West Palm Beach Waterfront Hosts Cancer Survivor and Opera Star Bárbara Padilla
How cancer led America’s Got Talent runner-up Bárbara Padilla to the big stage
By Meg McEwen
When the Guadalajaran doctors told young opera singer Bárbara Padilla that she had Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, she had no idea that God would orchestrate this tragedy as the propellant of her career. Her survival story led her to the United States, where she would eventually be discovered by NBC’s America’s Got Talent. In 2009 she placed second in the wildly popular and nationally recognized talent show. Her vocal cords were supposed to be scorched by intense radiation treatment, yet she continues to share her testimony and sing internationally to this day.
Bárbara will be joining the Palm Beach Atlantic University Orchestra to sing at the Sunday on the Waterfront concert, a monthly family-friendly event in West Palm Beach. The show will take place on November 20. “My main goal is to keep singing. I want to talk about God. Everything has to be for his glory, especially if it is a beautiful thing,” said Bárbara in an interview with Arnfield Cudal from Hark Music Publications.
Bárbara began imitating the pitches of classical opera singers at a young age. Her mother streamed classical music through their Volkswagen stereo during five hour drives to the beach. Because Bárbara grew up so steeped in classical symphony, she thought that everyone listened to the genre and had the ability match the soprano pitches, just like her. Soon it would become obvious that Bárbara had a unique talent, but she affirms to this day that every person who has been exposed to quality music will acquire a taste for the beauty of classical harmony.
During her formative high school years Bárbara rejected the career paths traditionally prized in her hometown. Instead of entering the fields of business or medicine, she chose to pursue music – which she knew God had in store for her. This revelation came together under the tutelage of vocalist instructor Alicia González Pacheco. Armed with one voice and a vision in a city with over one million inhabitants, Bárbara began taking small steps, like singing in local choirs.
Twenty-three year old Bárbara never would have guessed that a five year fight for her life was just around the corner. She discovered alarming bumps on her neck while studying at the School of Music at Universidad de Guadalajara. The doctors diagnosed her with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a rare form of cancer that targets the immune system.
Throughout the diagnosis and treatments that followed, Bárbara clung stubbornly to her first love. She continued to sing and, three years after the diagnosis, led the soprano section of the State Choir of Jalisco. While traveling to Houston to visit the MD Anderson Cancer Center for a second opinion on her condition, Bárbara followed a whim and auditioned for the music program at the University of Houston. Unfortunately, just after director Peter Jacoby offered her a full scholarship to the university, the cancer became life threatening and forced her to endure intense localized radiation in her neck. The doctors in Guadalajara told her that she would not be able to speak normally ever again – let alone sing.
Bárbara’s mother remained her greatest source of joy, a joy that weathered many storms. When Bárbara’s sister died unexpectedly in a car accident, she thought that this joy would be destroyed. Instead, she watched in amazement as her mother progressively let go of her sister through faith. “I think that I don’t know anybody that’s happier than her. Even in the worst possible situations she has this joy, it’s a joy that draws from the Holy Spirit,” said Bárbara in the interview with Arnfield Cudal.
During the month-long chain of rigorous chemotherapy and radiation, Bárbara took her own leap of faith and continued to sing daily at Mass for a Gothic church in Guadalajara. Bárbara expected her voice to eventually crack, fade, and die. Despite this fear, she faithfully filled the church with ethereal intonations every day. Her voice never permanently faltered.
She eventually returned to Houston to attend the University of Houston Moores school of Music. Bárbara found a wellspring of opportunity at the university. She spent hours honing her talent, soaking in the knowledge of professors, and performing in productions: she played the lad in Mozart’s “La finta giardiniera.” To her, the experience was like working with the greatest of opera companies.
Even though Bárbara won her primary cancer battle, the disease proved ruthless. A bone marrow transplant became necessary to save her life during her first semester at the University of Houston. Doctors did not expect her to survive, because previous treatments had compromised the integrity of her marrow. Feeling exasperated and defeated, Bárbara thought about giving up on the treatments and trudging away from her dreams, back to Mexico. A friend, Gabriela Zepeda, wrote “Algun Dia Triunfaras”, a song about not surrendering, and performed it for Bárbara at a dinner party. The uplifting song reminded Bárbara of her intrinsic worth in Christ and in her family and friends. She agreed to the bone marrow transplant and eventually recovered.
Bárbara graduated in 2004 with a master’s degree in vocal performance. She met and fell in love with her husband, Kyle Howard, at the university. Radiation treatments had negatively affected Bárbara’s fertility, so the couple instead chose to adopt an addition to their family – a beautiful young girl named Elizabeth. Bárbara took a break from working with opera companies at this time to focus on her new family.
Today, Bárbara recognizes that God used a cancerous condition to carve a path to the greatest blessings of her life. She never would have traveled to America, found her husband, or adopted her daughter without God’s faithful hand of provision working through tragedy. Bárbara deeply respects couples who keep their marriage intact through the wear and tear of time. “I look up to them because that’s what the world needs the most: couples that, in spite of all the problems that marriages have to go through or have to face, have stayed together. Marriage is beautiful,” said Bárbara during the interview with Arnfield.
In 2008 her career took flight again, landing her center stage at the Houston auditions for America’s Got Talent’s 2009 season. She floored the judges in her first audition with a hair-raising rendition of “O Mio Babbino Caro” by Giacomo Puccini. All three of the judges gave her the resounding “Yes!” that sent her whirling to finals. “Keep singing, because it’s healing you and it’s healing a lot of people right now,” said David Hasslehoff. Bárbara, nicknamed “America’s Angel,” stole the hearts of viewers throughout quarterfinals and semifinals.
Although Bárbara finished the competition runner-up to talented country singer Kevin Skinner, she gained a new life and paved the way for national acceptance of other classical crossover musicians like Jackie Evancho and Andrew de Leon. “I’ve lived through miracles, and this is a miracle because I’m a cancer survivor… When you have hope, you keep going,” she told the judges at her first audition for the show, after announcing that she was officially in remission from cancer.
Today, Bárbara continues to share her testimony and sing opera. She produced her debut self-titled album at Los Angeles’ Capitol Studios and London’s Abbey Road Studios with the London Symphony Orchestra. The album features popular songs with symphonic, operatic arrangements like the aria “Time to Say Goodbye.” In 2015, she collaborated with Juan Gabriel, one of the most iconic singer-songwriters in Mexico.
On November 20, Padilla will be performing the beloved “O Mio Babbino Caro” and Musumarra’s “Tu Sei” to Bizet’s “Habanera” at Sunday on the Waterfront in the city of West Palm Beach. The concert will also be featuring the Palm Beach Atlantic University Orchestra, including sixty talented students, and the Lubben Brothers Band, a bluegrass outfit.
“I want to be a reflection of God’s love. I really want people to look up to God in whatever he’s done to me or through me. God has worked his wonders and his love in my person,” expressed Bárbara in the interview with Arnfield. She praised God for her blessings on NBC live and will continue to do so at other events.
Megan McEwen is a freelance writer from Macon, Georgia.