Standing on our roof this morning, hanging laundry and looking out over the waking city, we were treated to the dulcet sounds of an orchestra playing ‘When You Wish Upon a Star’ from our neighbor’s radio. How lovely the morning was, and how much lovelier it became as we hummed along with the sweet soundtrack rising up from below. The bird that always trills her song in the morning joined in, and for a moment there, it felt as if our old Yucatecan bachelor neighbor, the bird and our household were all communicating in some mysterious but perfectly natural way. As birds seem to do every morning, we were a chorus in harmony and we were singing up the sun as it rose into the sky.
Is music a means of personal expression or a method of communication? This is a subtle distinction perhaps, but a distinction nonetheless. A few days ago, we had the pleasure, and we’re not being polite here, of sitting down with Carla Dirlikov to talk about what brought her to Mérida. We were prepared for an interesting but not necessarily fascinating interview, if you get our drift… but we were taken aback by the sparkling intelligence and heart-felt kindness that we found in this young and talented woman who is convinced that music is a form of world-changing communication.
Before you think that maybe we have been paid off by a cunning press agent or business manager to be so effusive, let’s start at the beginning so you can join us on this mountaintop.
We heard about Carla from Benjamin Ramirez, our friend and local artist who seems to be our cultural connection these days to all things opera. He had introduced us to José Adán Pérez just weeks before, and frankly, when he emailed with a suggestion to interview yet another opera singer so close on the heels of José Adán, our first instinct was to politely demur. We decided that demurring would not be polite at all, so we set up the interview. How bad could it be? We’d hear some music, ask a few questions, grab a few photos and we’d be on our way.
We found Carla in a small and sweltering classroom in the Iberica School, behind a standup piano and in front of a dozen or so students. The air conditioner was turned off, so as not to affect their voices, and though the windows were open and the fans whirring above, the heat was positively Yucatecan. Immediately we were struck by the presence of this woman at the front of the classroom who was confidently pounding out chords and picking out melodies with one hand, while she gestured and gesticulated, carving shapes and paths through the air for her students’ voices to follow. The students stood in a semi-circle in front of her, mimicking her hand gestures as they sang, attempting to mimic her voice. There were exercises for breathing, exercises in scales, exercises in making their voice fuller, rounder… making their voices resonate in their chests and come up and over their heads. To encourage them to steady and expand their sound, she even had them hold their fingers to the roof of their mouth or make circles in front of their faces as they sang, making for some very silly pictures.
After the group exercises, Carla worked with a few of the students individually. They brought their preferred aria to her, she read the music, picked it out on the piano and then they sang for her. She gave them feedback, asked for another try but with more this or that, and then gave them ideas of the types of operatic roles that would be appropriate for their voices. She gave one of the girls a scorebook that she brought with her from the States, and this was accepted as a treasure. Carla told us later that many of her friends throw stacks of scores away if they aren’t pristine or from a certain publisher… but any score is appreciated here by these students, for they are not easy to come by.
The students impressed us as well. They are teens and 20-somethings (mostly women, one man) who are enrolled in a bachelor’s program here at Iberica, majoring in voice studies. A few of them carried 3-ring binders with sheet music inside; many of them took notes when Carla was talking. They looked like the typical giggly girls (and boy) we see walking around the mercado or the mall, but they had an air of seriousness about them, and when they sang, it was easy to picture them in costume and makeup under stagelights. Their voices lent them a presence beyond their years. When Carla sangs to show examples, the difference between her masterful voice and their student voices was blissfully obvious to everyone in the room. The students only took their eyes off of Carla to look inside themselves as they sang, to look up at the ceiling for a particularly difficult note or to check the laptop in front of the room which was recording the entire session. We snuck around the room in front of and behind them, attempting to photograph the moment in the dim light.
