For this March edition of Eye on Culture, the Office of International Advisement spoke to César Parreño. César is a first year vocalist from Guayaquil, Ecuador. Read on to learn about César’s quick stint in business school, his experience coming to the US, and his true love, Sasha, his dog.
Can you share with us the first time you were involved in the vocal arts?
I’ve always enjoyed singing, ever since I was a kid; [I] didn’t know that singing would end up being my profession. My mom tells a story that [she] once saw a 1-year-old toddler (me) singing and dancing to a music video on TV. My mom interpreted those mumblings, and probably not so pretty sounds, as singing and since then she knew I liked [music]. At around 10 she signed me up [for] a music school back home, and there I had my first lessons. I stopped around 2 years later.
Why did you stop?
I quit for a while after a horrible performance. I always kept singing in my high school’s band. We performed in events throughout the year, but it was always pop, rock, or Latin music, not classical at all. Then high school ended and I didn’t quite know what I wanted to do with my life, so by default I started business school back home. Because it was really close by, I started taking lessons with my teacher back home, Beatriz Parra. There, I started taking lessons and almost immediately joined their choir. Eventually, music started [to steal] me away. In Ecuador classical arts [don’t] have the space they deserve. It is very difficult to have a career as an opera singer when the classical environment is so [limited]. Saying that it is challenging and against the norm is an understatement. Years passed and I realized I didn’t enjoy business. I was only taking the liberal arts courses and avoiding the business core. I allowed myself to accept the fact that I could indeed have a chance in studying classical singing and [make] it my profession. I have to admit, the choir and the environment of artists I spent time with was one of the most determining factors in my decision.
I always wanted to study abroad. I have to confess I didn’t know about conservatories and music schools in the U.S., I heard of Juilliard before, so I went online and googled: “Best music schools/conservatories in the US” browsed around 3 lists, picked and researched my 4 favorites, [then] applied. Just like that. I didn’t know about any specific teacher I wanted to study with; I didn’t know anyone from there; I just did it. Talk about crazy things, right?
Can you tell us your relationship with music and the arts as you were growing up?
While growing up and during high school I thought of music as a hobby. I never really thought about it as a career until I actually dropped business school. I didn’t really have a person to look up to. I am the first professional musician in my family, too. My parents don’t really listen to classical music at all. I was never exposed to a real artistic community. This is why the choir was so important to me. It gave me a little taste of the musician community. Culturally, being a musician is not a “regular” career choice, thankfully my parents saw my potential, and have been supporting me every step of the way.
Do you mind sharing any information about your family and pets?
Of course, I don’t! I am the elder of two brothers. My younger brother’s name is Sergio. He is currently in high school and not worried with the “What will I do with my life?!” dilemma yet. My dad’s name is Patricio (actually César Patricio, but lets not talk about that) he works in an insurance company. Funny thing, he loves soccer and almost all sports, while I don’t. We both enjoy action TV shows though! And last but not least, my mom, Katia. She is a dentist. She has her own office and we talk A LOT. It’s our favorite hobby. She is also a really musical person! She enjoys music and always wanted to learn how to play piano. Her dad, Pablo, is also a singer at heart. You can always hear him sing around his house, and even recorded a CD with two guitar accompaniment! I guess I got the love of music from my mom’s side!
I have a cat named Juana; she is not that friendly. She will sometimes just run to you and bite you. But we love her anyway. However, the real star of the show is my Pekingese dog, Sasha. She is the best dog ever, period. She is super calm and really enjoys human company. She would follow me around everywhere and would let anyone pick her up for a long time (as long as you pet her). She is also a terrific hunter. Just wanted to let you know. Don’t be jealous.
You’ve had many performances already in your career, do you have any favorites? Or any that have been particularly meaningful to you?
Of course, 3 come to mind.
The first one is a really big performance celebrating the city’s (Guayaquil) anniversary in which I was hired to sing one of the main roles. It was also the inauguration of a giant statue in the middle of the city. This giant even had a full orchestra and was live-streamed on TV and social media! It was a huge thing! I’m so happy I was a part of it!
