The audiences at high school performances often have a pretty good idea who up on stage will one day make it big. And back in the late 1980s, up on on the Templeton High School Performing Arts stage, Gabriel Manro, surprised a few of them.
The world renowned singer and actor began his career on stage at the TPAC, in none other than the musical play “Oklahoma!,” the same play that he will star in as “Curly” on Mother’s Day weekend, May 12 to 13 at the PAC in San Luis Obispo. Although Manro knew he wanted to be an actor early on in high school, the THS high director cast him the most minor of parts, as a background extra, with nothing more than a few words to say and a mechanical chicken as one of his props.
So what did Manro do with such a bum deal?
He sang so well his drama teacher may have been second-guessing her casting choice. Manro was an admitted class clown and “goofball,” but he knew for sure he wanted to go into musical theater for a living. Anytime someone on stage moved their lips, Manro’s lips chicken mimicked their words. The ambitious ventriloquist had stolen the show, sending the audience into fits of laughter.
“I believe they call it upstaging,” laughed Manro.
The rest is a rich and marvelous history. From his European operatic debut as “Doctor Bartolo” in Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville” in Corfu Opera in Greece, to exciting musical theater roles in college like “Tony” in “The Most Happy Fella,” the North County has produced a star of epic proportions.
His massive, diverse career includes winning two Grammys, as well as working internationally as an opera singer. Manro is world-travelled. He once lived in Spoleto, Italy just outside Rome, working in the Festival dei Due Mondi, an annual summer music opera festival, for the late Gian Carlo Menotti, one of Italy’s most famous modern opera composers (and yes, Manro speaks Italian). He has also performed the lead in modern and classic musicals and operas all over California and in his home base of Los Angeles, where he is currently working on an avant-garde adaptation of a radio play/art exhibition piece in the arts district.
Opera News called the San Francisco West Bay performance of Verdi’s “La forza del destino” a success, “thanks to the major casting coup of baritone Gabriel Manro as Don Carlo. Gifted with a striking, sinister baritone that remains strong, even and sonorous throughout the range, he tore into Verdi’s music with a vengeance.”
Brian Asher Alhadeff, conductor of the Opera SLO and Atascadero resident, has known Manro since he heard him in an audition he was judging in San Jose. He later cast him in 2015 for a dual role in 2015, playing “Alfio” in Mascagni’s one hour, one act opera “Cavalleria Rusticana” and “Tonio” in Leoncavallo’s one hour, one act opera “Pagliacci.”
“He was outstanding,” said Alhadeff, who brought him back in 2016 to sing for the annual OperaSLO “That’s Amore” fundraiser, which he performed in again this year.
Manro has performed for Alhadeff’s fundraising events for the Family Care Network and others in North County.
For the grand performance of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma!” at the PAC, Alhadeff knew he must recruit Manro for the part of “Curly.”
“He’s a very talented actor and singer,” said Alhadeff, who will be conducting “Oklahoma!”
Alhadeff added, “He’s very expressive. Audiences are just coo-coo about him, and that’s why I even went to put him on the cover of the poster, because I’ve had him several times and he’s developed sort of a following.”
The Citywide Arts Collaboration will be teaming up with the Grand Orchestra and Chorus and Opera SLO for the grand production of “Oklahoma!” a romantic pioneer adventure that takes place in Oklahoma Indian territory at the turn of the twentieth century. Among the long list of popular songs “Oklahoma!” brought onto Broadway and beyond are: “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’” and “I Cain’t Say No.”
Manro’s character “Curly” is a confident cowboy who falls in love with “Laurey,” played by April Amante. Considered one of the greatest musicals of all time, “Oklahoma!” will be stage directed by the iconic Edna Garabedian, and choreographed by Andrew Silvaggio. Manro said he is especially looking forward to working with his girlfriend, Justine Prado, who is assistant director for “Oklahoma!”
“He’s tall, he’s thin, he looks a cowboy,” Alhadeff said, remarking that Manro’s heroic baritone voice and exceptional acting skill adds a musical theatre style to the performance of “Oklahoma!” Alhadeff intentionally casted versatile crossover artists in the production rather than strictly opera singers for the effect of a heavy-dance, Broadway style production. All three of the leads in “Oklahoma!,” Alhadeff said, perform Broadway and opera equally well, adding that the older musicals, written for a chorus and grand orchestra, are more in line with the classic opera tradition than the newer musicals, something he would like to explore at OperaSLO moves forward.
