Among countless other traits, honesty, fierceness, and raw talent set Teresa Castillo apart from the crowd.
I’ve met some of the greatest people in my life under circumstances where I’m supporting other friends– usually at a local performance by a mutually known band. Conversely and ironically, both the best and worst people I know in this world are musicians. Not only is Teresa Castillo one of the best people I know, but she is also one of the most highly proficient, incredibly nuanced, deeply passionate, and impressively accomplished musicians with whom I’ve had the pleasure of crossing paths.
When I first met Teresa, we were at the Bitter End in New York City; a club in the West Village I’ve frequented for the last decade. We were seeing our mutual friends’ band during their residency in 2019, and when I was introduced to her, I knew immediately that I’d never met anyone quite like her. I also knew that this meeting would eventually turn into friendship, and I’m endlessly thankful that it did. Our mutual friend remarked, “she’s an Opera singer.” Coming from a conservatory background, I’ve met dozens of vocalists, but few who are working. If you do meet a vocalist who’s active in their field, it’s typically not their full-time job. Roles can be few and far between, the audition process is crushing, and the constant rejection even more so. Castillo, on the other hand, is incredibly in-demand; so much so, that it seems as though her feet barely touch the ground. She isn’t just working, she’s touring, and not just the country, but the world. Save some magic for the rest of us!
She came over about a month ago to try on some of my gowns for a gig in Manhattan. After a few hours of drinking, laughing, and playing dress-up, she left with one of my favorite dresses and one of the most gorgeous things I own, full stop: a gold, hand-beaded Nicole Miller sheath gown reminiscent of Marilyn Monroe’s “happy birthday Mr. President” dress. Teresa was thrilled to borrow it and I was even more thrilled to see her in it, but just a few weeks later, she alerted me of some incredible news. She had just found out that she booked huge roles, and that she would be leaving for Chicago, then Italy, then back to Chicago in less than a month, returning in January. She’s headed to Sardegna to perform as Maria in Francesca Zambello’s West Side Story, a role she just wrapped with another tour earlier this year. Every time I see her, she’s either coming home from or heading somewhere for a spectacular opportunity. Later this week I’ll be picking up that gown– she won’t be needing it after all.
Teresa Castillo is the second artist of our Artist Profile series, and I’m so lucky to be able to call her a friend. She was gracious enough to lend me her ever-diminishing time for a short interview wherein she describes the current state of her industry, her greatest triumphs, deepest struggles, and much more. I’m so proud of all that she’s accomplished and am in awe of the impact her work, talent, and fierceness make upon this often dreary world.
You’re an award-winning soprano! Can you break down briefly what that means for anyone who doesn’t know, and tell us a bit about how you began your career in singing?
So in opera, young singers will generally compete in singing competitions. Those exist all over the world and the prizes include varying amounts of money and depending on the level of competition, LOTS of exposure to industry people. The higher level the competition usually means the more money you can win. It's a really great way to sing for multiple people at once, assuming you make the semi-finals or final round. I grew up in CO and had no clue what it meant to have a career in opera until I moved to New York about 7 years ago. I started singing as a young girl to Disney movies, Mariah Carey, and The Spice Girls but my mom would play operatic music in the house (Maria Callas and Luciano Pavarotti were her favorites) and I grew to love the music. It was a natural progression for me!
What is the most challenging part of being a professional vocalist? What’s the most rewarding?
The most challenging part is the career aspect. It's hard to get gigs, [and] maintain a career (even with an agent), and it's hard to gain exposure if you don't have access to a lot of money. One thing people don't realize is HOW expensive it is to be a performer. You have to pay for weekly or semi-weekly lessons (usually between $80-$300/hr), school if you didn't get a scholarship, coaching (usually $60-$150/hr), language coaches/lessons because we sing in MANY languages, audition tours in different states and sometimes countries, gowns/suits, audition attire, practice spaces, music, etc. The list goes on. On average, a young singer will probably spend close to 10-20k a year just on expenses alone.
The most rewarding aspect is the actual performing part for me. I love singing for people. My goal is to make people feel things when I sing. We don't always allow ourselves to feel emotions on a day-to-day basis and just feeling alone can be so powerful. Also, there is nothing more powerful than hearing a really good singer perform and enjoy what they are doing. It just makes you feel good!
Describe the most memorable moment you’ve had on stage.
