After moving numerous times, Carlos Serrano is happily settled down in South Philly. But "settled" is hardly the word for a busy opera singer who spends considerable time south of the border.
Serrano has sung with every major opera company and in every musical festival in Mexico. He even owns a home in Mexico City, which he shares with his wife, Maria Luisa Tamez, one of Mexico’s most renowned singers.
"She sings all over the world and, in Mexico, she’s so well-known that sometimes they call me ‘Mr. Tamez’ — and that’s OK with me," says her husband. "I’m very proud of her."
But the 54-year-old baritone, a native of Puerto Rico, is an accomplished singer in his own right. He also has performed throughout Mexico and with many opera companies, including those in New York City, Houston, Kansas, San Francisco, Puerto Rico and Montreal.
Besides singing opera and oratorio, Serrano has made a specialty of zarazuela — Spanish operetta.
In recent years, however, the singer has cut down his performance schedule so he can devote more time to teaching. Serrano is on the faculty at the prestigious Academy of Vocal Arts at 1920 Spruce St. He’s also an adjunct voice teacher at Temple University and maintains a voice studio in his home on Broad Street near Tasker, where he gives private lessons.
At AVA, his students come from all over the world. Only the most gifted students are selected for the academy’s program, and all are training for professional operatic careers.
Two of Serrano’s students have roles in AVA’s current opera, Lucia di Lammermoor, which will be performed tomorrow and Sunday. Yungbae Yang, a baritone from Korea, portrays Enrico; Canadian-born Jeffrey Halili, a tenor, takes the role of Normanno.
Helping these singers prepare for their roles is a challenge Serrano welcomes. "It’s intense work to get them ready to perform," he says. "Preparing for a role is physical, mental and vocal work, and the practice never ends."
Even when he’s not teaching, Serrano is a high-energy type, talking animatedly at AVA headquarters before he meets his first student of the day.
It’s easy to picture him as a dynamic presence on the stage or in a studio, working with an aspiring opera singer.
Born on the small island of Vieques, Puerto Rico, Serrano grew up in a family of performers.
His late father, a Puerto Rican native, was a violinist and dancer; his mother, a Chicago native, was a ballet dancer; and his brother Raymond eventually became a performer with the American Ballet Theater.
Young Carlos attended the Casals Conservatory in Puerto Rico. While still a student there, he was chosen by renowned cellist Pablo Casals to sing in the Casals Festival, where Serrano performed in the oratorio El Pesebre (The Manger).
The singer was so promising that Casals took special interest in him, suggesting that he attend the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. After graduating from Curtis, Serrano took additional training at AVA and launched his professional career.
Along the way, Serrano began to teach and, gradually, this became more of a focus than performing.
"Now, it’s 75-percent teaching and 25-percent performing," he says.
That 25 percent keeps Serrano quite busy. Last January, for instance, he went to Mexico City to sing the baritone role in Carmina Burana with the Carlos Chavez Symphony. Later in the year, he sang the lead role in Verdi’s Falstaff for the Brevard Music Center in North Carolina, where he also teaches for two months every summer.
Performing the Falstaff role was especially meaningful because the music director was David Effron, one of Serrano’s teachers at Curtis almost 30 years ago.
"It was a great experience," the singer says. "I had wanted to do Falstaff for a long time, and this was the chance to perform with a very special conductor."
Now that he’s at AVA, Serrano works closely with another former Curtis teacher, Christofer Macatsoris, the academy’s longtime music director and conductor.
Macatsoris, also a South Philly resident, was one of Serrano’s voice coaches when the aspiring singer first came to Curtis.
"He’s been coaching me all of my artistic life, and he’s still my coach and one of the key influences in my life," says Serrano, noting that Macatsoris helped him prepare for the Falstaff role. "Now we work together at AVA, collaborating with our students. It’s such an interesting twist!"
Serrano works with students one on one in the voice studios at AVA headquarters, which consists of two adjoining brownstones. Occasionally, his students also come to his South Philly studio.
The studio, with its tiled fireplace and bay windows, provides a professional yet inviting atmosphere. Serrano sits at the baby grand piano while his students sing. The walls are covered with opera posters and the bookcase is crammed with music books of all sorts.
Here, Serrano spends hours with his students and also practices daily on his own. He still takes voice lessons, too.
When he’s not working, the teacher enjoys the pleasures of his neighborhood, which include shopping at the Italian Market and dining in local restaurants. "I love homey Italian cooking," he says.
When Serrano hungers for the cuisine of his native country, he treks to North Philadelphia to eat at El Bohio, a genuine Puerto Rican restaurant.
He can enjoy truly authentic Mexican food, of course, when he travels to his other home in Mexico City.
Shortly after Serrano and his wife married 12 years ago, they built a house in Ajusco, an area of the city perched high in the mountains. "The goats and cows give us traffic problems," he says cheerfully. "When we drive out of our garage, they get the right of way."
The two singers enjoy their double life, but the anchor is Philadelphia, says Serrano. "I’ve moved 38 times in my life, but now, this is it — no more moves! Philadelphia has everything I want."
South Philly, in particular, makes the singer feel at home. "It reminds me of a small town," he says. "The corner grocer knows me, the bank teller knows me. I like that feeling."
In fact, though he has been renting the brownstone on South Broad Street, Serrano is now in the process of buying a house two blocks away.
Whether in South Philly or south of the border, music is the focus of his life. And right now, he’s enjoying the pleasure of hearing his students perform in AVA’s Lucia di Lammermoor.
"There’s great satisfaction in seeing all that preparation brought to completion," he says. "I feel so proud of the students when they’re on the stage performing. They’ve put in many hours to get to this point. It’s always an exciting experience and a cause for celebration."
The Academy of Vocal Arts will present Lucia di Lammermoor tomorrow evening and Sunday in the Helen Corning Warden Theater at AVA, 1920 Spruce St. For tickets or more information, call 215-735-1685 or log onto www.avaopera.org.