Suddenly, but thankfully (for we are all melting like wicked witches), class was over, binders and purses were gathered up and the students clamored for Carla to take a photograph with all of them. That was the last of five days that Carla had spent with these students, putting them through exercises, coaching them and encouraging them, and they wanted a souvenir. We took photos with multiple cameras, Carla assured everyone they can reach her on Facebook and we walked to the administrator’s office to say goodbye.
In the school office, Carla was greeted by two men who run the school. Mario Quijano (coordinator on the left) and Maestro Álvaro Vega (the director, on the right). Smiling from ear to ear, they graciously presented Carla with a book of scores called Cancionero by Chan Cil y Otros Precursos de La Canción Yucateca. Carla upped the Latin graciousness ante, thanking them profusely. Two students who followed us in took photographs like groupies and suddenly it felt like we were all founding members of the Yucatan Carla Dirlikov Fan Club. Carla never once acted diva-esque, talking only about how happy she has been to teach here, how she plans to come back, bring more scores for the students and how interested she is in exploring the idea of long-distance teaching and coaching with the school. (The school has a classroom set up for long-distance teaching over the Internet… another story). Eventually, the arc of mutual gratitude returned again to solid ground and we escaped back into the heat of the day.
As we drove to Benjamin Ramirez and Ross Russell’s home for a chat and refreshments, we discovered a mutual interest with Carla that has nothing to do with music… dogs. Carla has two rescued dogs, and as you may recall, so do we. We resolved to become Facebook friends as well, and continue the dog discussion at a later date. Now was the time to find out more about this tall American mezzosoprano who speaks such great Spanish, sings so beautifully and who is giving so generously of her time here in the Yucatan.
Carla was born to a Bulgarian father and a Mexican mother (born in Durango, raised in Mexico City). Mom worked for the Mexican Embassy and met Dad in Prague when he was getting his doctorate in Chemistry. They settled with Dow Chemical in Michigan, and it was there, in Ypsilanti, that Carla grew up.
Not only was Carla the only Latina in her high school (in a time when most kids were a little vague on exactly what "Latina" even meant…), but she was different in other ways. She spent every summer not in a cottage by the lake, but in Mexico City with her Mexican family. Her mother saw to it that Carla grew up with a thorough Mexican education, and her father took responsibility for educating her and her two younger brothers in the Arts. Instead of Batman or Get Smart, the Dirlikov children watched operas and symphonies on television. While some kids played Superman on the playground, Carla fondly recalls watching Franco Zeferelli’s movie version of Carmen, and then playing Carmen for hours, with one brother playing Don Jose and the youngest brother playing the bull. At 8 years old, she began taking violin lessons, which she continued for some twelve years until one day, after singing her part before playing it (as her teacher instructed), she realized she preferred the singing to the playing.
Not only did she realize she preferred it, she realized she absolutely loved it. When Carla spoke to us about her passion for singing, her love of the craft and the technique of opera, it was obvious that she had thought long and hard about her choice of livelihood. She told us that she has been fascinated by communication, since a very young age when she could speak English, Spanish and Bulgarian. She loved every kind of music, focusing for a long time on the words and what they allowed the music to express. After rescuing her first dog and spending time with her as she navigated difficult times in her life, Carla realized that even words were secondary, because it became apparent that words aren’t necessary for communication.
Carla has spent her fairly short adult life so far educating herself to become a great singer, starting with a bachelor’s degree at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, through summers in Italy (to learn Italian), two years in Paris (to learn French, among other things) and years at McGill University in Montreal in their opera program. Now she finds herself at the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia, honing her craft as she expands her body of work by performing around the world.
Surprisingly, her decision to dedicate herself to a career in singing was not well accepted by her parents, and it was a struggle for her to come to the decision to pursue singing and let a possible career in Arts Administration fall by the wayside. In the wintry city of Montreal where she attended McGill University’s operatic singing program, she also came to the decision to marry Michael Gallant, a fellow singer and renovation carpenter. It was there, also, that she adopted her dogs and found her singing connection to Mexico.
