Eugene Villanueva '06 (Vocal Performance)

Villanueva's voice carries him far

William Chan

When he enrolled at Sacramento State, Eugene Villanueva (formerly Chan) planned to be a choral educator. Today, he is an internationally acclaimed opera singer, performing in such famed venues as Teatro Comunale di Bologna in Italy and Carnegie Hall in New York City.

Villanueva says the Sac State opera program fueled his transition, giving him opportunities to sing principal roles in fully staged opera productions. “I walked away from Sac State with roles under my belt and the experience to prove it,” he says. “This first-hand experience set me apart from ‘conservatory’ singers because I could give the audience a complete presentation as a ‘singer-actor.’”

That, according to Michael Sokol, Sac State voice professor and opera program director, is why the program exists—to help vocal students blossom from singers to performers.

“It is important to get on stage and learn to communicate as a character, to create suspension of disbelief,” Sokol says. “In voice lessons, you are doing technical work. In opera workshop, you are learning how to ask yourself the same questions an actor does.”

Students who aspire to be professional vocal performers typically start with opera. It offers the most employment opportunities in a small and competitive field, and it requires discipline and technical mastery that can be applied to other vocal forms.

“A lot of singers can stand stock-still on stage, look directly at the audience and sing beautifully,” says Ernie Hills, chair of the Department of Music. “Opera brings a level of drama and storytelling to the mix.”

Those theatrical elements were on display when Sac State students presented their annual spring performance, the Johan Strauss operetta Die Fledermaus. Instead of the opera program’s home venue of the University Theatre, the opera was held at California Stage in midtown Sacramento, an exciting opportunity for students to gain exposure to a wider audience.

“Any time we get our musicians off campus and into the larger professional world of the region, it is a good opportunity for people to discover what wonderful work we are doing and what great talents our students are,” says Hills.

Ray Tater, California Stage artistic director, was eager to expose his existing audience to Die Fledermaus, which he describes as “a wonderful and silly romantic comedy of manners” filled with “toe-tapping songs.”

The original story takes place in 19th century Vienna. But Sokol, adapting it to modern tastes, moved the locale to 1970s New York City and set the second act in a Studio 54-like club. Though the time period and setting of the operetta will change, the original music will not.

“We are not changing the integrity of the music at all, but in between you will hear 1970s disco music to give the flavor of the era,” he explains. “All opera companies try to find an interesting new context for an old show—it makes it more immediate.”

While the end result of an opera production is artistic, there’s an academic component as well. In preparation for Die Fledermaus, Sokol and his 20 or so student-performers studied Johann Strauss and Austria’s social and political scene in the late 1800s. They watched ’70s era movies like Annie Hall and Saturday Night Fever.

The week before a show is intense for students.

“For those seven days, they have no life other than the show,” Sokol says.

But ultimately, it’s the kind of experience that prepares students for life after Sac State. “This lets you know what the real world is going to be like,” Sokol says. “This is what you really need to know how to do.”

Eugene Villanueva is singing proof of that.

“The fact that I, an undergraduate, had the possibility to walk away with the knowledge most people receive as a master’s or doctoral student or as a part of a young artist program in a major opera house is something I will always be grateful for,” he says.

This article was originally published in the Spring 2011 edition of Sac State Magazine.