For the first Eye on Culture of 2017, the Office of International Advisement interviewed Maria Fernanda Brea, a second year vocal arts student from Caracas, Venezuela. Maria earned a bachelor’s of music from the Manhattan School of Music after getting her initial music education from the Escuela Superior de Música José Ángel Lamas and UPEL-IPMJMSM Music Education in Venezuela. She currently studies under the tutelage of Juilliard faculty member, Edith Bers. Maria has performed and/or covered for operas produced by the Wolf Trap Opera, The Juilliard School, Met + The Juilliard School, Prelude to Performance, Manhattan School of Music, and West Bay Opera in California. She has also been a soloist for several concerts and the winner of an impressive number of awards and scholarships.
By age 11, you realized that you wanted to be an opera singer? What inspired this dream at such a young age?
I had to do a PowerPoint project for my computer science class, my dad works at a Music Academy called Johann Sebastian Bach. I decided to do my project about Bach and my dad provided the background music. He brought me a CD on Bach Cantatas, when I heard this music I knew that I wanted to be an opera singer.
You studied music at two different schools in Venezuela. How did this early education prepare you for your education in the US at MSM and now at Juilliard?
In both schools I received a really detailed training. At the University I was learning sociology, psychology, history, statistics and research. At the Escuela Superior de Musica I was learning ear training, music history, and dictation, piano and vocal technique. When I came to Manhattan School of Music I was able to place out of music history, some semesters of ear training and piano. At Juilliard I was able to place out of music history, some semesters of piano and ear training.
Last summer you attended the prestigious Wolf Trap Opera. Can you tell our readers a little about the organization and your experience there?
Wolf Trap Opera is wonderful organization that supports and provides training for young singers of various levels. They have two programs; the Filene Young Artist where young singers that are already having a career come to perform in one or several shows and the Studio Artists which is designed for singers that are still in school. I had the opportunity to work with so many coaches from different theaters and programs in the country such as San Francisco, Washington National Opera and Houston Grand Opera. I had the opportunity to audition for new people and get feedback.
You will finish your master’s degree this May and then returning to the Wolf Trap Opera for the summer. Where do you see yourself after Wolf Trap Opera concludes?
I would like to join a young artist program either in the US or Europe. I will be able to tell you in April, when results are out.J
Based on previous conversations, it seems that you are very close to your family, even though you do not get to see them very often. Can you tell us a little about your relationships with your family and how they have been involved with your music education?
We are super close; I think it is very rare. Both of my parents lost one of their parents at a very young age, they wanted to make sure we are always close to them. My mom, Kitty, has five jobs but we always made sure that we would spend time together. At night I would be practicing and she would be working on her things next to me. My dad, Fernando, is a musician; he plays the guitar and the cuatro (Venezuelan traditional string instrument). There are pictures of my dad accompanying me with the guitar at age 4. Same with my little sister, Maria Eliana, she has a gorgeous voice, we would always sing duets together from folk Venezuelan music, pop or jazz along with my dad and also my mom, she loves singing too although she never studied it. We got the voice from our mom. My sister is a graphical designer and creates her own Japanese mangas.
We know you are an accomplished singer, but do you have any hidden talents?
I belly dance, it all started a fitness tool. Now I do it less but I would dance for friends. I love cooking for my friends, I make arepas (traditional corn meal plate from Venezuela). I also love dancing salsa, merengue and bachata.
Being an international student in the US comes with a variety of challenges (i.e. language barriers, cultural acculturation, immigration responsibilities, financial difficulties, etc.), but Venezuelan students can face additional obstacles such as currency control issues, travel difficulties, etc. Can you tell our readers a little about how these additional challenges impact students from Venezuela?
Venezuela is facing an economical, social and political crisis. Majority of people do not have access medicines or food. The shortages force people to make huge lines to get some rice, sugar or milk. Venezuelans are very well trained in our national universities; Venezuela has a free education system since 1870, so we have a history of preparation in the country. Most of the young professionals are leaving due to the crisis. But some of them cannot afford to study abroad because of the economical crisis and the currency control.
Due to the challenges facing international students from Venezuela, it was uncertain how you would be able to pay for your audition at MSM might as well tuition and cost of living in NYC. You shared an interesting story and powerful news piece with me about how you were able to overcome this major obstacle. Can you share this story with our readers?
I was performing many recitals and word started to get out of my opportunity to leave the country to continue my career abroad. Much to my surprise, as I was trying to find funding to come to NYC, I was watching a program that was featuring a choir I knew from a festival I attended. I wrote a email to the TV channel with the hope they would know someone that could help me sponsor MSM. To my surprise the presenter from the program called me the next day and came to my house in the slum and filmed a video (see video below). The show was a smashing success and I had a great response from people wishing me well, as well as from generous folks who were willing and able to help me out financially. Following the program, I met my wonderful sponsor who is the person I have to thank for my bachelors at Manhattan School Music.
Many mainstream media sources have reported that Venezuela is in a state of economic collapse while others report that the issue is less severe, but at the very least, Venezuela is in the middle of a severe crisis? How would you describe the current situation in Venezuela, how has it impacted you and your family, and what do you think the future will look like for Venezuelans?
In my opinion, it is very severe. My mom was robbed this year three times, they put a gun on her head once and took all her things in a bus she was taking to go to work. My sister was robbed in the train, they had a gun. My father is diabetic, every month is a struggle to find the insulin he needs. Both of parents have 5 jobs and they struggle to make it to the end of the month. Even though they are both professionals, the inflation is so high that it makes everything not affordable.
*To read more about the situation in Venezuela from a New York Times article, click here.
Even though there is a crisis in Venezuela, I am sure there are lots of things you miss about your home city. Other than your family and friends, what do you miss most about Caracas?
I miss Venezuelans; they are warm and always have a smile and a joke, although things are going badly. I miss going to the Teatro Teresa Carreño and also to my beloved Avila ( the mountain that surrounds Caracas).
What about being from Venezuela makes you most proud?
Our sense of humor, we can make a joke about anything, Venezuelans are always laughing.
Is there anything else about you that you would like to share?
I believe that if we fight for our dreams and if we work hard enough we will get where we want to be.