“Musicals that are considered very groundbreaking always lean more toward opera,” Manro said.
In Manro’s downtime he listens to a huge record collection of all genres of music, from 1980s music, to musicals and soundtracks, and has always ordered his records from catalogs in London and New York, and his favorite operas are Giacomo Puccini’s “Tosca,” with baritone songs unusual for Puccini, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.”
Manro said he had a good, honest upbringing on a farm in Templeton. His family owned sheep, goats and horses. He rode all the time, and even once won “Best Little Cowboy” at the Paso Robles Pioneer Day Parade when he was 5 years old. The Manro family moved to a house on Atascadero Lake in his elementary years, and so he transferred from Templeton Elementary to Santa Rosa Elementary, where he used to walk to school.
At the time, Manro enjoyed free violin lessons at Santa Rosa Elementary and he played with the San Luis Obispo Youth Symphony. He also sang with The Santa Rosa choir.
“I was the only boy in the choir from junior high until high school,” Manro said. He remembers singing “Where is Love” from “Oliver” at Santa Rosa as his first ever solo.
“And the principal came up to me afterward and said, ‘Wow, you’ve got quite a voice.’”
At Atascadero Junior High he remembers being able to sing higher than any of the females in choir before his voice matured into a confident baritone.
“You’d never know it now,” he laughed.
At Templeton High School, he was accepted into the State Honor Choir, his first time performing with a full orchestra. During that time, Manro’s step brother introduced him to “The Phantom of the Opera,” a piece he was playing for his high school marching band, and the love for the this new genre led Manro to similar musicals like “Les Misérables.” Meanwhile Manro’s other brother Eric was one of the star football players for the Templeton Eagles.
After graduating THS in 1991, after only having that one opportunity as boy with a chicken in a musical until then, and knowing he was more of a “music person” than a “theater person,” he began a vast array of singing parts in college.
Manro enrolled in the opera program at Cal State University Northridge, where he was able to perform in three operas per year as well as many musicals, while staying fairly close to home in the North County.
Though Manro has been on the move since leaving SLO County, he said his heart is still here. He drove through Templeton recently and couldn’t believe how cute and western the downtown looked, and he felt a little sad when he saw all the new construction at THS. Nostalgic, he liked it the simple way it was.
OperaSLO has been housing Manro at a guest house surrounded by cattle ranches and fields at a ranch in Arroyo Grande for the month of rehearsals and shows, a perfect setting to get him in the ‘mindset’ for “Oklahoma!”
Perhaps it is fate that Manro took the role of Curly, as many of his relatives are from Oklahoma, and his heritage is Oklahoma Chickasaw Indian. He remembers his family’s Oklahoma twang growing up.
“I’m not kidding,” he said.
“The opera company in San Luis Obispo is a very grand opera company...It’s really a world class company,” Manro said. “This is going to be full-scale like you would see it back in the day. In fact we have even a bigger orchestra than what they had in the original production.”
“There’s something about this musical being produced in San Luis Obispo,” said Manro, who mentioned that in the opening scene he comes out singing, “Oh What a Beautiful Morning” on the front lawn of Gloria’s farmhouse – cattle in the meadow – and an absolutely gorgeous day. That is just how Manro perceives SLO County. Manro shared that he really wanted to title this article “SLOklahoma!” because that was the ranching, horseback riding, cowboy culture he grew up in. He said, “I’ve been all over the world and I don’t know of a place more beautiful than San Luis Obispo.”
Tickets to see Gabriel Manro in “Oklahoma!” can be ordered by the Cal Poly ticket office phone at 805-756-4849, or online at www.operaslo.org or www.pacslo.org. Three shows will be Saturday and Sunday, May 12 and 13 at 7 p.m. at the Performing Arts Center San Luis Obispo, 1 Grand Ave., San Luis Obispo, with a pre-show talk led by John Frey in Philips Hall one hour before curtain. For more information stop by Gabriel Manro’s official youtube page or visit his website at www.gabrielmanro.com.
You may reach Reporter Beth Giuffre at [email protected] for questions/and or feedback.
Photos courtesy of Gabriel Manro
World class baritone Gabriel Manro grew up right here in the North County.
Opera and musical theater performer Gabriel Manro, age 5, won “Best Little Cowboy” (pictured with his pony “Buttercup”) at the Pioneer parade back in the 70s, when he grew up in North County.