In a tide of students washing through the Quad, Celeste Curiel doesn’t bob to the surface. She can walk across campus unnoticed, except by a select few. She jostles for a spot on the bus and scrambles to reach her 8 o’clock class, simply one of more than 30,000.
But then at some point in the graduate student’s hectic day, she is going to stop, collect herself, warm up and sing.
And when Celeste Curiel sings, be it in a Texas State opera or in winning a national mariachi competition, she is no longer part of the crowd.
The native of San Antonio has loved music as long as she can remember; she had relatives who were mariachis, and her late father encouraged her by playing albums like Linda Ronstadt’s “Canciones de mi Padre,” the pop star’s classic album of songs from Mexico, recorded with the Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán.
When she was 10 years old, Curiel was asked to sing “Las Mañanitas,” a traditional Mexican birthday song, at a party for her great aunt.
“All of my family just went crazy,” she recalls. “They told my mother ‘You’ve got to push her, you’ve got to put her in talent shows.’”
She began to take lessons, and her voice began to blossom. By the time she reached Brackenridge High School, she had sung the National Anthem in front of 65,000 fans at the Alamodome. She appeared in shows and competitions, including “more mariachi events than I can remember” at El Mercado, the Mexican-style market and plaza in downtown San Antonio. She competed in the “Our Part of Town” talent show in her hometown, was named Miss Recreation by the San Antonio Parks and Recreation Department and recorded two CDs of pop music. Along the way, she also mastered the emotional mariachi style.
“I think mariachi is the music of the soul,” she says of the music of her childhood. “I can express myself so much, just with the music.”
And then, as a student at San Antonio College (SAC), she discovered opera. The combination of singing and acting was intriguing, even to a girl who admits she used to be “painfully shy.”
The Operatic Life
Near the end of her work on her associate’s degree at SAC, she asked her teacher where she should study next. The recommendation: Texas State, where music students have to audition to get into the program.
Two faculty members remember her audition vividly.
“She was,” says Juli Wood, who went on to be her vocal instructor, “a wonder.”
Samuel Mungo, who has cast her for four parts in the student operas he produces on campus, was similarly impressed.
“Celeste came in and had what we call a beautiful bloom in the voice, a nice opening to the beautiful upper register,” he says. “She sang so beautifully. And not only was she able to sing, but we could tell than she had a ton of potential.”
At first that potential was not obvious, hidden deep within a small (she’s just 5-foot-3) young woman whose father was battling leukemia. Her father’s death soon after she started at Texas State was difficult, but her teachers say it also helped her realize that she was stronger than she thought.
“Celeste had all this natural ability and didn’t know how to bring it together,” Wood says. “Her time at Texas State has turned into a wonderful journey of discovery for her, of learning that even though you’re scared to death, you can put on a show that you’re not scared to death. And the more you do it, the less of an act it is.”
In her first opera, Curiel had a secondary role in “The Magic Flute.” The next semester, she was the lead singer in “The Turn of the Screw,” a demanding role in a modern-style opera. She was the female lead in “The Student Prince” after that, then the lead in “The Face on the Barroom Floor.”
“She was absolutely wonderful in all the shows,” Mungo says. “She’s been the lead role in the last three operas we’ve done, for all intents and purposes.”
Back to Her Roots
Her development into a professional-caliber opera singer — both of her teachers say she could make a career of opera — has expanded beyond the stage. In 2008, singing “O Mio Babbino Caro” from “Gianni Schicchi,” she won the “Our Part of Town” citywide talent contest in San Antonio. Last year, she reached the finals in the prestigious National Association of Teachers of Singing competition.
“Two years ago, she didn’t make the finals, and she could have,” Wood says of the trip to the national event. “It was her confidence level that kept her from making it. This time, she was so confident that I knew she was going to place. She just walked up there and blew everybody away, in two separate events.
“When you beat out people like that, you know you’ve chosen the right field.”
Last November, Curiel’s confidence paid off again. At the national competition for college mariachi performers, she combined her operatic training, confidence and a deep love for her family to perform “El Triste,” a Mexican music standard, with such depth and emotion that she won the prize for the top female vocalist.
“It’s a song about two lovers having to say goodbye to each other, and it took me back to when my mom and dad had to do that,” she says. “I know it was very hard. So when I sing that song, I’m thinking of my dad the whole time.”
The competition’s sponsor? Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán, from the Linda Ronstadt album that inspired her as a little girl. Part of the reward for winning? Being able to perform in some shows with the famed group in 2010. But it’s just a reward. Her future is in the opera, whether performing or teaching, she says.
“I entered with opera, and that’s how I want to finish,” she says. “Mariachi is a bonus.”
And a way, at least for a moment, to break away from the crowd.
Celeste Curiel file
Hometown: San Antonio
Education: Brackenridge High School; associate’s degree, San Antonio College; bachelor of arts, Texas State. Currently working on a master’s at Texas State
Career highlights: She has sung the National Anthem at San Antonio Spurs, Silver Stars and Missions games . . . she has recorded two albums; she wrote most of the music for the second, “I’m Just Celeste” . . . she had the lead role in three operas at Texas State . . . she will perform at selected shows with Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán this year.
She said it:
“Opera is very difficult, very challenging. You really have to have some good chops. It involves your whole body, and singing in general involves you whole body, mind and soul.”
“The (Mariachi Vargas) competition was very, very exciting, and I was glad — and shocked — to have won. And it was so much fun, because I got to share the stage with my all-time idols, Mariachi Vargas.”
They said it:
“She was extremely timid when she first came here. She was apologetic for taking up space in the room, you know? And she’s so utterly beautiful, and I think now she’s just more comfortable with who she is and what she has to offer.”
-Juli Wood Assistant Professor of Music
“Celeste had the beautiful voice, and she was trying to figure out how she could make herself a better actress for opera. And over the course of two or three years here, she has really blossomed into someone who can access her natural abilities.”
-Samuel Mungo Director of Opera Studies and Professor of Voice