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A Voice That Feels Like Home: A Tribute to Eva de la O

by Denise Rivera


Editor's note: Eva de la O, founding director of Música de Cámara and a renowned soprano, passed away on May 4 at the age of 88 after a long illness.

I had the fortune to meet Eva de la O when I was in my early twenties. I had graduated with a bachelor’s degree in vocal performance, and my aunt, who taught at the University of Puerto Rico, was discussing my singing with a colleague. The colleague told her that I simply must know Eva de la O. In order to meet Sra. de la O, I would have to fly to New York City and stay a few nights in a hotel. My mother came with me on that first trip, and we stayed in a tiny room in Manhattan for $130 per night—one of those rooms in which when you open the door, you hit the bed. My mother told me that Sra. de la O was Puerto Rican, like us. I remember feeling a bit nervous about my Spanish, but also relieved that for once, some aspect of this intimidating audition process would seem familiar.  I remember that Eva de la O and I greeted each other with cheek kisses and a hug, as I am accustomed to do with everyone I meet in Puerto Rico.

She warmed me up with familiar pentatonic and scale exercises, and I remember how eager and excited she was to take me on as a student despite how inconsistent and unpolished I was then. Sra. de la O explained that she had a group of Puerto Rican musicians called Música de Cámara, and she told me that when I was ready to do so, I would be performing with them. She gave me a huge aria to practice—one that would fit my voice with time—and we determined when I could next visit.  When I explained that I was nervous about the costs of the trip, Sra. de la O smiled and said she would make a call to help with the hotel. To be sure, the next time I travelled to New York to see her, I stayed alone in a room ten times the size of the first and for half the price.

Eva de la O had graduated from Julliard and was one of the first Puerto Rican singers to grace the illustrious stages of La Scala and Broadway. She founded Música de Cámara in New York in 1979, and brought their performances to Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, Weill Hall, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Kaufman Cultural Center, Lehman Center for the Performing Arts, and many other internationally-recognized venues. Her performers and concerts attracted the attention and reviews from publications and news media such as the New York Times, New York Daily News, NBC, Vocero, Univision, and she had maintained close friendships with multiple other Puerto Rican classical music influencers such as Roselín Pabón of The Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra and Ivonne Figueroa of the University of Puerto Rico-Rio Piedras, who each separately posted heartfelt messages of gratitude for all of Sra. de la O’s contributions on Facebook upon the news of her passing.

Eva de la O was an artist-pedagogue. I could detail her methods and discuss her coaching style, but the aspect of her mentorship that I found most impactful was her commitment to create and sustain Puerto Rican representation in classical music. She introduced me to a communal approach to the task of creating performance spaces and opportunities, particularly for Boricuas who were told we were “too dark-eyed to play the ingenue,” or had only ever been excitedly cast for a role in West Side Story, or who otherwise envisioned our performance careers on chopping blocks due to marginalizing biases.

It was Eva de la O who planted the seed in my mind that I could be curious to find a familiar group of musicians who seek to increase visibility and be heard. Her influence led me to research Puerto Rican composers during my graduate study at University of Minnesota and uncover the works and writings of composers such as William Ortiz, Carlos Cabrera, and Rafael Aponte-Ledée, who would later become my brother-in-law’s teachers at the Conservatorio Música on the Island. Eva de la O taught me to seek out other Puerto Rican musicians on social media, monitor their contributions, and work to collaborate with them to the farthest extents possible.  She sparked the flame in me to encourage and support myself and other Puerto Ricans in this field, with the realization that doing so would be my contribution to a meaningful collective endeavor.

I am currently revisiting the aria Eva de la O assigned me. The text is, translated, “I am the humble servant of the genius creator and he offers me these words that I spread from the heart. Of verse, I am the accent, the echo of the human drama, the fragile instrument… my voice is a whisper which, with the new day, will die.” It is sung by Adriana in Adriana Lecouvreur. She is the ingenue role, and revisiting the aria now, in it, my voice feels quite at home. Gracias, Eva. Seguimos en la lucha.

Música de Cámara will host a concert on May 17 at El Teatro in El Museo del Barrio to commemorate the life and legacy of Eva de la O. Tickets will be available at the door. Donations to the organization can also be made online

For digital access to Centro's oral history interview with Eva de la O, click here.

© Center for Puerto Rican Studies. Published in Centro Voices 9 May 2019.