The second one is when the choir I was in (in spirit I still am) went to Peru to an international choir festival. We had so much fun traveling and going to Machu Pichu and gasping for breath at 11,152 feet over ocean level! It was an unforgettable experienced singing with my friends and traveling to do music outside Ecuador!
And the last one is the one I hold dearest to my heart. It was during the final performance of the classical singing international festival organized by my teacher, Beatriz Parra. This was the last performance I had before moving to the states to start my studies [at] Juilliard. As you can imagine, emotions were high. My final song was “No puede ser”, [a heavily emotional piece] by Pablo Sorozábal. At the end I hit that long, final A. I see my friends and family’s faces, smiling, clapping, cheering. And I lost it. I tried bowing with a smile, but my face started trembling. I started crying. I resumed full crying backstage. It was not as much happiness that I was leaving, it was more of a sense of accomplishment, closure if you may. That will be one of my most treasured memories. Because it had all that was important to me; music, friends and family, all in one place, all in one moment.
You currently are an active participant on campus and in the residence hall. Which events have been your favorite so far this school year?
Oh so many to pick from. I have to admit I enjoy all diversity dialogues. I’m always surfing through science videos in youtube, and diversity dialogues are like those but interactive and with people! In the residence hall I loved geek movie night with people from the Geek Coalition! We watched Galaxy Quest and I loved every minute of it! Another one of my favorites was Breakfast and Cartoons. Had two of my favorite things: cereal and cartoons. What else could I ask for?
Your hometown is Portoviejo, even though your family lives in Guayaquil. Can you explain your relationships with both places? Are there any cultural differences?
It’s funny because I always say I’m from Manabi, Portoviejo. Even though I used to live in Guayaquil since I was 2/3 years old. I wouldn’t say there is much of a cultural difference though. A good thing that comes from being from two different places its that you get to travel during Holidays!
Ecuador has experienced many challenges recently politically, and environmentally. Can you explain what this is like?
Sadly, 2 years ago my hometown was devastated by an earthquake. A lot of people around the upper west coast lost their lives. This made the economy more challenging than it was for me and my family, given that we had to help family that lost their homes back in Portoviejo. Things are looking much better now. One day, Portoviejo will be back better than ever.
Can you compare life in NYC to Guayaquil?
I’ve always lived in a big city, so its not that different. Funny thing, for me the transition from Guayaquil to NYC was not that harsh (if at all) it just felt like: “Welp, I’m here. Let’s get to business.” I also never felt quite like home in Guayaquil, I was always lacking something, and I think I’m still looking for it.
As you’ve shared before, Ecuador does not have as developed of an opera culture as other countries. How was the transition (musically) from Ecuador to Juilliard?
It was overwhelming. I came from a place where we did a couple of opera scene shows, but nothing too big. I am not that familiar with the classical music world yet. Coming to Juilliard showed me how much more music there was to listen to and how many stories were told through music. It was a humbling, exciting, and overwhelming sensation. I also didn’t have any music theory or ear training back home.
Although opera is not a tradition in Ecuador, what are the other musical or art-related traditions?
Being from the city I’m afraid I am not that familiar with more rural traditions of Ecuador. However in Ecuador the Pasillo is a very popular song genre. I’m also very fond of it because It was in a Pasillo competition when I first won a singing competition! I remember making the artistic decision of ending the song knelling in the stage for dramatic effect. My young self knew that I was supposed to be a singer, I don’t know why I didn’t listen to 12 hear old me!
Where do you see yourself in 5 years? 10 years? 25?!
I really have no idea. I don’t even know how the classical music world works yet. I do know I want to make my family and my country proud. Although, I do know I want to travel and sing all around the world. Hopefully one day *crosses fingers*.
Is there anything else you would like to use this space to share?
I just want to let everybody who loves music [know] that they should never discard music as an option for a career. It is never too late to start singing. You never know what might happen and people who know about music might see something inside you that you don’t know is there yet. Always give yourself a chance.