Written by: 
Jessica DeLeón

When tenor David Portillo ('05 M.M.) made his debut in the prestigious Chicago Lyric Opera, his role in La Traviata was small -- but he was singing with the legendary Renee Fleming.

"I was so nervous," he says. "I was getting to take Renee Fleming on the stage by the hand and I remember thinking, 'Is this ever going to be this good?' And of course, great things have come after that."

David Portillo
David Portillo performs in “The Merry Widow” at the Metropolitan Opera. (Photo by Marty Sohl.)

Portillo achieved two substantial milestones this year. He earned a Grammy Award nomination for Best Opera Recording in the Boston Modern Orchestra Project's production of The Lord of Cries. He also received the Medal of Excellence by the Sphinx Organization, which honors Black and Latinx classical artists.

In his two-decade career, Portillo has performed on some of the world's greatest stages – the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City, the Sydney Opera House and the Santa Fe Opera.

"Every time it's a little bit of pinch me moments," he says. "I can't believe I'm getting to work here in the first place, and then when you think about all the amazing stories and people who have come through those halls, it's humbling and exciting."

A Performer in the Making
David Portillo
Portillo performs at the Dallas Opera. (Photo by Kyle Flubacker.)

Portillo, a San Antonio native, has been singing his entire life. His mother was a music teacher and he had acted in musical theater productions and competed in Texas' choral competitions through high school.

After earning his bachelor's degree from the University of Texas at San Antonio and receiving encouragement from teachers, he enrolled at UNT to pursue opera as a career.

He had great support and assistance along the way -- Stephen Dubberly, associate professor of vocal literature and coaching, taught him Italian; the late Paula Homer, former director of opera, guided him with characterization and acting; and Jeff Snider, assistant professor of voice, taught one of his favorite courses, Song Repertoire Class, where students learned about art song and recital music. 

He loves being part of opera.

"I really liked being a character on stage," he says. "I always enjoyed putting on costumes and becoming somebody different, and then using the music to become that character. You just learn so much about the culture, the time periods, the history of these compositions. And I especially like acting with lots of other people on stage."

Professional and Personal Highlights
David Portillo
Portillo performs in “Orlando Paladino,” at Bayerrische Staatsoper in Munich Germany. (Photo by Wilifred Hoesl.)

After graduation, Portillo participated in many young artist programs that train performers through an internship-like process, including the San Francisco Merola Opera Program, the Florida Grand Opera and the Lyric Opera in Chicago. In that three-year program in Chicago, he sang in 15 roles.

He went on to Wolf Trap Opera near Washington, D.C., and found his first manager and agency, which got his career rolling with freelance gigs.

The high points have been performances that left him with a strong personal memory, such as the role of Tamino in Mozart's The Magic Flute during the family holiday performances at the Metropolitan Opera. His nephews got to come see him and look at the puppets on the stage.

"All the family got together, and we had a great lunch and a good time," he says. "It was such a memorable performance personally, because I got to do that."

David Portillo
Portillo performs in “Cosi fan tutte” at the Dallas Opera. (Photo by Kyle Flubacker.)

During his stint in Così fan tutte at the Sydney Opera House, his husband proposed at a lookout near Shelly Beach, on the waterfront north of the city. 

All this led to this year's successes.

In July, he received a phone call saying he received the $50,000 Medal of Excellence by the Sphinx Organization, which provides resources to classical Black and Latinx artists.

"I hope to live up to the responsibility of this Medal of Excellence that Sphinx is offering," he says.

This fall, he received his Grammy nomination for The Lord of Cries, which debuted at Santa Fe Opera in 2021 and incorporates the characters of Dracula along with the story of The Bacchae by Euripides. The score is cinematic, as the opera explores how culture identifies people as evil when they're not.

"My character is dealing with his own madness, and so there are a lot of vocal sounds that I wouldn't make normally on a recording and they're a lot less operatic and more screaming and more effects. I was excited to get to put that on record — and the fact that it's nominated is even better."

In fact, he always receives a reward when he's on stage.

"By the end of a performance, when you feel like the audience is excited and happy, there's just so much relief because all of the work had been done before them," he says. "And so now it's the gift that you get to show other people."

David Portillo ('05 M.M.) performs in the “Daughter of the Regiment” at the Minnesota Opera. (Photo by Dan Norman.)