Music was always Rafael Davila’s passion, but he was aware of what a challenge it can be to make a career of it. So he began optometry school. In the end, he decided to go for it.
Since earning his master’s in opera performance from the Butler School of Music in 1998, Davila has traveled the world as a tenor. Based in his native Puerto Rico, he has performed in theaters in the United States, Canada, New Zealand, Puerto Rico and Europe. In January, Davila made his Metropolitan Opera debut as Don Jose in Carmen. The New York Times described the performance as “robust and hot-blooded.”
The College of Fine Arts recently caught up with Davila to discuss his 20 years on the opera stage.
It seems that you have traveled the world with opera since graduating from UT. Were there any moments from your career that are true highlights? Or maybe a story or experience you’d like to share?
Making an unexpected debut at the Metropolitan Opera definitely has to be one of the highlights of my career, especially since it was with only a half an hour announcement to make my debut in the season's opening night of the opera Carmen by Georges Bizet. And then to be trusted by the company to sing three more performances after opening night.
Also, the opportunity to sing for two consecutive years in beautiful New Zealand was an amazing experience, as well as singing in the historic theaters of San Carlo in Naples and Macerata, in Italy.
You very nearly became an optometrist in Puerto Rico. What was it about opera that pulled you in to pursue it as a career?
I always wanted to dedicate my life to music, but I didn’t know if I had the talent to pursue a career as a singer. So I opted for the safe road by completing first a B.S. in Biology while always being an active member of the choral ensembles of the university. While I was working on my doctorate degree in optometry—because of my choral experience—I was asked to sing in the opera chorus of Verdi's Rigoletto for Teatro de la Opera de Puerto Rico, and that’s where it all began. I was discovered by a voice teacher who encouraged me. I began my musical studies at the Music Conservatory in Puerto Rico and then completed my master’s degree in opera performance at UT Austin’s Butler School of Music. After finishing my studies in Austin, I became a member of the Young Artists Program of the Austin Lyric Opera for two consecutive years before starting an international career as an operatic tenor.
Do you have a favorite role or opera that you’ve performed?
When I was still a student at the Conservatory in Puerto Rico, I was fortunate to be part of the chorus for the production of Puccini’s Turandot for Opera de Puerto Rico with the renowned soprano Eva Marton in the title role. Since then, Turandot has been my favorite opera, because I was fortunate enough to sing three productions as the leading tenor, Prince Calaf. In the past 20 years, I have been able to sing almost 60 operatic roles, which provided the opportunity to sing operas in different languages and styles. During that period the operas of Puccini and Verdi in the Italian repertory are the ones I have performed the most. Even though I love Puccini operas, Verdi really knew how to write for the voice. Among the 11 Verdi operas I have sung so far, my favorite role to sing is definitely Don Alvaro in La Forza del Destino, which I debuted at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., where I will also debut next season the title role of Verdi’s Don Carlo.
Regarding your debut with the Metropolitan Opera this year, the New York Times wrote glowingly about you taking to the stage as the understudy with less than two hours notice. What was that experience like? And how long have you been working with the Met? Also, was there some part of your practice and preparation as a professional that enables you to take the stage even when you didn’t expect to?
I still can’t believe it. It all seemed and still feels like a dream to me. It all happened so fast that I felt like I was walking on the clouds. This was my first contract with the Metropolitan Opera, where I was hired to cover the principal tenor in Carmen. I was lucky to have a cast of friends with whom I’ve had the opportunity to sing other productions of this opera in other theaters in the United States. At the end, I just thought of it as any other engagement or another performance of Carmen I have done before—trying not to think too much about the importance of that performance, but becoming Don Jose for the audience once more. Since my years as a young artist, I learned that you need to be ready when the moment comes, and every time I cover a role I have to prepare as if I was going to sing that night by resting well, eating well and warming up and vocalizing—things I did that night previous to the season’s opening night of Carmen at the MET, and I am glad I did!
Are there any lessons, advice or learning experiences from your time at UT that continue to influence your work today?
We treasure the years we spent in Austin as some of our happiest years as a family when my daughter was still a baby. Having the opportunity to study with a tenor like William Lewis, who sang so many operatic roles and could give me all this information on how to sing such a diverse operatic repertory was extraordinary. In fact, I began learning the role of Don Jose with him. Another thing that I have to be grateful to my years as a student UT is that it not only helped me to become a better singer, but also a better musician. This has enabled me to sing some difficult music and premiere some contemporary works that otherwise would have been impossible.
Unfortunately, my engagements have not taken me back to Texas in many years, but we really long to return to Austin. I have been in touch with part of the UT faculty trying to plan a recital and would love to share my experience in his beautiful career with the students and help motivate them to pursue this wonderful career. Hopefully in the near future.
What are some of the immediate future plans?
Next month I will be singing Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West for Michigan Opera Theater in Detroit before returning to Miami to sing the tenor role in Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera for Florida Grand Opera. Next season includes Puccini’s Tosca for Arizona Opera and Opera de Puerto Rico, Turandot for the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Verdi’s Don Carlo for Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Center in D.C., Puccini’s Manon Lescaut in the historic Liceo de Barcelona in Spain and making my London debut in the prestigious Rosenblatt’s Series Recitals at Wigmore Hall.
Photo credits. A portrait of Rafael Davila. Below, the singer performing the role Don Jose in the Metropolitan Opera's performance of Carmen. Courtesy photos.