“Don’t Ever Give Up”: A Conversation with Bárbara Padilla

Bárbara Padilla is the beautiful, Mexican-American, classically trained, soprano who took the nation by storm when she appeared on the 2009 season of America’s Got Talent.  Piers Morgan called her performance of “Con to Partiro” the single greatest performance that the show had ever seen and Bárbara ended up winning second place, quite an achievement in a country that typically shuns opera.

Bárbara is originally from Guadalajara where she grew up with music as the background for her life.  She began singing and acting in school and then danced for a number of years with the Ballet Folklorico de Mexico while studying piano.  At the age of 18 Bárbara began formally studying voice with her first coach, Alicia Rosales.

While attending the University of Guadalajara, Bárbara was diagnosed with stage 4 Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.  After undergoing extreme chemotherapy both at home in Guadalajara and at Houston’s M.D. Anderson hospital, Bárbara eventually returned home and underwent a bone marrow transplant which ultimately cured her cancer.

It was during her time in Houston that Bárbara auditioned for Peter Jacoby, the music director of the Moores School of Music at the University of Houston. He was so impressed that he immediately awarded her a scholarship as well as a place in the school. She eventually finished her education with a Master’s degree in Music in 2004.

Bárbara then married, had a daughter and taught music for a number of years before deciding that she wanted to get back to performing.  That desire led her to audition for America’s Got Talent and to her eventual reign as first runner-up.  She recorded and released her first album Viviendo in Guadalajara after finishing the show.

We chatted with Bárbara while she is on tour in Mexico in support of her second studio effort (the first which was recorded in the US), the eponymously named Bárbara Padilla. Read our interview below.

Was there a specific person or even that helped influence your decision to pursue your musical studies and career?

“Oh wow! There were several important people in my life at the time I had to make that decision. I remember I was surrounded by intelligent, successful adults that would tell me to pursue what I loved the most. But mainly my mother. She understood and conveyed to me that music was like any other serious career and was not only a hobby. So I got enrolled in the school of music of the University of Guadalajara and rounded it up with a degree in Languages.”

Was opera something that you grew up with or were you introduced to it once you began your formal vocal training?

“I grew up with it… As a matter of fact, there was a time when I thought opera was something that everybody sang.”

How did you initially feel about it once you started studying it and singing arias? 

“It was normal. It felt right, and came easy. I felt that I could make a difference… Don’t ask me why, but I felt that I wanted to be part of history of music. I knew that I needed to use my voice to say something and I wanted to do it for the rest of my life.”

Have you noticed any changes in the way you approach a piece now, compared to when you first started studying voice?

“Totally! Singing technique is like any other discipline. It takes time and tons of practice to understand it and years to perfect it. It is a mechanical exercise that eventually helps you to interpret with your heart. Also, as you gain experience, musically and emotionally, your approach changes. The more you learn about human nature, the better you can represent what the composer wanted to say in the first place.”

Do you have a favorite composer(s)?  What about a favorite opera or specific aria? Is there a composer whose music you feel works better with your vocal range?

“Ooh! Yes! I love Puccini, Verdi and Mozart above all. But everybody does… and there’s a good reason. They knew what they were doing. The roles that I can sing from any of them, sit perfectly with my voice. Some examples are the roles of Mimi and Musetta from “La Bohème”, Liù, from “Turandot,” Violetta from “La Traviata,” and either Susanna or Contessa from “Marriage of Figaro.”

You were in Houston for cancer treatment when Judy Hoover arranged an audition for you, out of the blue, with Peter Jacoby, the director of the Moores School of Music at the University of Houston.  What was your initial reaction?

“Well, first of all, thank you for mentioning them. And for those who don’t know yet, I fought cancer for five years, and one of the many, many things that happened was this trip to Houston to get a second opinion from doctors at MD Anderson. I was the section leader of the State choir at the time and the conductor, Dr. Harlan Snow (may he rest in peace) and his wife Joy, put together a team of people and got the funds to send me to Houston, needless to say that the last thing in my mind was to sing for anyone. I was not in a good state of mind. But Judi made the phone call and got me in. Peter does not know till this day what he was doing in Houston at that time of the year (middle of the summer). He does not know why on Earth he went to his office and on top of it, he answered the phone… He found himself granting an audition for the next day to a complete stranger.

So, Judi and I were in the hospital waiting for some results and to see the doctor. She then, told me that she needed to make a couple of phone calls and left. Twenty minutes later she came back and said: “You have an audition with Peter Jacoby, (then, conductor of the opera at the Moores School Of Music of the University Of Houston) tomorrow at 1:00 pm…” I said: “But I didn’t even bring music!” to which Judi answered: “I’m sure they’ll have whatever you need… It is a major university with one of the most important opera programs in the country.”

What piece(s) did you perform for him and how did you choose them?

“I sang “Si, mi chiamano Mimi” and I think “Musetta’s waltz” from “La Bohème” =)”

Did you know you nailed the audition when you finished your final piece?

“I probably did… Especially right after seeing Peter’s face and hearing that he wanted to give me a full scholarship…”

Will you share with us how you chose the songs for your new album, “Bárbara Padilla?  Was there any specific inspiration or message that you were hoping to communicate with these songs?

“Sure! As you know, I have been all about opera my whole life. When I finished second in America’s Got Talent, I knew I had to evolve to appeal to a broader audience. So when I got together with the producer of the album, we thought about making something more international… and more pop.   So the genre had to be a fusion between classical and popular music which is colloquially called “popera,” and properly, “Classical Crossover.” They had to be pop songs that could be arranged symphonically (by Jorge Calandrelli) and sung operatically… “

How would you compare the recording experience between this album and “Viviendo”?

“Oh! “Viviendo,” or at least some of the songs, will be most likely the second album that will be released. It was an album that I recorded in Guadalajara with great musicians. The music in it has a much more hispanic flavor and it’s just on hold.”

What, if anything, did you find difficult or challenging during the creation of this album?  Alternatively, was anything easier than you anticipated?  What and how so?

“The challenging part was the choosing of the songs. That being the very first attempt to create an album with a more popular material than just pure opera, created a whole dimension of fascinating challenges even vocally.”

You are currently on tour in Mexico; will you share with us what else you will be doing in the near future?  Any plans for a US tour?

“As a matter of fact I just finished a tour with one of the most important icons of Latin Music, Juan Gabriel. It has been one of the most amazing experiences of my life. Now I am getting ready for the many things that are coming up. Everything will be announced on my website and social media as they get confirmed.”

What is one piece of advice you would like to give to artists who are at the beginning of their artistic journey?

“Buckle up!!! Because you are in for a bumpy ride. Bumpy and fascinating. Always better yourselves. Preparation and studying are essential. If anyone decides to pursue an artistic career, they need to take it as seriously as any other and most importantly, don’t ever give up!”

Finally, since we are Talk Nerdy With Us, we’d love to know what you consider the ‘nerdiest’ thing you’ve ever done.

“Hahaha!!! That’s easy!!! I work out to opera!!!”


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