By: Jacob Elyachar, jakes-take.com
It is a pleasure to welcome tenor Fernando Varela to Jake’s Take.
His vocal talent helped him land not only stints at the Lyric Opera of Central Florida and the John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts, but caught the attention of legendary music producer David Foster. He invited Fernando to perform with some of the greatest vocalists in the recording industry such as Barbra Streisand, Seal, Chaka Kahn and Katherine Jenkins.
Last year, Fernando found himself standing on the Radio City Music Hall stage with fellow tenors Josh Page and Sean Panikkar as they competed as the opera supergroup: the Forte Tenors on America’s Got Talent. The trio went on to place fourth on the show’s eighth season and released a self-titled debut album with Columbia Records and SYCO Records.
In a special interview, Fernando talked about Forte’s America’s Got Talent experience and the challenges the group faced while recording their debut album.
Jacob Elyachar: When did you get interested in opera?
Fernando Varela: I actually got interested in opera a little later in my life, when I was 17-years-old. Up until I was 17, I had no exposure to opera! The only way, I got into it was there was a girl that I liked who was an opera singer. I thought: “How hard can that be?” and that is how I got into opera.
JE: Could you please tell my readers how you met your fellow group member: Josh Page?
FV: Months ago, someone sent me a viral video of him performing with Josh Groban randomly on YouTube. I thought that it was a really cool video. Later, I received a message on YouTube from Josh, stating that he saw my videos and was putting together a tenor group to audition for America’s Got Talent. He asked me if I was interested and I hesitated at first. At the time, I was very busy with my solo career and I toured with David Foster over the last couple of years. I initially said: “No!” and he wanted to talk some more.
Finally, I spoke with my manager and we decided to move forward and put the group together. We decided if it did not work, no one will know about it. Once I joined Josh, we both started to look for a third tenor. Josh and I wanted it to be a multi-cultural group. We found (former group member) Hana Ryu on YouTube and we got a hold of him. It was two weeks before the audition where we finally assembled the group and we talked to about what we were going to do. We decided to fly in a couple of days early and rehearse the song…and the rest was history!
JE: That audition was probably one of the best auditions from the Howard Stern era of “AGT.”
FV: Thanks! It was pretty magical being on that stage. We really had no idea how it was going to be received. I remember seeing the audience jump to their feet 10 seconds into the song.
JE: Unfortunately, when the group got to Vegas…Hana dropped out due to personal reasons. At the last-minute, Sean Panikkar stepped in and became the third member. What was your Vegas Round experience like?
FV: That Vegas audition was insane! We found out a week before Vegas that Hana could no longer be with us. We were devastated because we did not know what we were going to do. We contacted AGT and they suggested that we could replace Hana and move forward with the competition. After that, we started calling and e-mailing people searching for a new tenor. We found Sean and literally had no time to go through our game plan and met in Las Vegas.
In Vegas, the three of us were shoved into a rehearsal room with the producers. We did not know how we were going to sing the song and after we performed, the producers said: “Okay! That was rough! You need to rehearse before you face the judges!” All of us thought: “Duh!” The whole experience was nerve-wracking and they did not even tell us what was going on.
Some acts they put through during the first couple of days and obviously, you saw on TV that they told the rest of us…we were going to be performing before we found out our fate. Everyone saw a shortened version of our audition on TV where we sang two minutes of “The Prayer.” What AGT did not show was Mel B just looked at us and said: “Hey new guy! How did you think it went?” and Sean stated: “It went really well.” All we got back from her was “Huh?”
All of us looked at each other and thought: “Oh my gosh! Is this where it ends?” “Did we screw up?” and “What’s happening?” We were pretty nervous about it. But when we got through to the Live Shows, we felt like we were on top of a mountain. We conquered the adversity we went through and came together as complete strangers again to make some music.
JE: The group faced their biggest test when you performed on the Radio City Music Hall stage. How did it feel performing in one of America’s most treasured venues?
FV: For me, it was so validating! The show flew us in a week before our performance and all of our rehearsals happened at Radio City. One of the greatest things was spending time at that hollowed place. I just sat in the audience for hours sometimes just soaking in the fact that we were going to perform in Radio City Music Hall. I remember watching some of the earlier live shows and I saw some of the younger acts crack under pressure. In addition to being on that big stage, everything is live and there are millions of people watching, I just remember trying to stay grounded and felt very confident with all my training and years of experience as a singer. When it was our time to perform, I focused on our performance and enjoyed my time on the Radio City Music Hall stage.
JE: Week after week, Forte delivered some incredible performances. What were some of your favorite performances?
FV: We were always so focused each week; we did not even know what was going on. They (the producers) did not share the vote placement and we did not know how well or how badly we were doing. So, we focused on how we could get into next week.
I liked when we sang “Somewhere” from West Side Story in New York…it was so meaningful to us. I’m Puerto Rican and the show is about the struggles of Puerto Ricans and New Yorkers. We were also a couple blocks from Broadway and it was really an incredible moment for us.
