It all started one day when his mother was running late. She couldn’t pick him up from his afternoon activity, so she asked Chacón-Cruz to stay with his brother while he practiced with the school chorus. Chacón-Cruz sat down outside, waited. “At some point, I heard one of the songs, and I knew it. I started singing along, and I was quite loud,” he recalls.
The next thing he knew, the chorus master was calling him in. Chacón-Cruz found himself in the mezzo section, singing. And with the competition coming up, Chacón-Cruz was enlisted to participate.
He sang a traditional favorite: “México Lindo y Querido,” a song that translates to “Mexico, Beautiful and Beloved.” And, as luck would have it, he won.
“It's not that I sang so well either. I don't think so. I was just fearless,” he says. “I was just singing without hesitating. That’s probably why they thought I was cute.”
But singing was normal in Chacón-Cruz’s family. Nobody thought much of it — or that it would turn into a full-blown career.
At parties, at reunions, singing was just part of tradition. Especially at this time of year. His family would load up the car with guitars — and uncles and cousins and grandparents and other assorted relatives— and head to the cemetery to celebrate Día de Muertos, a holiday dedicated to remembering the dead.
Over music and decorations, Chacón-Cruz would remember the life of his great grandmother: He used to visit her every day, sitting with her as she watched soap operas or told stories. And through his family, he would hear tales of the grandfather he never met.
And then there was the grave in the cemetery stamped with a familiar name: Arturo Chacón-Cruz. He shares a name with a baby boy his parents lost before he was born. “It scared a lot of my friends,” he laughs.
The traditions of Sonora — and of Mexico itself — were the fuel that sparked Chacón-Cruz’s professional career. Initially, he envisioned becoming a mechanical engineer. He confesses he still loves to play with gadgets: “I build and destroy things and then build them back.”
But around age 14, Chacón-Cruz’s voice changed. He began experimenting with the mariachi music. The singing his family took to be a hobby was starting to turn into a regular gig.
“Where I was living, there was a street where all the mariachi bands would go, and we would stand around and people would hire us to sing serenades,” Chacón-Cruz explains. The most common commission was from men desperate to impress their crushes.
Sometimes, the woman being serenaded would come out. The man would ask her to be his girlfriend, and everyone went home happy. Other times, the woman would simply turn on a light inside the house, to show gratitude. “But if they don’t turn on the light, it’s like, ‘Oh bummer. Next,’” he laughs. “You keep going. You go to the next house.”
Chacón-Cruz remembers going on serenades maybe three, four times each week. His fellow mariachis knew where to find him if he was needed on the double. “It was a beautiful time. It was a beautiful thing to grow up with, looking at and believing in romanticism, believing in how a song can bring you happily ever after.”
But his family was wary of his budding mariachi career. His uncle has pursued a career as a mariachi singer and actor, and Chacón-Cruz says he “was a little obsessed my uncle’s path.”
But his uncle’s career never took off as he had hoped, and his family saw the dark side of the entertainment industry. “Even my grandfather and my father, they told me, ‘Over my dead body, you’ll be a mariachi singer.’”
His parents came up with a compromise: If Chacón-Cruz wanted their permission to go out late, he would have to take opera lessons — and learn some vocal discipline along the way.
It was a turning point. One of his teachers, the Cuban tenor Jesús Li Cecilio, told him he had the potential to go pro.
“I've always been — I don't know if ‘overachiever’ is the right word. But whenever somebody tells me that I can't do something — or that I could do something but it's going to be really difficult — I want to do it even more,” Chacón-Cruz says. Opera taught him to hit high notes he had never reached before in mariachi. “It was something very new and exotic for me. So I just fell in love with it.”
Now, as an opera singer, Chacón-Cruz has toured the world, performing from La Scala in Milan to Carnegie Hall in New York. In 2012, he made a heralded debut at San Francisco Opera, replacing a colleague as the Duke of Mantua in Rigoletto. The San Francisco Chronicle newspaper called it “a company debut of enormous grace, charisma and stamina.”
He has since returned for 2017’s La Bohème and was scheduled to reprise the role of Rodolfo for 2020’s cancelled revival. It would have been his 23rd production of the classic Giacomo Puccini opera — and he estimates it would have marked his 99th individual performance of Rodolfo, one of his favorite characters to play.
“There are some characters in other operas that are difficult to connect to. We are actors, and we’re giving it our all trying to interpret what a king would be or a duke or a count,” Chacón-Cruz says. “But Rodolfo is just a guy who wants to write poetry, who falls in love.”
Does it ever get old to sing a role so many times? Never, he says. The music of La Bohème is somehow both “wonderfully human and celestial,” all at the same time. And then, of course, there are the onstage antics.
The camaraderie between the artist characters in the story often translates into real-life friendships for the performers. It can be a struggle for Chacón-Cruz not to smile, for instance, during the Act II dining scene.
“The guys start messing around with each other’s dishes. Then you'd have a food fight during a performance where you have to be serious and you're about to sing a difficult line and the guys are throwing you a big chicken.” He admits he’s almost cried from laughter during a performance, quickly having to collect himself so as not to miss his next line.
But though he has had a successful career, he did have to overcome skepticism early in his career that he might be “too mariachi,” as one conductor put it. An agent once advised him that “mariachi was in the low class and that I shouldn’t be singing that because it would bring my career down,” he says.
But while he firmly believes in singing opera according to its traditions and standards, he continues to embrace his mariachi roots, releasing CDs of traditional Mexican music. He also collaborates with pop singers like the Argentine-Mexican singer-songwriter Noel Schajris.
“Singing is singing. It's born from a huge, huge necessity to express what you're feeling,” he says. One of his most popular releases, he adds, was a cover of folk singer Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”
“The future is not going to be for the rigid, people who think opera is this, this, and that,” he predicts. In this time of mass cancellations due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he worries the art form will lose a generation of young artists, unable to support themselves singing.
Established singers “can weather the storm a little better than someone who is in debt,” like students and young professionals entering the field, he says.
He also worries those singers who survive in the field will be forced to sing roles they’re not prepared for. “They’ll start singing whatever repertoire that’s thrown at them, and the techniques are going to suffer. So we need to protect the young singers.”
It’s important to give young singers both opportunity and technique, passing down to them the traditions of opera that might otherwise be lost between generations, Chacón-Cruz argues. He himself was taught the Melocchi method of singing, but it takes careful instruction, passed from opera singer to opera singer, to ensure techniques are used safely, without danger to their vocal cords.
But Chacón-Cruz has hope. During quarantine alone, he’s heard again and again from converts who hated opera but discovered it through his live-streaming. He’s also witnessed the power of music to unite people.
When he sang a concert in his hometown four years ago, he asked the couples in the audience if he’d sang mariachi for their proposals as a kid. To his surprise, he says, four or five sets of hands shot into the air.
Nowadays, he’s passing down those traditions and songs to his 9-year-old son. Just before this interview, he had been telling his son about his Día de Muertos traditions, pausing to reminisce about the sugar cane he ate back then.
“I was like, ‘Yeah, I would eat five sugar canes every time.’” His son, who could only remember seeing sugar cane in the video game Minecraft, looked stunned. “He’s like, ‘You can eat a sugar cane, Daddy?’”
It’s been nearly two decades since Chacón-Cruz left Mexico to tour the world, living suitcase to suitcase. But teaching his son these traditions reminds him of his roots too. They help him remember — and bring the generations, past and present, together.
Connect with tenor Arturo Chacón-Cruz on his website or through social media.