By Luisa Trisi

Samuel Mariño by Diana Gomez

As a male soprano, Samuel Mariño belongs to the world’s rarest vocal category.

Because his voice never fully broke during puberty, his astonishing range compares to those of the soprano superstars he admires, from Maria Callas to Mariah Carey to Beyoncé. The 29-year-old Venezuelan enjoys a pop-star profile to match, with 37,000 Instagram followers who track his every utterance with devotion.

Mariño’s electric stage presence is amplified by his exuberant, often gender-bending sartorial choices. In concert, he might appear in an elegant white men’s suit one night, and a skirt, pearls, and heels the next. In an interview from his home in Berlin, he paints a vivid picture. “If you open my closet, you’ll find everything from lacey blouses, sequinned pants, heels, and necklaces, to simple jeans and t-shirts. I dress according to how I feel, following both my masculine and feminine sides. I am from the 21st century and the gender-fluid generation.” 

Where does all this confidence come from? “From pain,” he says with a laugh. “That confidence comes from the darkest places.” Coming of age as a gay teen in Caracas, Mariño was bullied for his unusual speaking voice. “I was rejected many times when I was in high school, and even afterwards in my career. I have experienced rejection, like everyone. But I am very sincere in my interactions, and I think my confidence comes from my sincerity.”

Thanks to a combination of dazzling talent, a playful fashion sense, and sheer charisma, Mariño has been the subject of features by Gramophone, the New York Times, and Service95—pop star Dua Lipa’s curated lifestyle platform.

While cynics might be tempted to dismiss the hype, Mariño delivers the goods through serious classical music credibility. An Opera magazine critic crowns him “quite simply the most extravagantly talented male soprano I have yet heard,” and the prestigious European publication Pizzicato considers him a singular vocal phenomenon. “The combination of technical perfection with a stupendous breathing technique allows the Venezuelan to sing with uninhibited passion. Mariño’s vocal acrobatics are certainly spectacular and thoroughly fascinating, but his voice is most valuable, pure, and beautiful when he sings mezzavoce and piano. Then the singer radiates a tenderness and an ethereal refinement.”

Samuel originally trained as a ballet dancer at the Venezuelan National School of Dance and began his musical studies in piano and voice at the National Conservatory of Music. His first encounters performing operatic repertoire were with Camerata Barroca, where he worked with conductors including Gustavo Dudamel, Helmuth Rilling, and Theodore Kuchar. These collaborations ignited his passion for baroque music and inspired him to further his studies at the Conservatoire de Paris. 

While there is a natural home for his voice in the technically demanding baroque opera arias that were originally composed for castrati and prima donnas, Mariño prefers to shrug off labels and step beyond the early music silo. He has performed music by 19th century titans like Rossini and Verdi, and dreams of singing the title role in Lucia di Lammermoor, the quintessential bel canto opera by Donizetti. He recently wowed a Parisian audience at Versailles with an unusual encore, “Somewhere (There’s a Place for Us)” from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story.

Indeed, Samuel perceives no boundaries and refuses to be limited by rigid categorization. Helen Lewis, the Executive Producer at his label Decca Classics, notes that “Samuel’s astounding vocal ability, charisma, and bold self-expression set him apart as a remarkable ambassador for classical music today. The last few years have seen him captivating audiences across Europe with programs featuring everything from Handel to Queen.”

On top of his natural vocal talent and technical prowess, Mariño has a special gift for conveying the meaning of the texts he is singing, imparting their full emotional impact. While preparing for a new role, he spends hours researching the libretto. Not unlike a method actor, he immerses himself completely in the character’s world to render himself emotionally vulnerable and fully credible on stage.

“I am 100 percent into the lyrics of everything I sing,” he says. “Because I go so deeply into the emotions of the characters, because I want to bring the audience there. That’s my goal, to take the audience along, and as much as possible, to live this experience together. But this full immersion into the character is risky, I wouldn’t advise it to just anyone!”

Should the vulnerability he taps into threaten to become overwhelming, Samuel relies on a simple quotidian routine with his dog Leia, an extremely photogenic and well-travelled Cavalier King Charles Spaniel.

“I have a wonderful ritual to help make the separation between who I am on and off-stage. After a concert, I come back to my hotel, and I just take my dog out. Walking my dog is part of my everyday life. It’s grounding, and it helps draw the line between what’s real and what’s not.”

Samuel belongs to a younger generation of male soprano and countertenor stars including Bruno de Sà, Maayan Licht, and Cameron Shahbazi, who are challenging assumptions about how a male voice should sound or how a professional classical singer should present himself to the world. When several of his engagements were cancelled during pandemic lockdowns, Samuel took to YouTube to share his own DIY baking videos, which have attracted thousands of views. His raspberry tart is a buttery made-from-scratch confection topped with fresh raspberries and garnished with basil.  

Like several of the members of his cohort who embrace their roles as powerful influencers and role models for intersectional civil-rights movements, Samuel describes himself as an activist and advocate for change.

His biggest ambition? To make classical music truly inclusive and accessible. “Sometimes people assume that I am an activist only for LGTBQ+ issues. Of course, that’s obvious for me, but it’s not just about that. For example, I wonder why I have never worked with any singers who are in a wheelchair? I wonder why I was the darkest skinned person in a concert hall in Berlin, audience and orchestra included?”

“There are many different areas where we can do better. So that’s really my goal, to bring this music to all communities.”

Samuel Mariño makes his Canadian debut with Tafelmusik in Higher Love: Virtuoso Arias,
April 28 at 8pm and April 29 at 2pm.

Luisa Trisi is the founder of Big Picture Communications, a Toronto-based company specializing in strategic communications.

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