Improbable music journey leads Maldonado to Omaha – Part 1

Jose Luis Maldonado concedes the improbability of how he became an opera
singer. But that just makes him more eager to share his tale because if it could
happen to him, than who knows how many other potential vocalists are out
there without even realizing it?

Part of his role as a first-year Opera Omaha Fellow in the Holland Community
Opera Fellowship is exposing young people to an art form that may be foreign
to them.

The California native grew up around the East L.A. area, where the strains of
opera are rarely heard. He comes from a musical family. His father played
piano in L.A. salsa bands. His grandfather, Jesus Francisco Maldonado,
played saxophone in Mexico, where he’s known in Cuahutemoc Chihuahua as
El Botas.

Jazz and Sinatra were some of Maldonado’s other musical influences. From
an early age he set his sights on following his grandfather as a saxophonist.
He studied hard and became proficient.

In high school his varied activities in band, sports, student government, public
speaking and tutoring led his football coach to call him “a renaissance man.”

By his junior year he’d formulated a plan for college. He would study music
and business (his father’s in real estate) with an ultimate goal of attending
USC and playing in the Trojan marching band.

But then fate threw him a curve. With no suitable artist to sing the national
anthem for an all-school assembly, he volunteered, even though it meant
singing in public for the first time before thousands. Until then, all he’d done
was imitate Rat Pack crooners for friends. He nailed the anthem by mimicking
Robert Merrill but it was Jose’s rich baritone that won over the crowd

Then, at his senior graduation, a teacher made him promise to take a voice
class in college before she handed over his diploma. He vowed he would. He
kept his vow at Rio Hondo Community College but only as a courtesy. Then
an unexpected thing happened.

“I ended up really enjoying it. The vibrant teacher. Ann Gresham, made it
more than singing. She lured me back to the class every semester by saying,
‘If you want to know your real voice, you should come back next semester,’
because I was still mimicking.”

He credits touring music shows she created that he performed in at schools
with honing his stage presence and sparking his interest in community
outreach, which is the focus of his Opera Omaha Fellow work.

As much as he liked singing, he considered it a hobby, not a career path. He
was still stuck on his USC dream . But his best-laid plans got disrupted after
he sang a German song for his final.

“That song really changed my perception of what a singer is,” he said. “The
way she had me learn this song was so deep and specific. It was not just
learning and translating the words but relating it to the culture and why it was
written and honoring the composer and the librettist for that poetry.

“At the end of the song I closed my eyes and repeated this phrase (lyric). I felt
this energy. I opened my eyes and everybody was in tears. There was silence,
then applause. It was just this beautiful experience.”

When the teacher asked to see him privately after class, he thought he’d
somehow messed up.

“She asked, ‘You felt that in there, right?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ She said, ‘I know
you’ve achieved what you wanted to at the school and you’re going to be
moving on. I’m very proud of you. But I would not be doing my job if I didn’t

ask you this,’ and she looked me dead in the eye and said, ‘Do you want to be
an opera singer? Because I can get you there. But it’s going to take a lot of

“I was speechless because I never thought to be a singer. i remember, frozen,
looking at her and saying. yes, but I didn’t consciously make a decision. She
said great and told me about another college where the state would pay for
my lessons. I just kind of nodded and walked away in shock.”

What he’d done didn’t sink in until he got home.

“Back in my room I yelled out, ‘What did I just do?’ Because the opportunity to
realize my dream was right there in front of me. I worked really hard to get
straight As. Counselors from USC and Rio Hondo made sure I met all the
requisites. There it was and I just threw it away to become a singer.”

“But as soon as I yelled out, I felt this epiphany. In my mind I saw this blender
with everything I was mixed in it and what poured out was opera singer. I just
remember saying, ‘Okay, this is what I’m going to do with the rest of my life.’
Like magic, the calling was there for me. I haven’t looked back since.”

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