Perfectly in Tune Salinas native Jorge Torrez travels the world as a classical vocal performer

Photos provided by Jorge Torrez

By Kathryn McKenzie

Jorge Torrez never set out to be a performer of classical choral music — in fact, his original intention was to stay where he grew up, close to family, friends and familiar surroundings.

But the 30-year-old tenor is now on his way to South Africa, where he will sing with the Cabrillo College Traveling Choir, as well as acting as choreographer. Later this summer, he’ll go to Germany for specialized workshops and more performances, all in preparation for a career as an opera and choral singer.

It happened, Torrez says, because he fell in love with the music, and because of the mentors he encountered along the way who gave him the courage to follow his dreams.

“I had no intention to leave Salinas to attend college. I had planned to stay home, work and help my family,” said Torrez, now a senior at the University of the Pacific’s renowned Conservatory of Music, and who rocks a Pavarotti-style beard.

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Torrez leads the Cabrillo College Traveling Choir

It was a future far beyond what he had imagined while growing up, one of five children of José and Magdalena Torrez. While attending Salinas High, he was in the school’s choral program directed by Dale Harrison. Torrez then took part in the Camerata Futures program, singing tenor with John Koza and the Camerata Singers.

“Through this program I was involved with the Carmel Bach Festival Youth Chorus, also under the direction of John Koza,” said Torrez, describing the program in which young people performed shoulder-to-shoulder with the Carmel Bach Festival Chorale along with the Carmel Bach Festival Orchestra conducted by Bruno Weil.

“To be able to sing high-quality music with professional musicians was extremely inspiring to me as a high school student,” he said. “While performing at the Carmel Bach Festival, I realized that I belonged in the performing arts.”

It was during high school that he met Cheryl Anderson, director of choral/vocal studies for Cabrillo College in Aptos and conductor of Cabrillo’s acclaimed choral programs. He auditioned for her choral program after graduating from Salinas High in 2007 and was accepted in all of her choral ensembles: Chorale, Symphonic Chorus, and Cantiamo!

Torrez had to talk with his parents and let them know he was going to college in Aptos, although what he initially planned was to get a degree in radiology — not music, which seemed impractical. But as the semesters progressed, things changed.

“Little by little, I saw myself dropping my medical classes and adding more music classes until I was officially a music major,” said Torrez. His parents weren’t happy with the decision, though, and Torrez ended up putting himself through Cabrillo. It  took him almost eight years to get through the community college.

In Torrez’s mind, being at Cabrillo from 2007 to 2015 was completely worth it because of wealth of experiences that he had there. He was a teaching assistant with the Cabrillo Youth Chorus, took conducting classes and lessons with Anderson, learned to play the violin and the cello, was the founding president of the student-led vocal ensemble Il Dolce Suono, and sang as a soloist in many concerts with Chorale, Cantiamo!, Symphonic Chorus and Ensemble Monterey Chamber Orchestra.

Dubula (traditional Xhosa song), led by Jorge Torrez

Torrez also taught choral music at Valencia and Rio Del Mar elementary schools, sang with the Peace United Church of Christ Chancel Choir, performed in musicals with The Western Stage in “Spring Awakening” (2012), San Benito Stage in “Les Miserables” (2014) and Cabrillo Stage in “La Cage Aux Folles” (2013) and “Mary Poppins” (2015). He also choreographed many musical numbers for the Cabrillo Summer Touring Choir and the Cabrillo Youth Chorus.

“It was also during this time where I met the most amazing and supportive choral community that is now my family,” said Torrez. “As you can see, I was at Cabrillo College for a while — longer than an average community college student — but I learned so much during my time at Cabrillo.”

Anderson and others in his Cabrillo choral family started asking Torrez where he planned to go to complete his bachelor’s degree. Torrez said he didn’t have a clue — no one in his family had ever been to a four-year university. But he was encouraged to apply to UOP in Stockton and he did, auditioning for the 2016 school year. He was accepted in the vocal performance track at UOP’s Conservatory of Music, studying under professor Burr C. Phillips.

“To this day, I am forever thankful for this man and I’m in awe at how much he inspires me as a musician,” said Torrez.

Torrez continues to excel in his vocal studies, winning the Kathe Underwood Scholarship Competition with the Stockton Opera Guild in 2017. He was featured along with fellow Cabrillo alums Nick Davis and Tanya Harris at the National Opera Association Conference in Salt Lake City this past January, performing “Ombra mai fu” from G.F. Handel’s opera “Serse.” After this performance, the executive director of the International Baroque Academy approached professor James Haffner about Torrez and asked him to audition for his summer academy in Oberaudorf, Germany.

“Again, I was surprised that someone was interested in my talents and what I have to offer in the opera world,” said Torrez. But it paid off. He was accepted as one of 15 young artists who will perform at the baroque academy this summer, where he’ll learn German, study voice with German countertenor Christopher Robson, and rehearse with other international singers in duets, trios and opera scenes; the program runs July 28-Aug. 10.

That makes it a busy summer indeed for Torrez, who is currently in South Africa performing with the Cabrillo Traveling Choir through July 10. The three-week experience includes concerts in Johannesburg and Cape Town, as well as other locations.

Locals got to see a preview of the South African program last Sunday at Cabrillo College. The 54-member choir is performing an interesting mixture of songs in native African languages, Afrikaans, English and Latin, and include everything from American folk songs to religious works. The African language songs were challenging, and the choir had to be coached in the vocal pops and clicks that some called for.

“Apart from singing in the chorus, I am also the choreographer for this trip,” said Torrez. “There are two songs that require movements that I choreographed, ‘Dubula,’ (a traditional Xhosa song) and ‘Tshotsholoza,’ (a song in Afrikaans), which have turned out to be crowd pleasers.”

Like most young artists, Torrez has had financial struggles to stay afloat. He works three jobs to support himself. Scholarships, donations and help from his aunt, Maria Teresa Torrez, have also been vital.

“I have been fortunate enough to have parents that love me and support my passion for music, even if it took them some convincing … financially, my parents don’t make enough money to support a music major,” said Torrez. “I am blessed to have people in my life who are able and willing to help me as I continue my journey through school.”

He also has established a GoFundMe account to help pay his way to Germany: www.gofundme.com/f/international-baroque-academy.

“I am excited to start applying to grad schools this fall, and I am beyond excited for what the future holds for me,” said Torrez. “As you can see, it has taken a village to raise me into the musician that I am, and I couldn’t be more blessed and thankful for every soul that has crossed my path.

“Being 30 years old, I would never in a million years have dreamt that this is what my life would be — filled with musical opportunities that allow me to travel the world through song.”

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Kathryn McKenzie

About Kathryn McKenzie

Kathryn McKenzie grew up in Santa Cruz, worked for the Monterey Herald for 10 years, and now freelances for a variety of publications and websites.