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Carla Canales: “Never give up!”

Never give up! If there is one key takeaway that most embodies the American spirit, it would be the idea of never giving up. Having the tenacity to not only pursue a dream but to pursue it relentlessly, is, in my opinion, something that is true to the American spirit and key to the ideals behind […]

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Never give up! If there is one key takeaway that most embodies the American spirit, it would be the idea of never giving up. Having the tenacity to not only pursue a dream but to pursue it relentlessly, is, in my opinion, something that is true to the American spirit and key to the ideals behind the notion of the American dream. This has certainly been a mantra for me throughout my life.


As a part of our series about immigrant success stories, I had the pleasure of interviewing Carla Canales.

Carla Canales is an acclaimed opera singer and arts advocate, winning recognition as one of the leading voices of her generation, praised by Opera Magazine for possessing a voice that “grabs the heartstrings with its dramatic force and musicality.”

Much in demand for her portrayals of Bizet’s Carmen, she sang the title role over eighty times in twelve countries. Her performance was praised by Opera News as “a well-practiced, sexy Carmen, [Carla] dominated the show.”

Carla holds dual U.S. and Mexican citizenship and has appeared frequently in performances throughout Latin America. Recently she was a featured guest artist in the UNAM Anniversary Concert “Voices of Mexico” which was nationally televised throughout Mexico and released as a commercial recording.

Carla has performed on the nationally televised Hispanic Heritage Awards, was the guest artist for Vice President Biden’s Hispanic Heritage Month Reception, and also at the National Endowment for the Art’s 50th Anniversary Celebration.

Carla is the recipient of the prestigious Sphinx Medal of Excellence, an honor bestowed upon her by Justice Sotomayor at the United States Supreme Court, and was on Foreign Policy Magazine’s 100 Leading Global Thinkers list for her work using music to bridge cultural barriers. She was invited under President Obama to serve on the President’s Committee for the Arts and Humanities as a Turnaround Artist. In all of the above, she was the first opera singer to receive these distinctions.

Carla has been a guest speaker/lecturer at Harvard University, Berklee College of Music, the Aspen Institute, and TEDxMidAtlantic. She is fluent in Spanish, French, Italian, German and English.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?

Ifeel I was born into a state of cultural confusion, as the first American in my family, daughter of a Mexican immigrant mother and Bulgarian refugee father who met in Prague. That I existed at all; that these two people from such differing backgrounds would meet in a pre-internet era and produce an American didn’t make me feel like a child of destiny, but rather of coincidence. This feeling grew exponentially as I navigated various social hierarchies in the underserved town of Ypsilanti, Michigan.

Throughout my youth, many identities were shaped and assigned as society sought to categorize me. I felt like a square peg in a round hole and essentially an outlier. Whenever presented with documents, applications, and standardized tests that required identifying my ethnicity by checking a box, none of the boxes fit. Coincidences don’t get a box of our own, and those who defied classification like me were lumped into a box called “other.”

“Other” always made me feel alien, and that I didn’t belong to anyone’s group. Therefore one day I took matters into my own hands. I longed to belong somewhere so I created a new box, checked it and wrote the word “all” next to it. My mother got a kick out of this incident, however, my school counselor was concerned. I was already breaking rules and looking for new possibilities. In reality, as a hybrid of different cultures, the only way to survive childhood was to consistently adapt. On some level, I viewed my diverse roots and atypical identity as a plus. I knew I could be a bridge; I could be part of different worlds and create connections between them. I was already a bridge between my parents as I translated my mother’s Spanish-language requests into Bulgarian for my father and his responses back into Spanish for her.

I often felt isolated; not a natural or full member of any of these worlds. However, as I grew older, the world changed as demographic tides fueled by migration and globalization ebbed and flowed. I have come to see that today, the experiences I had as a child are extremely common. It is becoming harder and harder to lump “others” into one alienating box. To this point, according to a 2014 study by the U.S. Census, by the end of 2020 those who were once in the majority — such as white, non-Latinx Americans — will be a minority population among those 18 and under. By 2044, this will be true for the whole of American society as African Americans, Asians, Latinx groups, and other people of color become the country’s majority population. In other words, we are moving to a world in which the “other” will soon be the “all.”

Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped make the move more manageable? Can you share a story?

Many people have helped make this transition easier for me, but I think the single biggest tool that helped me with cultural adjustments has been music. Music has always been my home; a place where I didn’t need to check any box, speak any one language, meet an age requirement, and/or confront cultural stigmas related to being female.

As an artist, I’ve often heard people speak of music as the universal language, but I see this differently. I believe we share an emotional universe that transcends language and reveals the fundamental traits of humanity. We each have the capacity to feel deep emotions, and this capacity makes us human. The arts offer exploration of the deep emotional complexities that come with our shared human condition.

