Sacramento State alumnus and baritone Eugene Villanueva is a rising star in the opera world, and he credits Sac State with helping him define his goals and giving him the solid educational background to succeed in that musical field.
Villanueva, who graduated in 2006 with a bachelor's in vocal performance, has been hailed by critics as having a "full resonant instrument, flowing legato line, gorgeous vocalism allied to passionate declamation and exemplary diction."
He found early success following his graduation, taking part in some of the nation's most prominent music training programs, such as the Seattle Young Artists Program, the San Francisco Opera Merola Training Program and the Steans Institute at the Ravinia Festival in Chicago.
He made his Carnegie Hall debut in 2008. That same year, he received acclaim for stepping in with just 24 hours' notice to sing the challenging baritone part in Orff's Carmina Burana at the Hollywood Bowl with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
But Villanueva didn't start off wanting to be a singer.
"I originally studied piano growing up," he says. "My passion changed to the clarinet, percussion and then the French horn."
He did perform in choirs during his second, third and fourth years in high school, but it was hardly a passion for him. "I had no intent of being a professional singer - maybe a choir teacher or band teacher at the high school level."
When it came time to choose a university, Villanueva says the deciding factor came down to the teaching staff, particularly Professors Donald Kendrick and Robert Halseth. "They are very well-known names," he says.
Villanueva lived in the residence halls his first two years and enjoyed the campus's friendly environment. "There was a good energy between faculty and students," he says. "That really helped me in my time here as far as growing and developing."
He joined the choirs, jazz singers, and the Schola Cantorum choir at Sacred Heart Church directed by Kendrick. Still, Villanueva didn't consider a career in vocal performance - until things started happening with his voice.
"My voice changed drastically in my third or fourth year," he says. "It started doubling in size, and everyone said maybe there's something else written for you in the stars. That's when I started looking into opera."
He didn't have anything like an epiphany but found that doors kept opening for him. One thing led to another, and eventually Villanueva found himself working with opera greats such as Marilyn Horne and Thomas Hampson.
In addition to his music education, Villanueva appreciates the other educational values Sac State provided. "I decided not to go to conservatory because I wanted to have a bit more diversity in terms of general education courses with my music courses," he says.
That background of many subjects helped him better appreciate the works he was performing. "You need to analyze all aspects of the opera - drama, literature, history, language," he says.
Now living in Switzerland, Villanueva travels the world, performing at venues such as the Festival d'Aix-en-Provence in France, the Teatro Comunale di Bologna in Italy and the Shanghai National Grand Theater in China. His operatic performances include the title roles in Don Giovanni and Eugene Onegin, Figaro in Il barbiere di Siviglia, Danilo in The Merry Widow and Lescaut in Manon.
Recently he returned to Sacramento State for a guest performance with the University's Symphony Orchestra and its director, Leo Eylar.
Being back on campus brought back some memories of his years as a student. "It's such an interesting time when you're a freshman because you have no idea what you want to do and what the world has for you."
He advises new students to find out who they are, stay true to that, and know what they want to do.
"Sacramento State helped me begin to understand what I needed and what I was looking for," Villanueva says. "I didn't find all of it here, but I do appreciate that while I was here, the University opened that curiosity in me and gave me the drive to go find it." - Craig Koscho