César Ulloa: From Touring to Teaching

César Ulloa was first inspired to join his high school chorus for a very specific reason—he wanted to go on tour. “I was in the orchestra—I played trumpet—but the orchestra didn’t tour, so I auditioned for the chorus.” And that’s where his singing journey began. “I didn’t know it was going to be my professional career, not yet anyway.” It was an auspicious decision. Ulloa fell in love with another chorus member, and little did they know at the time, they would marry and have a family together.

As a boy in Cuba, music was always a part of Ulloa’s home life. At age seven, he and his family escaped Fidel Castro’s regime. Ulloa didn’t know until the morning of their departure, when his family risked everything, to hide on a ship for nine days. They landed in Spain, where they lived in Madrid for a year-and-a-half. Together they made daily trips to the consul’s office seeking to obtain visas. Once they received their papers, Ulloa settled in Dallas, Texas where he began to play the trumpet in middle school.

By the time he reached college at Southern Methodist University, Ulloa was still unaware of his operatic fate. He was studying pre-med and enjoyed working in a hospital. At the same time, he was taking voice lessons with Metropolitan Opera tenor Thomas Hayward, who encouraged Ulloa to audition for the Dallas Opera Chorus. That’s where things started to happen.

With the training and perseverance came recognition. Ulloa was told that “’All the great singers passed through the Dallas Opera,’ and I got to learn from them at a very young age. Their voices are still in my head today.” Maestro Nicola Rescigno plucked him out of the Chorus, and he debuted as Giuseppe in La Traviata opposite Beverly Sills. Celebrated mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne heard Ulloa singing and encouraged him to pursue a career in music.

But it wasn’t easy. Ulloa moved to New York. In between lessons, auditions, and competitions, he worked on Wall Street as a bilingual executive secretary. “Working for Lehman Brothers allowed me to pay for coaching and of course rent. I had to make a living somehow.”

“I always tell my students you have to want it—whatever it is—more than anything else. And it’s hard at the beginning, a career takes time to build.”

Taking his own advice, Ulloa soon began winning competitions. He built a career on over 50 leading and character roles. Collaborating with Gian Carlo Menotti in his opera, The Consul, and playing the magician stands out in his memory, along with countless renditions of Pong in Puccini’s Turandot and Beppe in Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci. After 15 years of singing with the Metropolitan Opera, New York City Opera, Washington Opera, Canadian Opera, L'Opéra de Monte-Carlo, Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, Boston Symphony, The Cleveland Symphony, and covering roles at the Metropolitan Opera, he fulfilled his desire to tour and ended his lifestyle of continuous travel.

In 2005, the San Francisco Opera’s Alder Fellowship Program, an international-recognized advanced training program, invited Ulloa to teach. Not long after, he was touring the construction site of SFCM’s new building at 50 Oak Street. In 2006, he was also teaching in the SF Opera’s Merola Opera Program, and he joined the voice faculty at SFCM.

Today, he loves teaching as much as his students love learning from him. “Cesar has been my teacher for over 12 years,” says rising-star soprano Julie Adams ’13. “Working with him and learning from him has been nothing short of extraordinary. His understanding and knowledge of the voice are truly incomparable. He has an innate ability to explain and demonstrate complex processes of singing with such ease. Not only is he an excellent teacher and mentor, but he is one of the kindest, most supportive people you will ever meet.”

In 2014, he was awarded the Sarlo Family Foundation Award for Excellence in Teaching at SFCM, the first ever to be given to a voice teacher. Marilyn Horne, who was one of the first to identify his talent, spoke at the award ceremony.

“César Ulloa has been such an important voice pedagogue for so many years, and doing it so successfully, he certainly deserves all praise and congratulations. I have admired the fruits of his labors constantly. He has been and continues to be a bright light in that most difficult arena, voice teaching,” said Horne. “Thanks to César for making it possible for the world to have so many new singers who are succeeding so nicely.”

His strength lies not only in his guidance through musicianship and technique, but in his commitment to helping each student find the path best suited to them. “I try to listen to what singers have and assess where they can go. My job is to give them all the information about possibilities and resources. Of course, technique comes first and foremost, but then I help them build careers that make sense for them.”

And it’s paid off. His students are in major programs and opera companies all over the world, singing leading roles and gaining international fame. Soprano Amina Edris ’15, who just played Juliet in Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette at the San Francisco Opera, can’t say enough about Ulloa’s talents as a teacher, mentor, and performer. “His generosity, dedication, and commitment to his students never cease to amaze.”

Daniela Mack, a successful mezzo-soprano and former Adler Fellow, counts Ulloa as a trusted mentor and teacher throughout her entire professional career. “He has always gone above and beyond to support his students. His holistic approach to teaching voice means that he takes care to nurture his students as human beings first and foremost.”

But the gratitude goes both ways. “I don’t know how I would have gotten through life without my students,” says Ulloa. “They work so hard for me, and I know I’m a tough teacher, but I do it from a good place because I really want them to succeed. They give so much back to me that I’m just as happy teaching now as I was on stage getting applause. When I see them perform, I can reflect on their incredible journey. I am proud and it feels like I did my job, which brings a smile to my heart.”

Images of César Ulloa

  • César Ulloa performing as Nemorino in L’Elisir D’Amore

  • César Ulloa with Marilyn Horne

  • César Ulloa on stage

  • César Ulloa

  • César Ulloa with SFCM student

  • César Ulloa in SFCM studio