EXCLUSIVE: Carla Dirlikov on Winning SPHINX Medal of Excellence, Being a Cultural Envoy & Career Development

By: David Salazar

April 25th, 2014

(Photo : Alberto Caceres)

Part of being an opera is playing a number of diverse roles ranging from tragic figures to comic schemers. But few of them play the number of roles that mezzo-soprano Carla Dirlikov has managed to take on in her yet blossoming career. The rising singer, who is well-known for her interpretation of Bizet's "Carmen," was recently awarded the Sphinx Medal of Excellence and is a cultural envoy with the U.S. State Department. Dirlikov, the daughter of a Bulgarian father and Mexican mother, recently spoke with Latin Post about her accolades, her sense of duty and responsibility, and her developing career.

The SPHINX Medal of Excellence was awarded on March 19, 2014 and it honors "extraordinary Black and Latino leaders in music who, early in their career, demonstrate artistic excellence, outstanding work ethic, a spirit of determination, and leadership." Dirlikov is actually the first singer ever to be given the noted award, a historical fact that she takes great pride in.

"It is an honor. But it is also a deep responsibility as the first singer to ever win this prize. I hope to fulfill the potential that they see in me," she enthused.

Dirlikov was actually in a Starbucks in Germany when she received the phone call. She noted that the news came as a huge surprise as it was not an award that she could apply for.

"I was shocked," she stated. "There is no application process. It is by nomination and there is a committee that reviews the applicants. I had no idea I was being considered."

As part of winning the award, Dirlikov earns a $50,000 career grant. The singer noted that she is actually launching a new project that will expose long forgotten Mexican music of the baroque era.

"I was trying to think about what can I do to carry out this mission and make a mark in the arts. Where could I make a difference? What I came back to are my roots and ethnicity," she explained. "I have always been close to my family in Mexico and one of the things I wanted to do was premiere some Mexican baroque pieces that haven't been sung in over 200 years. There is incredible repertoire that has not been given a spotlight. I felt honored that I might be in a position to bring more light to this music."

Dirlikov was introduced to the music by conductor Benjamin Juarez Echenique, who also serves as the Dean of the Boston University College of Fine Art. Dirlikov noted that he would be conducting her in the music. The other major collaborator on this project is musicologist Dr. Thomas Stanford who went to Mexico over 50 years ago and has spent his time researching and studying the music that Dirlikov plans to showcase.

"[Stanford] basically gave me his life's work and said 'Take this out to the world,'" said Dirlikov. 

The performance of the music will be recorded and released by Urtext, a Mexican record label that is distributed by Naxos in the United States. However Dirlikov was unsure whether the recording would be based off a live performance or whether it would take place in a studio setting. But for the moment, that is not the main focus on her mind. Instead, she is simply thrilled by the prospect of working with so many wonderful collaborators.

"I am so deeply honored that I have many talented people willing to work with me and support this idea," she stated. "I am looking forward to the recording and the performances so we can share this with the rest of the world.  I'm especially grateful to the Sphinx Organization for their support, and very excited to collaborate with the Sphinx Virtuosi chamber orchestra on this project.  I think that having the chance to interpret this music together will be very special.

Photo Credit: Alberto Caceres

"I feel very passionately about promoting Latin music. Whether it be Spanish, Latin American or Mexican, it all speaks very dearly to me. There is so much wonderful repertoire that is relatively unknown."

Aside from her major award, Dirlikov is a devoted humanitarian and has been awarded the title of Cultural Envoy for her educational work with small communities around the world. The singer started working with the State Department back in 2005 when one of her mentors, Ken Fisher who is the President of the University Musical Society, put her in touch with a contact in the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City called Bertha Cea. It turned out that the embassy was looking for a singer to do some outreach and Dirlikov took advantage of the opportunity.

Since then she has worked in a number of different countries and has helped teach youngsters about music and how to sing.

"I take a lot of pride in my work on behalf of the State Department. It is something special for me because it allows me to do educational and outreach work in other countries in the name of the U.S. government," she revealed. "When I am on an opera gig in another country, I contact State Department and ask what I can do for them. They usually find me some activities in schools such as master classes. Other times it is working with communities that have no experience with classical music.  It is really exciting to bring music to those people."

The work has even brought about long lasting experiences for Dirlikov. 

"The first concert I did was in Campeche [in the Mexican province of Yucatan]. The state department got together a group of kids. They were orphans or underprivileged kids and they asked me if I could do a workshop," she explained. "I bonded with them and then asked them to sing on my concert.

"It was incredible to witness how they were empowered by music," she elaborated. "Singing is essentially a free way to make music and anyone can do it. Those kids really gained a lot of confidence and were able to express their emotions through music."

She returned later that year and was surprised to see the group's progress.

"They had advanced so much that they were asked to be the opening act for a major concert," she explained before revealing that the students actually went on to win a major award. "A few years after they won an award given out by the White House called the Coming up Taller Award and they got to travel to DC.

"As the story goes they got there and were really sad because they didn't see Carla. I have grown so close with them."

While social outreach came as a nice surprise for Dirlikov, music did not. Dirlikov grew up playing the violin and her transition to being a singer came about because one of her teachers emphasized that she sing the music and try to translate the vocalism into the instrumental performance. At age 17, she started studying singing and realized that it was the right fit for her.

"It was a marriage of my two passions which are music and languages," she revealed.  "When I discovered that singing is an opportunity to put the two together, I decided that that was it."

