Tenor hopes to go from tables to arias

May 05, 2003|by ANDREA ROWLAND

Tenors and tamales?

Juan Ramos' experience as a waiter and manager in Mexican restaurants helped launch his dream of becoming an opera singer. He now serves patrons at El Ranchero restaurant in Hagerstown - but it's the singing waiter's delivery of a powerful aria that earned the tenor a scholarship to a prestigious music school.

Unless he gets a better offer, Ramos plans to start attending the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore next February, he said.

"Whenever I sing, it makes me feel comfortable. If I feel lonely, singing makes me happy. When I sing, it's like food for my soul. It makes me feel good," said Ramos, 24.


Customers at Ramos' uncle's Mexican restaurant in Charleston, W.Va., took note when their waiter began performing his operatic serenades about four years ago.

"I knew I wanted to be a singer, but I didn't think it would happen like this," Ramos said.

His customers spread the word about his strong and emotional voice, and Ramos soon began performing at area schools and charitable events, with the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra, and in a theatrical presentation of William Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing" at the West Virginia State College Capitol Center, he said.

"I was the singer," Ramos said. "I don't do acting."

He turned down a scholarship to the North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem to manage one of his uncle's restaurants instead, in hopes of saving enough money to go to a better music school, Ramos said.

Before long, he was invited to perform in front of former West Virginia first lady Horah Underwood at the State Capitol Complex in Charleston, he said.

His Christmas performance at the capitol earned Ramos an invitation to compete for the Peabody scholarship in a series of vocal contests at the capitol's Cultural Center. He won partial admission to the music school last year, but decided to defer his entry until February 2004 in hopes of gaining a full scholarship to the even more renowned The Juilliard School in New York City, Ramos said.

His move to Washington County put the tenor closer to the metropolitan music markets he hopes to tap, he said.

Ramos recently recorded a 16-song demo CD at Quatro Studio in Hagerstown, and is putting together his portfolio in an effort to meet Juilliard's rigorous admissions standards. He also plans to send the CD to a talent agent in New Mexico, he said.

"I want to get into the doors of Juilliard," Ramos said. "And I want to be on tour. I will work hard to accomplish all the things I want to do."

That includes singing solo arias from operas - but not performing in them. Ramos doesn't like to act and he wasn't crazy about opera music until he realized his strong voice was well-suited for opera's vocal gymnastics, he said.

"I liked Elton John and George Michael. I wanted to be more of a romantic singer," Ramos said. "But I started creating a voice while I was singing in the choir in my Catholic church, and I got a lot of compliments. I found that when I sing opera, that's the best I can be."

His evolving musical interest eventually led Ramos to the tenors who inspire him most - Luciano Pavarotti and Andrea Bocelli. Ramos admires Pavarotti's vocal power, sensitivity and dramatic style, while he strives to emulate the romance and sensitivity in Bocelli's voice, he said.

"You can hear that in his voice and see it in the way he carries himself," Ramos said. "When I listen to Placido Domingo, I don't feel that soul."

He also found a kindred spirit in late composer Ludwig Van Beethoven, with whom Ramos shares a Dec. 16 birthday.

"Beethoven was passionate and mysterious, and so am I," Ramos said. "He didn't read music, and neither do I. I do it all by ear."

Ramos sings in Spanish and English, and learns lyrics in Italian if a song moves him to do so, he said. For Cinco de Mayo today, he will perform with a professional mariachi band at El Ranchero off Wesel Boulevard.

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