever since.

She has appeared on stage in more than 20 countries and capitals including Rome, Madrid, Lisbon, Bangkok and Paris.

During a recent visit to Bogotá to perform in the opera Ariadna in Naxos at the Teatro Colon, she told AFP that it was not just her humble origin that she had to overcome.

“In this world, they tend to categorize a lot, there’s a lot of molds… Depending on the context, I’m (described as) a black woman, I’m a Latino or American woman, I’m a tall woman. size,” she said.

“I’m very different from what they expect.”

Quick to smile, Garces said she got interested in music thanks to her grandparents, one deaf and the other blind.

She had a strained relationship with her own parents, was bullied at school and found refuge with her grandparents.

Her grandfather played the harmonica, Garces said, recalling how she used to lay her ear against the floor to amplify sound and “imagine I was in a different world.”

When her grandmother died, she cried hoarsely. But from that heartbreak, Garces said she found her singing voice.

“I was left alone… in this ordeal… For a 10-year-old girl, losing her only love reference in life is very strong,” Garces recalled.

One day, in the middle of tears, “I started to moan,” she told AFP.

‘From this moan, I began to form melodies without words. It was my soul searching for a way to release the pain.

This is his first memory, says Garces, of “conscious singing”.

‘From that moment I started singing and I never stopped.’

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