In the winter of 2012, David Portillo stepped onto the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House on Broadway. Accompanied by his agent, Portillo felt the weight of the moment – an audition for the role of Fenton in “Falstaff” – in a historic venue with stacked balconies and 3,900 seats. His nerves tightened.
“It was my first time to sing from that stage,” he said.
Portillo did not get the role. He thought he would never sing at The Met again. The following winter, an artistic administrator from The Met watched him perform as David in “Die Meistersinger von Nuremberg” at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Eight months later, The Met offered Portillo the role of Count Almaviva in “Barber of Seville.”
Portillo, a 37-year-old tenor from Holmes High School and the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA), made his Met debut in December 2015 opposite soprano Isabel Leonard. This came after Opera News called him one of the “25 brilliant young singers” in the world and one of “opera’s next generation of headliners.”
Over the past several years, Portillo has performed as a freelance opera singer on stages across the U.S., Europe and in Japan. On Sunday, he returns home for his debut at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts. Accompanied by the San Antonio Symphony and 200 voices from select San Antonio high school and university singers, Portillo will perform at the Look At The World concert. The event will benefit Morningside Ministries Senior Living Communities.
“I’m super excited,” Portillo said. “This concert is a good way to bridge the sacred, the classical music, and the choral nature of the music I grew up with.”
Portillo grew up a choirboy. The son of a pastor and music teacher, he sang on the piano bench beside his mother at home, rehearsing for solos in talent shows and for the children’s choir at First Baptist Church. “When David was in middle school, I realized he had a special voice,” said his mother, Peggy Portillo. “He had a very beautiful, pleasing quality that was in pitch.”
David sang in his middle school and high school choirs and in the late 1990s earned a chair in the prestigious Texas All-State choir. He enrolled at UTSA with aspirations of becoming a choir director. Student teaching changed his mind.
While working with elementary school children in North East Independent School District, David realized he didn’t have the patience to teach. The experience turned him in an unexpected direction. He began to consider opera. Eventually, David was telling his parents about a new career ambition.
“I said, ‘Well, go for it. You will never know until you try,’” Peggy said. “I know the field is very hard. But I have been thrilled with his success.”
David’s journey to The Met was long and challenging. After earning a master’s degree in music and vocal performance from the University of North Texas in 2005, he spent years honing his craft in young artist programs and opera companies. He performed in small shows and sang covers – as an opera understudy – on stages in Cincinnati and Miami.
He scraped together starving-artist wages, singing at weddings and churches. He grew accustomed to traveling on the cheap and residing in the basement apartments of strangers.
Joining the Lyric Opera in Chicago served as his big break.
“I did three seasons there as a resident artist, covering a whole lot of roles,” he said. “By the time I left, I think had covered up to 15 to 20 roles.”
After one performance at the Lyric Opera, David received a surprise guest backstage. Jonathan Friend, an artistic administrator from The Met, came to offer his congratulations. “We really enjoyed this performance,” Friend said. “We need to have you at The Met.”
Unbeknownst to David, his performance in “Die Meistersinger von Nuremberg” had served as his second Met audition. The excitement of landing a role in “Barber of Seville” paled next to the actual experiencing of performing.
“It is surreal,” he said. “The first day of rehearsal you have all the mental nostalgia and the history of the building, which is amazing. I would say it’s overwhelming, but it’s more humbling just because you are there. You’re happy that you can be part of the building and be in that space and energy.
“And then by the time the performance happens it’s just like every live performance. You have so much work that you’ve already committed to and you’ve practiced and you feel more comfortable so it’s not as overwhelming, but it is definitely exciting. And you want to share that.”
His reputation soared. The New York Times called him “the sweet-voiced tenor.” Opera News wrote that he hits “high notes with ease, singing with a luxuriant warm glow that seduced the ear.” The San Diego Union-Tribune called him “a princely tenor with bright and supple tone.”
The acclaim is humbling, the work exhilarating. On stage, David comes alive, living out a dream he did not entertain until well into his 20s. He credits his rise to his mother, his high school and college vocal coaches, the choir directors from his youth, and to a plethora of influential people.
“I’m doing what I love,” David said. “I want to give back to the community, to people. I want to be able to sing for kids in different schools all over the United States. And I want to be able to sing with the youth of San Antonio. This concert is going to be filled with young people who are aspiring to make music for the rest of their lives.”