She went off to the University of Michigan on a full scholarship to study voice and came into contact with one of the greatest opera singers of all time -- Shirley Verrett.

According to Dirlikov, while on sabbatical from U of M to study at the Paris Conservatoire, she attended a summer workshop at the Accademia Chigiana in Italy in 2000 where she met the famed singer. The two connected during the summer and arranged for Dirlikov to continue her studies with Verrett back at the University of Michigan. She continued to work with Verrett until the latter passed away in 2010.

"She basically taught me everything. Not only about singing but about professionalism, artistry, kindness, and how to be a better person," enthused Dirlikov. "She was my greatest role model. I was lucky to spend a lot of personal time with her getting to know her. I looked up to her very much.

"To sum it up, she was about commitment to artistry, commitment in general, and having something to say. Each time I get up to sing, I think of it as an opportunity to say something that I can say that cannot be said any other way," she added. "I remember her always. Especially because I have been able to sing a number of roles that she was famous for and I feel a responsibility to try to carry out her legacy and everything that she taught me."

Dirlikov finished her studies at the Conservatoire National de Paris and received her Masters from McGill University. She also studied at the Academy of Vocal Arts. Since then, she has managed to establish an international career with a diverse repertoire. However, the singer notes that one role in particular has helped her rise in the opera world -- Carmen. Dirlikov noted that she has sung the role over 70 times all around the world, including in Europe, Asia, North America and Mexico.

"I love that role. First of all she is a very strong woman and I love playing strong dynamic characters. It comes more naturally to me. I think I can sink my teeth into that," she noted before stating that the greatness of the role is the ample opportunity for nuance and dramatic reinterpretation. "One of the things that has been special in my journey with this role is that I can work with different directors and conductors. The work leads to exploring a lot of questions unanswered. Is she a bad person? Is she misunderstood? Is she a femme fatale? Does she love Don Jose? Those questions give you so many options to play with. No matter how I play her, it is important to have conviction with my choices."

 It is not surprising that "Carmen" is so important to the singer as she revealed that it has a major connection not only with her childhood, but also with her family.

Credit: Alberto Caceres

"The first opera I saw was Carmen. My dad got the DVD version and we watched it as kids," she stated. "I remember playing Carmen with my brothers. I would dress one up as a bull and the other as a bullfighter and I would twirl my skirt around. And that was one of our child games along with hide and seek."

Later this year, the Mexican-Bulgarian singer will take on the role of Adalgisa in Bellini's "Norma" at the Portland Summer Festival and she admitted that it was a role that she has long desired to sing. However, singing the role is not the only treat in store for Dirlikov. What excites her most about taking on the role is having the opportunity to sing alongside one of her closest friends, Angela Meade. Meade recently took on the title role in Bellini's masterwork at the Metropolitan Opera in New York and received a number of great reviews for her work.

"It is going to be so much fun. I am so excited about it because Angela is a close friend. We went to the Academy of Vocal Arts together and I think that anytime you can sing with a close friend it is special," she stated. "But this is extra special because she is so great and well-known for it. I am looking forward to sharing these beautiful duets with her."

Dirlikov noted that her career is far from easy and that she has been forced to overcome a number of major obstacles. However, the biggest hurdle that she has had to leap past is her own fear.

"I think fear holds us all back. For me fear of failure was the biggest obstacle and getting past it took some effort and strength of mind," she stated. Knowing who you are is key as an artist. Obviously there will be mistakes and failures but the key for me has been to look at them as opportunities to grow and learn."

The singer noted that in coming years she will be expanding her repertoire to include more bel canto roles as well as more baroque music. 

Among the bel canto repertoire she wants to add are some works by Rossini and Donizetti.

"[Donizetti's] 'La Favorita' is a beautiful role that I would love to sing," she revealed. "It is a repertoire that I am starting to discover and it is really exciting for me to learn all of this new music."

But what are her biggest dream roles?

"I want to be a Valkyrie [in Wagner's 'Die Walkure']. That scene is so exciting! I love that music so much. I don't know if it is for my voice, but that particularly scene always gives me chills."

She also noted that singing Charlotte in Massenet's "Werther" was another role she aspired to.

The mezzo-soprano has had the opportunity of singing some major Verdi roles, including Eboli in "Don Carlo" and Preziosilla in "La Forza del Destino." However, she noted that she is looking to ease up on singing too much dramatic repertoire.

"I love Verdi and I am so grateful that I have been able to make some of his great roles," she stated. "But right now I want to go slowly with that mostly because it is so dramatic and requires so much from a singer in terms of vocal maturity. I try to mix it up like a healthy diet. And I think having a variety of things musically is healthy for my voice. Doing more bel canto and early music is a good direction for me right now."

Dirlikov has numerous responsibilities as an opera singer and cultural envoy, but she still finds time to spend with her husband and her two dogs.

"I love all animals. I have two rescue dogs that I absolutely adore. My idea of a good time is taking them to the dog park, letting them loose and watching them interact. It inspires me so much to see how they communicate without any language," she stated. 

Dirlikov also revealed that she speaks five languages fluently: Spanish, French, Italian, German and English. She stated that while she did speak Bulgarian as a child, she has lost the fluency as an adult. Despite her diverse range of languages, she noted that she is hard at work in adding yet another one to her skill set.

"I am learning Chinese right now for fun," she said. "I have been fascinated by languages for a long time and how we as humans interact with one another."