The countdown to the live rounds of “America’s Got Talent” at New York City’s Radio City Music Hall are officially underway – but Forte member Fernando Varela is astonishingly calm. The 33-year-old – who jokingly describes Forte as an “opera boy band” – is more than ready for one of the biggest nights of his life as the hit show heads into a heated round of eliminations.
“It’s really exciting for a group like ours to go so far,” says Varela, an aspiring opera star who traveled to New York from Orlando, Florida, where he lives with his wife and two sons. “Our ultimate goal is to get a record deal and tour the world with our music, so this is just one of the steps we have to take to get there. But to think of how far we’ve come, from nothing to an audience of ten million thanks to the show – well, that’s just unbelievable.”
But the journey towards the bright lights of Radio City Music Hall has been long in the making for Varela, who emigrated from Puerto Rico to Florida when he was just eight years old. His first exposure to opera was a record of love songs by Placido Domingo that his parents had in their music collection. Since then – and despite an audition for the music department at the University of Central Florida where he was rejected at 18 for not “being good enough,” he recalls – he’s been a passionate fan of the genre.
“What I love about this genre of music is that it makes the listener feel something, whether it’s happiness or just reminiscing over an old memory,” says Varela, who makes up the tenor opera trio Forte with Josh Page and Hana Ryu. “Our goal as a group is to make this music more accessible and exciting to everyone. I can’t tell you how many teenagers have run up to us, telling us how much they love our music. So not only is it striking a chord with older audiences that love classical music, younger people are just starting to understand what makes this music great.”
And while Varela isn’t intimidated by the competition, either from his fellow “America’s Got Talent” contestants or emerging opera pop opera trio Il Volo – ‘”we’re grown-ass men,” Varela jokes about comparisons between Forte and the teen group – he remains hopeful about what a win could mean for him and his family.
“I had tried so many times as a soloist to get this type of opportunity,” says Varela, who is a church music director and plays gigs at Orlando-area venues as often as he can. “It’s been a long journey to get to this point.”
Varela – who had tried out unsuccessfully for shows like “American Idol” and “The Voice” – said he took a chance when he reached out to Page online about the possibility of assembling a group to audition for a reality show (“he’s a fellow YouTube guy,” Varela says of how he found Page). The two decided they would put together the unexpected – an opera trio – and once they found Ryu, the group was complete. But the three of them – who met just hours before their first “AGT” audition – have quickly bonded as a family, with similar goals of recording an album and thrilling global audiences with their opera sound. And once Varela is in the recording studio with the group – “who are definitely honorary Puerto Ricans,” Varela notes – he says he plans on recording some Spanish tracks reminiscent of his favorite artist Marc Anthony.
“I am so proud of Marc Anthony for his response to the backlash about his ‘All-Star Game’ performance,” says Varela about his admiration for the salsa singer. “We need to move past incidents like this because America is so diverse and that’s what makes it beautiful – this country was founded on immigrants. But for him to take a step back and talk about how proud he is to be Puerto Rican and from New York, that really meant a lot to me.”
And just as Varela is proud of Anthony, many others remain proud of Varela himself. He has been the focus of a significant amount of publicity in Puerto Rico, even appearing on the front page of local newspapers.
“I’ve had so many calls from relatives, mentioning they saw me on the paper or on the evening news – the response in Puerto Rico has been amazing,” says Varela, whose brother is Latino Rebels founder and NBC Latino contributor Julio Varela. “I wasn’t expecting that, but I am so proud to be part of a positive story about Puerto Ricans and Latinos.”
And if there’s one thing Varela wants others to learn from his journey, it’s that one should never give up on their dreams.
“Always pursue your dreams, even if you get turned down along the way,” says Varela. “My dream is to be the best singer I can with the talents I was given and let the cards fall where they may. For me, it’s always been about being able to earn a living and support my family as I pursue my passion. That way, I’ll be able to look at my sons and tell them to do the same.”