Each week, we had to bring something different to the competition. The next week, we did “Unchained Melody” and it went well. However, when we did “My Heart Will Go On,” we literally did not want to do that song. (JE: Really? It was one of Forte’s best performances!) I totally agree with you! It was one of our greatest moments that we had on the show. The show’s music director and producers really wanted us to perform the song and they have been suggesting it for weeks!
“My Heart Will Go On” was played to death when it came out. The song is so iconic and we were worried that we would not be able to do a good enough job. I finally talked to the guys and told them: “Let’s do this in Spanish. We have a lot of Latinos following us and it might help us change it up!” We agreed that we did the song in Spanish that would change it up enough where we would not be compared to the original.
I remember the night before our performance; both Josh and Sean started freaking out. They were changing things left and right and I reassured the guys: “It is going to be fine!” They were up to 2:00 a.m. and I went to bed. I had to sing tomorrow and I thought it was going to be fine. We woke up and I agreed with some of the things and at the last-minute, we changed everything we were going to do. Then, we go to the rehearsals and the music director asked us: “Why did you change it? Everything was fine! Go back to how it was.” We all agreed that we were going to go back to how we originally going to do the song and that’s how we did it on the show.
JE: Forte ended its “AGT” run on a high note when you went back and performed “The Prayer.” Not only was your reprise one of the show’s best final performances, but also I think it will go down as one of the greatest performances in the history of Reality TV.
FV: That’s so incredible to hear that. When the show’s creative director showed us what they were going to do with our performance, all three of us were blown away! They showed us renderings of what was going to happen with “The Prayer,” which featured a choir and orchestra! Up until that point, we had seen other acts have those elements and we asked the show to add those elements but they did not give us those until the finale.
They also explained to us how they were going to implement the audience’s cell phones. Originally, the show was going to use it for their celebrity guest, but they decided to give it to us to use for the finale! When they tested it, Radio City became something else and it looked like a stadium. We were blown away with the amount of production that AGT could do.
JE: What were some of the lessons that the group learned from your time on “America’s Got Talent?”
FV: The greatest lesson that we learned while we were on America’s Got Talent was we got to learn a lot more about each other by spending time together. We don’t live in the same city and we literally met in Las Vegas in this pressure cooker of a situation. While we had busy weeks in New York, there was still downtime and we went out to lunch, dinner and hang out together. We got to know each other and the viewers got to see us get better as a group each week. It was an amazing experience to be on a show like America’s Got Talent. For me, I have been working in the industry my whole life and to get a shot like that was a blessing.
JE: Let’s talk about the group’s first studio album. What were the challenges that Forte faced during the recording of this album and how did the group overcome them?
FV: There were a lot of challenges. After we found out that we came in fourth, Rob Stringer, the Chairman of Sony Records North America, came back stage with representatives from Columbia Records. They stated that they were signing us and it did not matter where we placed in the competition. The record executives stated that they did not want to say anything until we were off the show.
They also told us that once we signed with them, we had to go into the studio in two days. (Laughs) It was exciting and challenging, because we literally had one week to do it. I was pretty comfortable with the situation because I had done sessions in recording studios in the past. While Josh had some studio experience due to his work with another opera trio, Il Volo, Sean had never been in a recording studio before. Those were some huge hurdles we had to face, which included learning new arrangements very, very quickly.
On top of all that, I actually got sick during the AGT finale before the performance. While I got through the finale, I lost my voice and the next day, I had to go see a doctor and the guys recorded without me. During the first four days, I rested and took my prescriptions and got better. While the guys had four days to record their parts, I had to record all of my songs in three days. It was a challenge, but because of the great support from Columbia and everyone who worked on this album, we rose to the occasion.
When we finally heard the finished product, all of us felt very proud. While they are things that we could have done better, if we get a second album…. we will be able to spent the amount of time you would normally spend on a record, a year, instead of a week. But considering the amount of time that we had and all the obstacles that we were presented with, we felt very proud of our first CD.
JE: How did the group finish off 2013?
FV: We made our Carnegie Hall debut on Saturday, November 16. The group also headlined Vegas at the Tropicana for three days (December 28-30). However, the biggest performance that we had was our participation at the White House Christmas Tree lighting ceremony. (JE: Wow!) All of us could not believe that we performed for President Obama.
JE: If you had the chance to meet with singers or musicians who want to go into the music industry, what advice would you share with them?
FV: The music industry is a very tough business. Everywhere I turned, someone tried to talk me out of pursuing a music career and a recording contract. I would tell them: “It’s a lot of work” and it is not easy. You have to chase after that dream and you have believe that it is real! It does not always come immediately. If you go audition for something and you don’t get it, it does not mean that you are not good enough….it is not suppose to happen just yet!
I am glad that it happened to me when I was 33-years-old, because I felt like that I was very ready for it. I was ready to sing on that Radio City Music Hall stage and sing in front of millions of people. Bottom line…never give up on that dream, work hard and learn something from every time that you are rejected. Instead of saying: “Not’s not fair!” and “Why would they do that to me,” I tried to be really objective and say: “Ok! What do I have to do to be better?” I woke every morning with that attitude and if you wake up with that attitude, eventually you are going to get a shot and when you do get that shot…you will be ready and be able to capitalize on it.