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Tenor shines on stage in 'Idomeneo,' finds true love off stage
by Aaron Hunt
2018-10-29

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David Portillo makes his role debut as Arbace in Mozart's Idomeneo at Lyric Opera of Chicago. The tenor has been out on social media for years, but his interview with Windy City Times marks coming out in the press.

"This is the first time I'm going to be out that isn't a personal, social media-thing. "I'm happy about it. I had a wedding!," the San Antonio native said of his May nuptials to David Lawrence. "I can't imagine spending my life with anybody else. He makes me the kind of person I strive to be," Portillo said. He and Lawrence live in Minneapolis.

Portillo makes his debut as Arbace ( running through Nov. 2 ), but he's no stranger to Chicago: From 2007-10, Portillo—then in his late 20s—was a member of the Lyric's Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Opera Center, a training ground for young singers. Portillo has since returned to the Lyric to sing David in Die Meistersinger, Trin in La fanciulla del West, and Andres in Wozzeck. He returns to the New York's Metropolitan Opera later this season for his debut as the Chevalier de la Force in Dialogues des Carmélites.

The flimsy, fable plot of Idomeneo would be laughable if Mozart hadn't blessed it with his genius: King Idomeneo ( played at the Lyric by Matthew Polenzani ) makes a pact with Neptune. If Neptune saves Idomeneo from a shipwreck, Idomeneo will kill the first person he sees when safely ashore. Arbace is the king's counselor and confidante.

Known for his portrayals of Mozart's tenor roles ( Tamino, Don Ottavio, Ferrando, and Belmonte ) Portillo wasn't always sure the role of Arbace would end up in his wheelhouse.

"I saw [a production of Idomeneo] a long time ago with Luciano Pavarotti [as King Idomeneo]. I never dreamed that I was going to be a part of something like this. I thought Arbace had great arias, so I learned it years ago. But when I was younger, I didn't know how to handle its vocal challenges," he said.

"I love this opera. There aren't tunes that you've heard a million times. But there are powerful, beautiful things that sound like the emotions of what's going on onstage; you can just feel the theater in the music," Portillo said.

When Portillo was new to the Ryan Center, he faced both the personal stress of being the closet with his family and the professional stresses of a fledgling opera career.

"When I went home, I could talk to my family about what I was doing professionally but I couldn't talk about why I wasn't bringing anybody home or why I hadn't been on dates. I couldn't share what I was going through with my family," he said.

"My father was a minister, and my mother was the music leader at my church," Portillo said. "They raised us up in the most spirit-filled family. We learned how to sing together, and how to keep a tight-knit community. There's group of people there who are still really close to my mom, and really close to me."

When Portillo came out to his parents at 30, a member of that community helped him through. "I have a really good friend who I grew up with in the church who helped me a lot. He didn't ask me, 'Hey David, are you sure you're not gay?' but instead said, 'Let's hang out and talk about who you are, what you like, what you want for your life.'

"I was held back by my need to make sure my family didn't disown me. Being that age and not having a partner already, they knew, everyone knew. I just had to admit to myself, first and foremost, that that's who I was. ( I )t's not a sin, it is because that's how I was made," he said.

At the Ryan Center, Portillo's professional career flourished. Learning to trust was a crucial part of that.

"My first year in the [Ryan Center] program, I remember thinking it's a big season for a young person, but I was very honored to be there. There's a lot of things I could have been better at, and I was hoping to represent myself well.

"By my second year I realized I wasn't going to be given role-assignments I couldn't handle. The biggest lesson I learned was to trust the conductors, coaches, teachers [and] other colleagues to help create the best sort of collaborative experience, which is all this is about, to create something beautiful for the audience."

Like many other industries, the world of opera has been shaken by allegations of sexual harassment and abuse, and criminal investigations into the same. After 40 years at New York's Metropolitan Opera, conductor James Levine was fired in March after allegations that of sexual abuse and harassment. Renowned countertenor David Daniels, who is married to conductor Scott Walters, in currently under investigation by the Houston police department after vocalist Samuel Schultz accused both men of drugging and raping him after a performance at Houston Grand Opera in 2010.

"Gay or straight, being a victim is not a good thing," Portillo said of the scandals and their their potential impact on young singers just entering the field. "I don't think that we should ever allow those who have made bad choices to force us back into the closet, to outshine the community we're creating," he said.

Idomeneo plays at Lyric Opera of Chicago, 20 N. Wacker Dr., through Friday, Nov. 2. Tickets are $49-$279 each; call 312-827-5600 or visit LyricOpera.org .


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