Venezuelan voice on his way to the Royal Irish Academy

Opera singer Luis Magallanes: ‘I’ve gone from a humanitarian crisis to being here’

Luis Magallanes with pianist and humanitarian Gabriella Montero.

Luis Magallanes with pianist and humanitarian Gabriella Montero.

 

In early May, Luis Magallanes went to a local market in Barcelona to buy supplies. He had only been in the city for a couple of days and he was still feeling overwhelmed by the circumstances of his journey from poverty-stricken Venezuela.

Looking around, he could hardly believe the abundance of food and the contrast with the situation in his home country. “When I walked in, I started crying,” he says.

For Magallanes (28), the move to Europe has been doubly significant. Not only does it mean escaping economic hardship, but it is also allowing him to realise his dream of becoming an opera singer.

“I’ve gone from being in the middle of a bad humanitarian crisis to being here, where I have a chance of a normal life and wonderful artistic opportunities,” he says. “The change is enormous.”

Magallanes’s musical talent has caused him to be plucked from the obscurity of a rural Venezuelan town and handed a place at Dublin’s Royal Irish Academy of Music (RIAM), via his current stint in Barcelona.

This remarkable journey was made possible, in great part, by the Latin Grammy-winning Venezuelan pianist, Gabriela Montero, and her Cork-born husband, the baritone singer Sam McElroy, who have taken him under their wing.

Magallanes grew up in modest circumstances in the town of Zaraza in the Venezuelan interior. He joined a local choir and, on hearing Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Flórez sing on television, discovered his vocation. “I told myself I wanted to sing like that,” he says, describing it as “love at first listen”.

But it was not easy to develop his nascent talent. His hometown did not offer the kind of resources he needed and to attend weekly classes in the town of Calabozo, he had to rise at 2am and take a five-hour bus ride.

Nosediving

Meanwhile, Venezuela’s economy was nosediving under the leadership of president Nicolás Maduro – who survived an apparent assassination attempt in the capital Caracas earlier this month – as hyperinflation devalued wages and shortages of basic goods started to bite.

At the same time, violent crime was soaring, making it one of the most dangerous countries in the world.

I was stunned by the potential, he had a real what we call ‘Italianate’ sound - very classical, of the old school

Gabriela Montero was among those speaking out against the Maduro regime on the international stage, using her fame to denounce his government’s policies. Amnesty International has named her an “honorary consul” for her efforts.

Seeking a way out of Venezuela, Magallanes contacted Montero via social media, having seen that she frequently helped compatriots and in some cases had found musicians places in conservatories abroad. He explained his dire economic circumstances and his dreams of singing.

“I needed an opportunity,” he says. “Classical music was such a deep part of my life because of how I feel when I sing, how I communicate with people when I sing.”

McElroy says that as their contact with Magallanes continued, he and his wife started getting a picture of someone who was struggling to make ends meet and who was almost in starvation.

“But the thing is there’s nothing you can do unless the person has a talent which is above and beyond [the normal] and can be brought to the attention of conservatories,” McElroy says. “Classical music is very meritocratic, you don’t get into a conservatory unless you’ve got the goods.”

Evaluate

Montero asked Magallanes to send her a video of him singing so she could evaluate his talent. Even such a relatively straightforward task was a major undertaking for him as he had no access to either a piano and accompanist or the equipment to film his performance. Eventually, he managed to record an excerpt from Mozart’s Così fan tutte on a phone and when they saw it, the couple were overwhelmed.

“I was stunned by the potential, he had a real what we call ‘Italianate’ sound - very classical, of the old school – and there it was coming from this kid in the middle of nowhere,” says McElroy.

After that, things moved fast as the couple sought ways to bring Magallanes to Europe to develop his tenor voice.

Irish singer Tara Erraught and American singer Joyce DiDonato were among those who got involved, as was Plácido Domingo, who invited the young Venezuelan to audition for a place at his young artists’ programme in Valencia.

An online fundraiser is under way to pay for the singer’s living costs during his time in Dublin

That offer was seen as premature for Magallanes, but in the meantime Erraught had drawn his voice to the attention of Dublin’s RIAM, which offered him a two-year scholarship.

A fundraiser was organised and now Magallanes is staying with Montero and McElroy at their European base in Barcelona, learning English, working on his singing and waiting for his visa to be processed so he can move to Dublin.

An online fundraiser is under way to pay for the singer’s living costs during his time in Dublin, but as far as he is concerned, his ambitions are already being realised.

“If you can’t eat, or don’t have basic services, you forget your dreams, you forget about the world of art,” he says. “Getting away from that and being able to do what you love, what you’ve fought for for so long, it’s an incredible change.”

McElroy, meanwhile, sees this story as reward for a remarkable talent.

“If his voice is his ticket out of there, then let the boy sing,” he says.

Online fundraiser is atgofundme.com/luis-magallanes-2yr-postgrad-fund