Yet the real superpower of the arts is to serve as a gateway to something even more powerful: the human capacity to imagine. When we unleash our imagination and dreams magic happens. Culture and the arts, viewed by many as a luxury, are in my view essential — the glue that holds societies together, the stuff of which bridges are built, the platform on which we can jointly imagine and realize our visions of a better future. This is why I hold a precious and core belief that music can advance positive change. It is why a single song can make the world a better place by imagining a better future, and the underlying sense of humanity reminds us that we are all in it together.

So how are things going today?

After spending years performing opera, I found myself eager to embark on a quest to discover what my untrained, or “true” voice really sounds like. This essentially lead me to search for my “duende”, a word that Spanish poet and playwright Federico García Lorca first introduced to the world. He described it as “the spirit that transfixed and elevated an audience leading them to the dark root of the cry.” Ineffable, powerful, mysterious, it is a force he saw as essential to the flamenco artists and bullfighters of Southern Spain, near Andalusia where he was born and raised.

I’m excited to be releasing an album that is the result of this questioning, and of a decade of soul searching. This album, titled “Duende”, aims to reimagine folk and traditional music in a new way, with the use of electronics. This project began nearly ten years ago while rehearsing the title role of Carmen in Europ, which was when I first heard the term. Searching and struggling with my duende has given me a chance to ask questions through music, such as what does it mean to me to be a Latina? A woman? An artist?

I’ve explore my voice in a myriad of styles and beyond my operatic training through these newly created arrangements. I also wanted to pay homage to Lorca by including five of the Spanish folk songs he loved and arranged. I’ve rounded the album out with my own compositions, labeled “interludes”, based on diary entries and personal stories. I see these as recitativo in opera, and the folk songs as the arias through which the main story unfolds.

Ultimately, it is my hope to use my voice, both literally and figuratively to advocate for positive social change through better understanding of cultural differences. I hope that in sharing my own journey and the music that was created for this album, somehow others might inspired to search for their duende, and to always keep learning. I only reached one conclusion on this search: that the searching never ends. It’s taken me to many places I would not have expected, including back to school as a masters student at Harvard University. I want to keep learning, growing, and searching.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

As a singer, I have seen the power of song to break through culture and connect us through our common humanity. Apart from singing opera professionally, I have worked as a U.S. State Department Arts Envoy since 2005 and have seen music play a role in making the world better through artistic projects with Mayan children in the Yucatán and youth in Honduras, China, and Kazakhstan. As an arts entrepreneur, I have witnessed how arts education and performances can build bridges between children of immigrants from Tucson, AZ to The Bronx, NY.

I’m deeply motivated by the idea of creating positive social impact through music and founded an organization, The Canales Project, through which we aim to explore issues of identity and culture through music and conversation. One program which we created, titled Hear Her Song, identifies global female leaders and commissions female composers to create songs about and for them, utilizing the honorees’ words as the basis for the new songs. We have performed in venues from the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC to Joe’s Pub at the Public Theater in New York, NY and settings in China and the United Kingdom. We aim to celebrate women leaders worldwide and honor them with newly-commissioned songs to use as a tangible tool to amplify their messages and stories. I have seen this program spark the imagination of young girls as they heard and celebrated stories of honorees including Malala Yousafzai, Hillary Clinton, Sonia Sotomayor, along with scientists, African tribal leaders, nuns, entrepreneurs, and more.

The Canales Project is also launching a new initiative this fall in response to COVID-19 called V-Pals (Video-Pals), which uses technology to connect students in the Middle East, Africa, Latin America, and the U.S. through music.

In addition, I have had the unique opportunity to explore the interconnections between culture and power at the highest levels of government. This includes serving on the President’s Committee for Arts & Humanities, Artists Committee of Americans for the Arts and speaking on Capitol Hill as well as at the United Nations to seek greater support for the arts and promote the arts sector’s potential for economic growth and educational achievement. Perhaps the best example of this I have had was through my experience as Co-Creator and Artistic Director of CultureSummit Abu Dhabi, an event that brought together government ministers and leading artists, philanthropists, media and entertainment leaders, and technologists to address issues such as climate crisis, extremism, and women’s empowerment. Throughout the conference we featured leaders such as Madeleine Albright, top designated officials from UNESCO, Academy Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning composers, architects, photographers, and more. These discussions led to concrete global solutions that resulted in many new and exciting educational programs, arts funding, outreach efforts in damaged communities, and arts heritage preservation in conflict-affected regions.

You have first hand experience with the US immigration system. If you had the power, which three things would you change to improve the system?

While I have not had direct first-hand experience with the US immigration system, I am familiar with the challenges and problems that America is facing today in terms of immigration. I would make the following strong recommendations for a better, more just system:

First, I would aim to protect asylum seekers and victims of domestic violence. There are many people who enter the United States illegally as their only option to escape dire circumstances. The journey that they endure to get here is arduous and often it’s a miracle that they make it here. We should be doing everything we can to protect these folks.

