Mezzosoprano Carla Dirlikov Canales has combined both of her loves — music and international affairs — into an emerging career of global diplomacy with an accent on songs.
“I was called upon to serve as an arts envoy for the state department in 2005,” she said, “and I really got hooked. I’ve gone all over the world on behalf of the arts.”
Canales will bring her global and music philosophy in “The Power of the Arts as a Diplomatic Tool” to William & Mary on Feb. 19 in the university’s new Music Arts Center. The program is free and open to the public.
She will be presenting the 2024 McSwain-Walker Lecture, sponsored by the Reves Center for International Studies at William & Mary. In addition to her remarks, Canales has something special for her William & Mary audience — she will also perform.
Canales will sing “Habanera” from Georges Bizet’s “Carmen” as well as “Zorongo” by Federico Garcia Lorca, according to Kate Hoving, the associate director of international communications for the Reves Center. Hoving will accompany her on the piano.
Canales received a bachelor’s degree in vocal performance from the University of Michigan and a master’s in opera performance from McGill University. She did degree work in at the Paris Conservatory and concluded her opera training at the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia.
Her professional operatic debut was in 2003 in the title role in Bizet’s “Carmen” at the Toronto Festival. It has now become her favorite role, which she has performed nearly 100 times in at least 12 countries. Opera magazine has praised her for a voice that “grabs the heartstrings with its dramatic force and musicality.”
For nearly 20 years, Canales has sung in venues around the world in a variety of opera productions and as soloist, including a tour in China with various music organizations, including the China National Symphony and Shenzhen Symphony Orchestra. In the United States, she has performed at the Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall in Washington and Carnegie Hall in New York City.
Her mother is Mexican and her father is Bulgarian, she said. “I grew up with mixed cultures in my life and found that in singing, nationality did not matter. Singing provided the opportunity to explore common experiences.”
When she began singing at age 14, “my parents were concerned,” Canales said. “It was a bumpy road for me because as immigrants, performing was not at the top of their list” of potential professions for her.
“But today, they are very, very supportive. Opera became natural for me because from my father’s homeland, the operatic culture is very important, and from Mom, singing in general plays a big role in Mexican culture,” added Canales during a telephone interview from Boston, where she was to speak later in the evening at Harvard University.
Canales has been involved at Harvard for a number of years, having previously been a senior fellow with the Advanced Leadership Initiative. Currently, she is a fellow with the Social Innovation and Change Initiative at the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard’s Kennedy School.
In early 2023, she joined the Biden administration as the first senior adviser and envoy for cultural exchange, a newly created position at the National Endowment for the Arts.
Canales said she began to realize, as she traveled the world, that “music can be a major diplomatic tool. The idea that singers could make the world a better place. In singing, we are the world; we are social activists.”
She has taken to heart the term cultural diplomacy, a discipline that seeks to encourage the exchange of ideas between cultures to promote mutual understanding. As an arts envoy, working in countries such as Peru, Mexico, Montenegro, Honduras, Kazakhstan and Indonesia, Canales said she’s found that singing offers “simply another vehicle” for carrying out cultural diplomacy.
Canales has stressed in her writing and speeches that “music allows you to enter a different environment, where identity, skin color, religion and language don’t matter. Where all cultures can be found. We’re all equal. That’s why promoting the exchange between identities through music can be so effective.”
Still preparing for her visit to Williamsburg, Canales said she was “working on her speech.”
“I initially thought about an academic approach of cultural diplomacy, but I’m now thinking of sharing stories of my diplomatic experiences and use my voice to share stories from others around the world,” she said.
She stressed that there “is so much to be optimistic about with the opportunities we have to bring the power of the arts and the world together.”
Would she sometime in the future like to be a U.S ambassador?
“Yes, I would, but I don’t think I would ever achieve it,” she admitted. “However, I want to continue to serve my country and secondly, the work — that is diplomatic and bridging divides through music and singing — is important.”
Want to go?
What: “The Power of the Arts as a Diplomatic Tool”
When: Feb. 19, 5 p.m.
Where: Comey Recital Hall at William & Mary’s Music Arts Center, 551 Jamestown Road
For information: events.wm.edu/event/view/revescenter/355702
Wilford Kale, [email protected]