NOW FOR THE second year in a row, soprano Estelí Gomez has made an impact at the Carmel Bach Festival. The Watsonville native sang a solo and a duet at Carmel Mission during the 2014 festival as a member of the professional Festival Chorale. She also sang with the Chorale in its new commission, a setting of “Nunc dimittis” by Caroline Shaw who had won the Pulitzer Prize for music the previous year. Gomez and Shaw are founding members of Roomful of Teeth, an a cappella vocal ensemble that specializes in new music and is “dedicated to mining the expressive potential of the human voice.” (Another member is Dashon Burton who sings solo bass at the Bach Festival, including the role of Jesus in this year’s St. John Passion.)
One measure of talent is when the gifted takes it for granted. Born into a musical family, all of whom have other professions, she can’t remember a time that she didn’t sing. “I thought everybody did,” she says. But it wasn’t until she entered Yale that she started to develop her natural gift. As a post-grad (with honors) she won a merit scholarship “by auditioning well” to study at McGill University in Montreal and was accepted as a student by the great baritone Sanford Sylvan. She attained her Master’s degree there in 2011.
Since then, four and half years later, she has lived “out of a suitcase” while “gigging”—taking every opportunity to sing that comes along. To put that into perspective, it’s the Bach Festival that gives her the longest residency of the year. Not only does that allow her much more time with her family, but “I get all the good produce and flowers I want from their garden.”
Estelí’s earliest clear memory was the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989. Not yet four years old, in the family home near Pinto Lake in suburban Watsonville, she remembers diving under the kitchen table with her brother.
“I started piano when I was seven and joined a children’s choir soon after,” she says “I loved reading and became really excited when I found out that you could read music out of a book.”
Her highest priorities as a singer are storytelling and self-expression. “For me Sandy [Sylvan] was teacher, guru, mentor, a life-changing pedagogue.” He was recommended by Robert Mealy, a baroque violinist originally from Berkeley. “I went into college without knowing very much about classical music,” she admits. “I wrote him a note saying I really hope one day that I can sing with my instrument the way you do on yours.”
In November 2011 Gomez won first prize in the Canticum Gaudium International Early Music Vocal Competition in Poznan, Poland. She can be heard on the Juno-nominated recording “Salsa Baroque” with Montreal-based Ensemble Caprice. By specializing in new and early music, and minimizing the ‘great middle’ of 18th, 19th and 20th century Western music, she has successfully shifted emphasis from competition to competence. She has traveled internationally on her own, once singing in Bach’s B Minor Mass in China.
Estelí’s parents met in a folk/bluegrass group in San Francisco. “They don’t read music but they have great ears and wonderful voices.” Their forebears on one side are from Nicaragua and on the other Mexico. She was named after the Nicaraguan city of Estelí, a Nahuatl word meaning river of blood, or river of passion. “They liked the sound of it,” she says. “I’m glad they didn’t name me Managua.” She still has family there.
Attending public schools in Watsonville and Aptos, Gomez loved singing in choirs, especially under director Meri Pezzoni at Aptos High. She sang jazz with other musicians, and has sight read at the piano to accompany choirs. “I had an Andrews Sisters trio,” she says. She still loves choral singing. As a member of Conspirare, an acclaimed choral group from Texas that won a Grammy this year, she sings as a soloist on a Harmonia Mundi CD “Samuel Barber, An American Romantic,” and some choral songs by Kevin Puts on another HM disc that also includes his “From Mission San Juan” Symphony (performed by Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony.) On another more recent release, she is solo soprano in a collection of music by Robert Kyr titled “Songs of the Soul.”
“Roomful of Teeth just did two concerts at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in LA,” she says, and is looking forward to Bach’s Christmas Oratorio and Handel’s Messiah in Japan this December. “I love doing oratorios.” She’ll make her Kennedy Center debut this November as part of a new minimalist program curated by composer Mason Bates.
“I adore my job,” says Gomez. “You’ve got to be very organized, diligent about learning, and take good care of yourself. It’s not an easy lifestyle choice.” And she adds, “You have to love it to devote so much to it.”
Portrait photo by Kyle Scripnick