Elizabeth Caballero thought she was going on a family vacation.
She was 5, about to turn 6, when her parents told her and her younger sister that they were all going by boat to Miami to see their aunt. That they did, but as a child she had no way of comprehending that she would become part of the long, contentious relationship between Cuba and the United States.
She later learned what the trip really meant: Her family was part of the Mariel boatlift in 1980, during which as many as 125,000 Cubans immigrated to the United States. Had her parents not made that fateful decision she probably wouldn’t be who she is today: A formidable soprano making her mark in the opera world.
Next weekend she appears for the second time with the Lyric Opera of Kansas City, playing the title role in “Madama Butterfly.” She made an indelible impression last season with her heart-wrenching performance as Liu in the Lyric’s lavish, Kauffman Theatre-launching production of “Turandot.”
But for her success in the music world she has two people to thank above anyone else — her parents.
“I’m very thankful that they made that decision,” Caballero said during a recent rehearsal break at the Lyric Opera Center. “I had just turned 6. My birthday is May 6 and we came into the States on the 15th of May. And I was told that I was going to visit my aunt, who already lived in the states. I was not told that I was not going to come back.
“I’m very thankful, though, that my parents did this. My mother was 30 and my father was 31, so they were younger than me now. The thought of having to do that with two children(it) really took a lot of guts. And they are my heroes for making the choice for us.”
Caballero absorbed most of the details of the trip and the events leading up to it years later. Her father, she said, had been planning to move to the U.S. for a long time and had learned English while in Cuba. He had always been something of a dissident, and when Cuban leader Fidel Castro allowed people to leave during a period of several months, Caballero’s father saw his chance.
Caballero said that the Cuban government would allow only three members of a family to leave. So her grandparents had to stay behind. At one point it appeared that the government might not allow all four of them, parents and children, to leave, but officials decided to count her younger sister as a “half person” to satisfy bureaucratic rules.
“This is all stuff I came to learn as an adult,” she said. “To me, it was a trip. I was going on an adventure. I do remember this: We were stuck in a concentration camp for a couple of days waiting for the actual boat to dock in the port of Mariel.
“I remember making friends with another little girl and playing with my sister in the sand. I never saw my mother crybut it was terrible. My mother and father were going through hell and my sister and I were just having a good time. It’s the innocence of childhood.”
Caballero’s introduction to music came via the church. Her parents sang in the choir, she and her sister in the children’s choir. No, they were not Catholics.
“Believe it or not, we were Southern Baptists,” Caballero said with a laugh. “We have to thank the missionaries who came over, I guess. But my father was a deacon, even. Everyone is shocked that I’m not Catholic. I’m totally an oxymoron. I’m a blond, blue-eyed, Southern Baptist Cuban. I make no sense.”
Her parents were children when Castro came to power following the 1959 revolution. The new Communist government restricted religious practice — less so now — but Caballero said her parents never tried to hide their faith.
“My father is a very, very proud man,” she said. “So he never shunned any of his beliefs. Which is why, when he was put into the military as an 18-year-old, one of the first things he said to the government was, ‘I don’t agree with your government and I’m a Christian.’ And he was plucked out and put in a concentration camp where he almost died.
“I remember my parents always saying that they would go to church on Sunday and they were not ashamed of having the Bible and letting everyone see it.”
Caballero said Spanish and English were spoken as she grew up, although the reality was something a bit beyond bilingual.
“It was actually trilingual,” she said. “We speak a lot of Spanglish in Miami.”
Caballero sang in school groups and took private voice lessons but a turning point came in the 1990s when tenor Luciano Pavarotti sponsored a competition for young singers during a solo performance in Miami Beach. Caballero entered and made it to the finals.
“Whenever I have a bad day on the job, I tell myself Pavarotti thought I had talent,” she said.
She earned a bachelor of arts in vocal performance from the University of Miami and then entered the young artist program at the Florida Grand Opera, where she had worked in the box office in high school.
Like any successful soprano, Caballero’s repertoire includes major roles — Mimi in “La Boheme,” Violetta in “La Traviata” and Liu in “Turandot” among them — but in Kansas City she makes her debut as Cio-Cio San in “Madama Butterfly.”
Puccini’s 1904 opera, based in part on a play by David Belasco, depicts an ill-fated marriage between an American naval officer and his young Japanese bride. The score is sung to an Italian libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa. The production is directed by Mark Streshinsky, who previously staged Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” and Handel’s “Julius Caesar” for the Lyric.
“I’m very honored that Lyric Opera of Kansas City and Maestro (Ward) Holmquist have faith in me to take on this big task, because this is a big one,” she said. “But it feels good. It feels very good. I’m excited. I’ve kind of been afraid of singing her for a while, because it’s a big sing. I have a lot of respect for the role. I think I found a nice way of making it work for me.”
Part of her hesitancy about playing the role until now rests on her assessment that it’s grueling. The hammer really comes down in Act II. First comes the show’s most famous aria, “Un Bel Di” (“One Beautiful Day”), which is followed in short order by another, “Che Tua Madre” (“That Your Mother”). After that comes the Flower Duet with Dinyar Vania as Lieutenant Pinkerton.
“It really keeps you going,” she said. “It doesn’t let you rest. I love acting in opera and this is really a sensational role to be able to practice the craft of acting. And I’m trying to incorporate that into the singing. Doing that is helping me sing the role a lot easier.”
The role also allows her to perform certain passages in a quasi-parlando style, a sort of spoken singing.
“I got to practice some of that (as) Liu,” she said. “There are several moments where I’m choosing to do that. It’s a way of saving the voice.”
After this, Caballero said, Cio-Cio San may enter her repertoire, but she wouldn’t want to sing it more than once a year. When the offer was made to take it on here, she consulted with her Miami vocal coach, Manny Perez. They looked at the pros and cons and Perez said, in effect: Look you’re 38. If you don’t do it now, when?
“We decided it was about time,” she said. “It’s one of the few times in my career that it’s been wise to wait so long to take on a role such as this.”