Her grandmother, who lives in Mexico City, had tried to attend her first big public performance in Banff a year or two after 9-11. No one knew that the grandmother needed a special visa to even set foot in the United States on her layover in Houston. Carla’s grandmother was stopped in Houston and made to return to Mexico without seeing her granddaughter perform. Carla’s advisor at school got wind of this situation, and when he was approached by the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City to help with programming a Fourth of July event, he sent Carla. The event brought Carla to Mexico City, Guadalajara, Campeche and even to Merida in 2005, although her Merida event was canceled at the last minute. Carla was able to visit with her grandmother, and just as important, she was given the opportunity to impress the people at the Consulate with her singing, and we imagine, with her demeanor, her understanding of multiple cultures and her interest in helping others.
One of those people that she impressed was Bertha Cea, who worked with the U.S. Consulate in Mexico City organizing their cultural events. Bertha brought Carla to a number of performances and workshops in Campeche, Veracruz and other places in Mexico over the next few years. Carla has even performed at the Anthropological Museum in Mexico City… an event we would have loved to have seen.
June 2009 marks Carla’s fifth visit to work and sing with the Children’s Choir in Campeche. She has gotten to know some of them (out of about 35 singers, half of them are orphans apparently), and she always brings gifts from the States. She has also performed in several operas in various parts of Mexico and, as she puts it, her career in Mexico was building beautifully until Calderon was elected… and then it all stopped. Ever the optomist, Carla turned her attention and her emptied calendar to the States and to Europe, while at the same time, she had the good luck to meet and consult with Louis Ledesma and Danielle Orlando from the AVA (Academy of Vocal Arts) in Philadelphia. She was maturing, her voice was maturing, and these two coaches suggested that she begin singing roles that demanded a deeper and more mature vocal expression. According to Carla, this was a huge vocal shift and she entered the AVA program in order to effect that change quickly.
This is the spot in the road of Carla’s career where our paths have crossed. As we sat down by the side of the road and she told us the story of her journey to this point, we could see that a long and adventurous road stretches out before her. Carla seems to have a real career ahead of her in opera, and a dedication to match it. She has work for her new voice lined up until 2013, and in between all of that, she is finding the time to be an official Cultural Envoy for the United States in Merida, Yucatan and Campeche.
What is a Cultural Envoy? A cultural envoy has been nominated and selected by a group of artists to work with a community on behalf of the United States. Carla will be focusing on Yucatan and Campeche, and therefore, she will be coming back here regularly. She hopes in the future to have concerts with other American artists, all of whom will also hold master classes with Yucatecan students while they are here. She always adds American numbers to her performances in Mexico, such as "Summertime" from Porgy and Bess, and says that she and her performances have been well received, and she is graciously appreciative of this. During her current foray to Mexico, besides the classes she has taught, she has performed four nights in places like Timicuy, Temax and Akil, with her last one last night at the Peón Contreras in Mérida before heading home.
Carla brings so much more than music when she visits the children and students here. She brings her belief in the importance of communication, with or without words. She talks about what a wonderful instrument the voice is… how expressive it is, how convenient and portable it is (you can bring it with you anywhere!), how it is available to everyone and how, through a combination of dedication, understanding and discipline, it brings joy to both the singer and the listener. And best of all, singing is available to anyone… it’s free. When Carla works with young people here in Mexico or anywhere around the world, she doesn’t try to make each of them the next opera star. Instead she hopes to communicate to them the value of the gift that is their voice, and how that gift will keep on giving if they show it respect and exercise it with discipline. She also hopes that they will learn, in the process of developing and sharing the gift of their voice, what a gift they are to their community.
And in that way, perhaps, Carla is showing them and us what a gift she is, and how to sing our way to peace, love and understanding for our world.
More about Carla…
The website of the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia
About Cultural Envoys for the United States
Franco Zefferelli’s Carmen