Secondly, it shouldn’t have to be said, but unfortunately, we are living in a time when it has to be addressed. We need to eliminate all unjustified detention. In particular, this needs to be a priority for children and youth under the age of 18. We have seen too many horrible cases of misuse of power under the current administration. This is simply inexcusable.

Lastly, and in keeping with the second point, I would strongly urge officials to keep families in tact. The fact that we are living in a time when small children have been separated from their parents and put into cages is something that truly keeps me up at night.

Can you share “5 keys to achieving the American dream” that others can learn from you? Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Hard work pays off. My parents came to the United States with the promise of a job, sheer determination, and most importantly, a strong work ethic. As our family was born out of these values, I have had the opportunity to see first hand how hard work can lead anyone on the path to achieving their dreams. I was not the most talented in school but I persisted at my studies and worked very hard. I believe that hard work pays off, and my family’s story as well as my own story are examples of how, through hard work, anything is possible.
  2. Be kind. I know that when my parents came to America, many people opened their hearts and doors to help them. They did not speak English well, and had no family or friends to call on. In the same way, many people have helped me achieve my dreams by showing me kindness and generosity of heart. I believe that this is a part of the American spirit. I try very hard to embody this in everything I do.
  3. Education is key. I believe in the power of education to inspire and transcend any situation. I feel that so much is possible in America in this regard. We have seen many example of the American Dream achieve through not only hard work, but education. This includes self-improvement as well as learning about those who are different from us. One of the greatest gifts of America is being able to share our civil liberties with people from different backgrounds, and the opportunity that provides us to learn more about the world.
  4. Be a leader. I think that America rewards leadership and an entrepreneurial spirit. Leadership qualities such as innovation, community involvement, taking initiative to start social change and showing a friendly spirit to others are all qualities of a good leader. I have always felt that America values and encourages leadership, which is a great thing to foster as a trait of good citizenship.
  5. Never give up! If there is one key takeaway that most embodies the American spirit, it would be the idea of never giving up. Having the tenacity to not only pursue a dream but to pursue it relentlessly, is, in my opinion, something that is true to the American spirit and key to the ideals behind the notion of the American dream. This has certainly been a mantra for me throughout my life.

We know that the US needs improvement. But are there 3 things that make you optimistic about the US’s future?

This is a very difficult time in history. The economic effects of COVID-19 have only begun to show themselves, and we have witnessed growing social tension in America due to sorely needed social reforms that have not yet taken place. In my opinion, much of this could have been prevented, but there is no use in looking back. We have a much brighter future to look forward to, for many reasons. Here are three that give me hope every day:

  1. The emergence of new, bold political leaders of diverse backgrounds, such as Kamala Harris and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. I firmly believe that they are creating much needed change and paving the way for others to follow.

2. The changing demographics in this country will eventually lead to a moment of social change. Hopefully, we won’t see as much discrimination or racism due to the sheer fact that the minority as we think of them now will be the majority. I believe that this will lead to systematic change in leadership across sectors, and more representation of lesser heard voices.

3. One of the most positive outcomes of globalization is the fact that in a world that is so interconnected, we will be forced to collaborate in new multilateral ways on important issues such as climate change, issues of intellectual property and security, and even health issues, as we have already seen with COVID-19.

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂

I’ve been very inspired by Bill and Melinda Gates and would be honored to meet them and learn from them. I would also really love to speak with them about the arts. I believe that many of the greatest challenges facing the planet can be more effectively addressed if we harness the ability of the arts to persuade, open minds to new perspectives, build bridges, enable and enhance understanding, and energize and mobilize audiences to action. At this moment we have a deficit of leaders who can address these issues however a surplus of artists who have the skills and talents to help do so. To me, that is a business opportunity.

The challenge is winning the active support of governments and funders worldwide to help seize that opportunity. For too long, the arts have been pushed aside to the “children’s table” of public policy discussions. As it happens, that is where you would also be most likely to find those associated with others of the issues that loom largest today from those seeking to combat the climate crisis to those seeking to empower women, from those seeking to bridge cultural barriers to those advocating for significant investments in education. All of these groups are needed today, and the power of the arts can help in each of those areas and more.

So, a strategic challenge that is of interest to me is reframing our discussion of the arts and the metrics we use to reflect this emerging reality in which we play such an important role in the digital economy. (The digital economy accounted for almost 7 percent of US GDP according to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.) Related issues are also important — like the importance of ensuring artists understand technology or even have access to it (the poorest communities in the US often lack broadband access).

What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?

Facebook @carladcanales facebook.com/carladcanales

Instagram carlacanalesmusic

Twitter @CarlaDCanales

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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