I know a lot of people don't like opera — they think it's dramatic people screaming," says buxom, blue-eyed soprano Elizabeth Caballero, who stars as Liu in Florida Grand Opera's production of Giacomo Puccini's Turandot.
The busy vocalist — who's enjoying some rare down time at home in Miami between a commission in Kentucky and rehearsals for her debut as Liu — isn't concerned that her craft isn't everyone's cup of tea. "No matter how anyone feels about it, there's no denying that you have to be a good singer," she says.
Caballero is a good singer. So good that international opera critics have been tripping over themselves to describe the rising star's versatile vocal range and expertly delivered arias every time she steps on a stage from Milwaukee to Montevideo. But despite performing with giants such as the Metropolitan Opera, for Caballero, FGO is still one of her most treasured commissions. It is here that she worked as a ticket salesperson more than ten years ago.
Back then, she watched tenors and sopranos bustle in and out of rehearsals, wondering what it was like to command a stage and portray all of the emotion of a character with just one's voice. In 1995, when Luciano Pavarotti gave a seaside concert in Miami Beach, the amateur singer decided to enter the legendary tenor's voice competition on a whim.
Of 2,000 contestants, Caballero was one of 100 chosen to advance to the Philadelphia finals. She didn't win, but it launched her on a new career path. "What still motivates me on days when I'm not doing well is remembering how Pavarotti told me: 'You're a diamond that needs to be polished,'" she says. "I wish I could have thanked him. I never did get a chance to meet him again."
By the time Pavarotti died in 2007, Caballero was working as an award-winning soprano, having completed the Young Artist Programs at FGO and San Francisco Opera and performed in critically acclaimed productions across the nation.
It would have been difficult to imagine 30 years ago, when a 6-year-old Caballero and 19 other refugees packed into a 24-foot boat that nearly capsized en route to Miami. One of the 125,000 Cubans who arrived on the Mariel Boatlift, Caballero grew up fighting the unfair stigma that the wave of exiles comprised mainly prisoners and mental patients purged by Castro.
"I've never been embarrassed or ashamed to say I came as part of Mariel," Caballero says. "Quite the contrary — I shout it. I want to show it off, especially now — to show that I am successful."
These days, the outgoing Cuban-American isn't selling tickets. She's the one people are buying tickets to see.