Best of Phoenix

The Beautiful Brown Diva

Forget any notions you've ever had of a fat lady singing opera onstage. Mezzo-soprano Olga Perez looks more like she belongs in the cast of American Idol.

But this fall, Arizona Opera's newest diva-in-training will take on one of her first major roles, in the company's season opener, Rigoletto (for details, visit

Though she admits it might not be all that common for people to see a Latina singing opera on an American stage, it's hardly a stretch for her. She draws inspiration from styles of opera as varied as Latin American zarzuelas to the more traditional European fare, and even from the rhythms of old-world Havana.

Perez was born to Cuban immigrants and raised on musical theater in New Orleans. She eventually made her way to the Southwest, first Northern Arizona University, then Arizona State University. Arizona Opera noted Perez's talent early on and invited her to become part of the elite new Marion Roose Pullin Arizona Opera Studio.

The goal is to turn the beautiful assistants of today into the center-stage stars of tomorrow. "We all did small roles," Perez says of the four singers chosen for the program. "We sang in the chorus. We had private coaches and movement every week. It's a program to fulfill any need that you had."

An added bennie for Perez: Her main squeeze and now-fiancé, tenor James Flora, was also selected for the program. While they're learning to sing the world's greatest love songs onstage, the two have been dreaming about how to stage their own big day.

"When Jamie proposed to me," Perez recalls, "he apparently spent a lot of time on the proposal, and everyone was in on it but me, of course. He got all of our friends and family together and they learned 'My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose,' which is a beautiful choral piece. And he had everyone assembled in our house two days before Christmas, holding roses, singing. I was in the kitchen getting dessert ready. When I came out, they each handed me a rose. He was the last one. And he proposed. It was beautiful. Many of those friends will come back to sing that song at our ceremony."

Now that's some chorus.