My most memorable moment to date was in high school. I was playing Lady Larken in Once Upon A Mattress and I had to push a trunk across [the] stage. My character was "running away" in this scene. So I'm pushing the trunk and crying, I keep pushing and I start going faster, and faster until I'm going so fast that I run INTO the brick wall on the side of the stage, tumble across the trunk to the front, and land on my butt, legs in front and my right knee bloodied up. There was an audible gasp from the audience. After a second I realize what just happened and then take the opportunity to start fake crying again, but this time with a wail. The audience DIES laughing. I get up and push the trunk off stage. After the show, my director asked me if I could do that again and I said "no", because I also hit my head. Definitely, a moment I will never forget.
Is there a piece you haven’t gotten the chance to perform live, or a person you’d love to collaborate with that you haven’t yet?
I actually would love to work with Ryan Murphy maybe as an opera singer who dies tragically. Ryan if you're reading this, hit me up! But in all seriousness, I have a list of roles I'd love to sing but I'm usually down to sing almost anything. One of my favorite things to do is create a new role or sing newer music. In the opera world, people expect certain things from roles that have been performed a lot, and in typical Sagittarius form, I see that and say - "I want to do something else!". It can be really refreshing to sing a role no one has heard of before or is rarely performed.
Have you ever run into issues with sexism or racism in your field? If so, how have you navigated that? Describe your experience as a Costa-Rican-American woman in an industry that is and has historically been highly exclusive.
Oh absolutely. From every corner. One big thing that happens in the performing arts, in general, is ageism/sexism against performers with a uterus. This RARELY happens to men because our culture and others think that women expire after a certain age unless [they] look young. Even then it's a challenge. As far as racism is concerned, being of mixed race, I sometimes feel I have to prove how Latina I am but only to non-Latin people. It's still not fully accepted or understood that people from or with Latin American/Caribbean/Spanish roots can look like literally anything. Even with my last name, sometimes people mistake me for Italian. Also, I've had companies tell me that my story of being a Costa-Rican-American was not relatable because there aren't a lot of Costa-Rican-American singers. Unfortunately, I'm used to this and am used to code-switching as well with industry people and colleagues. I think the most refreshing experience I had this year as a performer was between the months of March-June because I was in two shows that had a lot of native Spanish speakers and I never felt so comfortable [being] myself because I'm used to being the odd one out. It was just really nice.
You’ve expressed in the past that your industry can be a bit strict (dare I say old-fashioned) sometimes, which can leave little room for personal expression. How do you navigate this and do you feel like the industry is evolving in a way that better reflects contemporary attitudes toward things like dress code, ageism, ablism, etc.?
Yeah, this is a tough one. It depends on where you are really. I remember as a young singer I was shamed by a company I was working at for wearing an outfit that was too low cut in the front and my boots weren't nice enough. It was actually brought up three months later at my exit interview. I will never forget how horrible that made me feel, especially being someone who doesn't come from money. Also because most donors are conservative, we are expected to act and dress a certain way. This can be difficult if money is an issue and you don't have a sponsor to buy you nice clothing. As far as personal expression goes, the older I get the more I just lean into who I really am and people don't seem to hate it, but I think the challenge is doing that authentically. We literally live in and study an elitist, old-fashioned past, so the challenge our entire industry has been facing is making opera more relevant but a lot of young singers are on board with this and doing a great job! As for all the ism's and dress codes - I say wear what you want and come as you are. Opera should be for the people!
What excites you the most about your career as it progresses?
Getting to perform on stage and traveling. I LOVE exploring new places. I'll be going to Sardegna in late November through December and I will absolutely be exploring as much as I can when I'm not in rehearsal. I also had a lot of people tell me I wasn't good enough or that opera wasn't for me. Guess they were wrong!
What advice would you give to a young woman in pursuit of a career in singing opera?
I would tell them to be patient, not to be afraid to ask for things including help, and to not be afraid to be themself. Our world is inherently misogynistic and many women (and female-presenting people) make themselves smaller to fit into this world. I say fuck that and be yourself, just make sure what you say and do has tact. I think this speaks for any industry, but people want to work with someone who is a good colleague. That doesn't mean letting people walk all over you, it means knowing when to be kind and supportive but also knowing when to create clear boundaries and knowing what is and isn't acceptable. Also, I'm always available for some advice! People can just dm me on IG, I usually respond, even when I'm busy!
Any final thoughts or upcoming projects you’d like to mention?
Yes! To those who think opera is some mystical thing that isn't for you but have never experienced it, I say give it a shot. In NY, the Met has rush tickets that go online every day at noon. Sometimes you can get orchestra seat tickets for $25. Who knows? You might actually like it! If you don't live in NY, go see an opera in your city or at one of the Met HD broadcasts. What we do is kinda wild - you know, singing through an orchestra without a mic into an opera house and a lot of us are pretty damn good. That's all :)