Don’t Sing What You Must, Sing What You Are!

Don’t Sing What You Must, Sing What You Are!

Tenor Josaphat Contreras shares his story of creating a recital program based on his cultural heritage and why you should focus your efforts on authentically performing for yourself.

I used to think the idea of singing anything outside of classical music would only be a dream. Classical singer lives are clear on what is expected for their careers: graduate from school, audition for classical music jobs, teach classical music, and/or sing classical music. What if you only went down the classical singer pipeline because you were taught just this one path? What if you were not raised on classical music? 

I am Mexican. From my earliest memories, I have always been proud of being Mexican. My cultural traditions around me have always been a point of pride growing up. From the food I ate, to the traditions I grew up with, to the clothes I wore, I felt proud of my roots. As someone who grew up listening to music from Mexico, my childhood cultivated my love for Mexican music.

In the beginning of my music education, the music was not Mexican music. From my years of choir in middle school to high school, I can’t remember ever singing a song that was from my cultural background. This transferred into college. For my first two years of college, I attended Houston Community College where the requirements were the same as any university in the 2000s. Classical music, that falls under the four “major” languages: English, Italian, German, and French. I went through my undergraduate years with very little exposure to Latin American music until 2013, when my university hosted the first Spanish festival and a Spanish art song specialist was brought in. This was my first exposure in college to music in my first language. Although not from my cultural background, this was the first time I sang music in a language that was outside of the requirements established at my university. What a wild time it was! 

Fast forward to the fall of 2020 and the beginning of my master’s in vocal pedagogy program at the New England Conservatory of Music. As a part of the vocal pedagogy program, I decided to choose Mariachi singing and repertoire as my scope of research. For the first time in my musical education, I was actively researching music, styles of singing, and culturally relevant artists I grew up listening to. This focus on the Mariachi genre led me to the recital I would create to represent my musical career. 

My master’s recital was entitled Raíces y Recuerdos (Roots and Memories) to highlight the different seasons of my life. Each set of songs in my recital was dedicated to a different portion of my life. Each set of songs in my recital program had one of these written over them:

Dedicated to my ancestors

Dedicated to my teachers

Dedicated to Amanda Contreras

Dedicated to my family and friends

The first song set was a cycle by Salvador Moreno called Cuatro canciones en Náhuatl. Náhuatl is an indigenous Mexican language from the southern part of Mexico, where my family originated from. An Uto-Aztecan language, Náhuatl is still spoken in southern Mexico. When I found this song cycle in 2019, I always knew I would perform it some day, and my recital was the perfect opportunity. 

In preparation for my recital, I found a Náhuatl tutor online in Veracruz, Mexico, to help me with the interpretation and diction of the song cycle. In fact, he taught me that the current version of the poem had all types of grammatical errors and outdated spellings of the Náhuatl language, and he went the extra mile and to help me update the poems so, in his words, “someone who spoke Náhuatl would be able to understand your singing.” I was off to a good start.

My second set was three songs written by “the father of Mexican song,” Manuel Ponce. A musical prodigy from the age of 4, Ponce was able to later study at conservatories in Europe, and two of his songs I chose were written in German and the third was in French. This set was dedicated to my professors who all shaped my love for classical music and taught me these languages. I wanted to maintain the integrity of my recital theme to be an all-Mexican-composer recital but also find a way to honor my professors who taught me so much. 

My third set was a selection of love songs by María Grever that were dedicated to my wife, Amanda Contreras. All these songs were different forms of expressing the love I have for my partner. 

And, for my final set, the Mariachi folk songs were dedicated to my upbringing, which I equate with my family and friends. My traditions and heritage mean nothing without the ability to share them with those people who are most important to me—those same people that make me proud to be the person I am today. And I was able to perform this final set with the Verónica Robles Mariachi Femenil (all-female) band from Boston, Massachusetts. 

This recital, in my belief, is the perfect combination of both my upbringing in Mexican music and my journey through classical music. After this recital, I was able to perform this program two more times. I performed excerpts of this recital in the fall of 2022 for a Migrant Crisis fundraiser in Washington Heights, New York. The most recent performance in April of 2023 was my favorite to date: I was hired by Lawrence Academy in Groton, Massachusetts, as part of their professional concert series. 

The Lawrence Academy program was entitled The Diversity of Mexican Song: El amor es todo. I found a way to tie different forms of love in this program to each other within the songs I performed. My collaborative artist on the piano was Saul Nache, who also is of Mexican decent, and also included my newly formed Ensemble Sinfonachi, comprising Brooks Clarke (contrabass, guitar), Kimberly Sabio (trumpet), and Anna Josephine Harris (violin). 

The first set of songs were once again Moreno’s Cuatro canciones en Náhuatl which represented the love for your God (whoever that is). The second set was an Italian, French, and German set by Manuel Ponce, including “Ho bisogno, “Si tu pouvais venir,” and a setting of “Breit’ über mein Haupt.” My third set was again the songs that I dedicated to my wife by María Grever: “Júrame,” “Te quiero dijiste,” “Brisas,” and “Despedida.” My final set played by Ensemble Sinfonachi was all about the pain we sometimes find being or falling in love. 

This recital has continued to be a labor of love for me. I find that having something outside of opera has been healing for me. As someone who struggled with their identity in my young adult years, it felt like my love for my heritage and my origins were different in a bad way. It has been truly healing to show this juxtaposition of Mexican classical music with Mexican folk music presented in the same recital. It has been healing because I feel like I can show who I am, authentically. 

My last point of this story is financial. How do I get paid to continue to perform this program? Here is my answer: 

  1. If you care about it, then others will also.
  2. Check your local churches that run yearlong scheduled programs.
  3. Find organizations and consulates with the same interests that are represented in your music.
  4. Go where you are loved: perform this music for your friends who have connections with venues.
  5. In my case, I market this program during the month of Latin American Heritage Month. Find a similar celebration for your music!
  6. Find music that will make you want to perform it. It doesn’t always have to be classical.

We are first and foremost artists and opera singers second. Be creative when it comes to presenting the music you care about. The world needs to hear more love in music.

Thank you to Jenny Cooper, Lawrence Academy, Saul Nache, and my members of Ensemble Sinfonachi (Brooks, Anna, Kimmie) who made this recital so special.

Josaphat Contreras

Josaphat Contreras is a voice teacher, researcher, and singer based in New York City. Recent awards and artistic feats include tenor soloist for Mozart’s Requiem (Quincy Choral Society), a Latin American recital as part of Concerts in the Courtyard at the Boston Public Library, a National Opera Association Convention 1st prize award for his poster presentation research, Don Ottavio in Connecticut Lyric Opera’s production of Don Giovanni, his international debut as Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni at the historic Teatro Ángela Peralta in Mazatlán (Mexico), and his New York City debut as Don Carlos in Carla Lucero’s Juana. When Contreras is not performing, he enjoys spending time with his partner Amanda, his daughter Ava Michelle, and their two dogs, Rufus and Delilah. For more, visit