From Venezuelan Slum to Juilliard, Opera Singer Reaches Stardom
Profile Photo of Maria Fernanda Brea. Photo Credit to Brea
By: Rollin Colmenares
Had you told her six years ago that she would end up pursuing her dreams in New York City, Maria Fernanda Brea would likely have called you crazy. More so if you had told her she would be studying in one of the most distinguished schools in the World.
Growing up in one of the most dangerous slums in Caracas, Venezuela, Break didn’t exactly come up in the safest environment. The slum, called Los Frailes De Catia, experienced violence and homicides on a daily basis.
“We heard gunshots every day,” Brea recalled. “My sister and I would occasionally find empty bullet casings from shots that penetrated the ceiling of our play room the night before.”
Gun violence is common in Venezuela’s capital, especially in the poorer areas like Los Frailes. Most people abide by an unofficial curfew and avoid leaving their houses after a certain hour of the night. Despite all this, what helped Brea survive in such a rough environment for so much of her life was her love of music.
Brea, a wonderfully talented lyric soprano, is currently attaining her Masters degree at The Juilliard School in Lincoln Center–widely regarded as the top music conservatory in the world. Considered one of the finest up-and-coming opera singers to come out of Venezuela in recent times, her voice is truly something unique to behold. In fact, she is the the first ever Venezuelan singer to be accepted into Juilliard in the entire history of the school.
“Being the first ever Venezuelan in Juilliard’s vocal department is something I am immensely proud of,” said Brea. “I feel like I’m writing a piece of history not just for Juilliard, but also for my country.”
Well aware of the negative image associated with her country in much of the international media, Brea aims to give the world a different view of her homeland.
“Nothing is more important to me in what I do than to represent Venezuela, our arts, culture and love of life,” Brea said.
Brea comes from a very small, close-knit family, which she left in 2011 to continue her singing career in the United States. Her mother, Kitty Moeller, is a medical doctor, while her sister, Elena, is a visual artist going to school for graphic design. Her father, Fernando Brea, is a guitar instructor who teaches full-time at a school and is largely responsible for giving her a passion and discipline for the performing arts.
“I used to tell her, ‘Practice until you smell like garlic!’” her father recounted. “I also taught her how to play the bass and guitar at a very young age.”
The young Brea had a natural talent for performance and would sing for people as early as four years old, with her father accompanying her on guitar. “I remember how much she loved to sing (When I’m Sixty-Four) by the Beatles with me for friends and neighbors,” her father said. “People always loved her enthusiasm.”
Brea seemed to have literally been born with musical talent. Her mother describes her as as being musically inclined before being able to walk. “I always say that Maria Fernanda was born a musician,” said Moeller. “She has been singing since she was in the cradle.”
Even as an infant, Brea showed signs of exceptional musical ability, as evidenced by her rapid development of speech. “She started talking at a very young age,” said Moeller. “With her baby words, of course, but what was impressive about her at that time was how she named things phonetically.”
Brea had a name for everything much before she was able to speak clearly, and would ask for things by those names until she started to use actual words. “At around 8 months or so, she began to utilize language,” said Moeller. “At that age, she already had a sense of rhythm and music, and once she was speaking she was singing everything.”
Brea took her first steps as a lyric soprano at the Conservatorio Superior de Música José Ángel Lamas, in Caracas, under the tutelage of master lyric soprano Francis Poleo.
“Maria started working with me when she was 15 years old,” recalled Poleo. “Almost immediately I knew that she was destined for great things.”
Such was her premonition that when Brea was 17, Poleo said she envisioned her in New York City, years before the opportunity came about. “I knew that her voice was going to take her out of Venezuela,” Poleo said. “For some strange reason, New York always stood out in my mind.”
Brea was in the third year of a Musical Education degree program when she started applying to several schools outside of the country. At 20 she was fortunate enough to get an audition for the Manhattan School of Music in New York, but at the time she could not afford the trip to the U.S.
However, during one of her many recitals, Brea met a producer from Venezuela cable news network Globovision who was able to set up a television special to raise funds for her trip. The news crew followed her around her neighborhood, highlighting the poverty she lived in and enabled her to ask for help on national television. A hotline was set up for donations.
To her surprise, many people who saw the TV report donated money and gave her lots of positive encouragement. Several of them were famous and a few ended up becoming her sponsors, making it possible to cover many of her financial needs.
“I was shocked and moved by the generosity of my people,” said Brea. “They made me feel like I was representing not only myself, but them as well.”
Once she was accepted into MSM, she committed eight months to learning English to near fluency, while still living in her home country. In doing so, she eliminated one of the biggest obstacles that faces any immigrant in the U.S.–the language barrier.
“I have my uncle Romulo to thank for my level of English, may he rest in peace,”said Brea.
An English professor in Caracas, Romulo died of a sudden heart attack shortly before Brea moved to New York. “Whenever I achieve something new or perform a new opera, I always dedicate it to him,” Brea said.
After four years in MSM, with a 4.0 GPA and the lead role in the senior opera, Brea again applied to several schools both in the U.S. and abroad, mainly in Europe. She knew what she was capable of, but never expected her acceptance into Juilliard.
“None of my friends or peers from the vocal department, all of whom have such incredible voices, got accepted into the Master’s program at Juilliard,” Brea said. “Needless to say, when I received my acceptance letter, I was stunned.”
Luckily for Brea, not only was she accepted, but her outstanding talent and academic achievements got her into the Kovner Fellowship Program, a prestigious full-ride scholarship that molds students into becoming leaders in their field.
“Without the help of the Kovner Foundation, it would have been impossible for me to attend Juilliard,” Brea said. “I am eternally grateful for their help.”
Brea is now finishing her last year at Juilliard and will graduate in May of 2017.
With that comes the natural uncertainty of what’s to come thereafter.
“It’s hard to say what I’ll do after Juilliard because, as an opera singer, it’s impossible to know if you’ll be here or there,” said Brea. “It’s not something I can really tell you 100 percent until maybe March or so. I will audition for many different things, operas and opera companies, young artist programs, music fests and things like that and just see where my voice takes me.”