It was a small Hollywood gathering filled with big stars. About 50 people packed a room, with the likes of Jack Nicholson, Henry Winkler and Barbra Streisand in attendance.
Fernando Varela, the Orlando resident who launched his singing career in The Villages, performed for the audience. After Varela finished a song, Streisand came up to him as he stood near famed-record producer David Foster.
“Kid, why aren’t you at the Met (New York’s Metropolitan Opera)?” Streisand asked.
“First of all, I looked at her and couldn’t quite believe I’m standing next to Barbra Streisand. She seemed to be just glowing,” Varela said this week. “It was like a dream; I had to pinch myself.”
He was lost for words but Varela pointed to Foster, who worked with such stars as Michael Jackson, Madonna, Andrea Bocelli and Streisand herself.
“I would love to play the Met but right now I’m working with him (Foster) and I hope he’s going to make me a star,” Varela told Streisand.
The iconic singer looked Varela in the eye and smiled.
“I think you should be a star,” Streisand told him. “I think you will make it.”
Varela has been making it in a big way for the past year. The turning point came last summer during his stint on NBC’s “America’s Got Talent.” He and his group Forte finished fourth out of the 75,000 acts that auditioned. A few months later they signed a deal with Columbia Records and released a CD.
“The television show was a turning point for me,” Varela said. “You had 12 million people seeing you every week. My career wasn’t an overnight success, but that changed everything.”
During the past year, Varela has performed the world over, including such stops as Carnegie Hall in New York, the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts in Washington D.C. and a little place called The White House.
Now Varela is returning to his musical roots in The Villages. He will appear at the Savannah Center Monday, July 14 at 5:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m., with local Maestro Bill Doherty. Varela will also perform at Savannah for nightly shows, Thursday, July 17 through Sunday, July 20 with guest singers Brandon James, Craig Irvin and Todd Mummert.
Over the past 12 months, the rest of the world has discovered what people in The Villages always knew: Varela is a supreme talent with charisma to go along with a powerful tenor.
He has come a long way from his days singing on celebration Sundays at the Church on the Square during the late 1990s. The Villages will always hold a special place in his heart.
“I was 17 years when I started singing at the church,” Varela, in his mid-30s, said. “For me it was a safe place, where I was allowed to take chances and grow as a young singer. My career hasn’t been easy or fast. It has been one step at a time.”
And the first step came in The Villages.
“The people in The Villages were so appreciative and supportive,” he said. “I will never forget how they rallied behind me on ‘America’s Got Talent.’”
Back when Varela started singing here, few would have predicted his rise to fame and stardom.
“When he was 17 he didn’t have the voice he has now,” said Bill Doherty, a mentor for Varela. “He built that voice one note at a time. One of the reasons Fernando came to the Church on the Square is that his girlfriend was singing there.”
Varela would watch most of the shows and rehearsals. Doherty was head of a local opera company and needed male performers.
“I told him: ‘Fernando, we need you to sing. Go get up on stage.’ It was a struggle for him. His voice wasn’t strong at that point. He was very nervous about singing. I told him, ‘Fernando, leave it in God’s hands. He has a plan for you.’”
Doherty, who has influenced the careers of many singers in Central Florida, is gratified by Varela’s success.
“You can’t compare the Fernando now with the Fernando back then. He turned himself into a great performer and has carved out an incredible career.
“Fernando is a very humble, good person. To me, he demonstrates what you can accomplish with hard work. He never gave up. He took his talent and pushed it as far as he could.”
Villager Don Chase remembers seeing Varela perform in those early days here.
“Back then, I didn’t think his voice was that great,” Chase said. “In fact, I didn’t think he had as much talent as the other singers. But over the years, this guy has had tremendous growth.
“He learned a lot from Bill Doherty and other people. The thing about Fernando is he never stops working and pushing himself. It’s very rewarding to see a young man like this make his dreams come true because of his dedication and work ethic.”
Thus far, stardom hasn’t changed Varela.
“If this had happened 10 years ago, I don’t know if I could handle it,” he said. “But I’ve been preparing my whole life for this kind of success. I’m in my 30s now and I can handle it. I don’t feel like a star; off stage I’m quiet and an introvert.”
Doherty agreed. “Fernando hasn’t changed. He’s still humble and down to earth. He’s one of those performers that people warm up to and really like as a person.”
Varela does not lack confidence. After the “America’s Got Talent” show, he went on a 50-city tour with such performers as Lionel Richie, Chaka Khan, Babyface and Streisand. “I felt like I belonged with them. For me, being on that tour was validation for all the work I’ve put into singing and performing.”
Richie described Varela on “America’s Got Talent” as “brilliant” and a singer who “knows exactly where he’s going.”
Playing the Savannah center with is special for both Doherty and Varela. It’s a chance for the teacher to show how far his one-time student has come.
“It’s going to be a fun show,” Doherty said. “We’re going to do some of the songs we did in the old days. We might take requests. It’s a way for Fernando to thank the people here.”
Varela also will thank Doherty.
“Bill built my voice from scratch,” he said. “He taught me how to perform and connect with an audience. Without Bill, I wouldn’t be here.”
Despite all his accomplishments, Varela is grateful just to be making a living as a singer.
“My primary goal, right from the beginning, was to do what I love to do –singing – and not have to get a day job. This is all I do.”
Song writing is another goal. Varela has spent time in the past year writing music in Los Angeles, Nashville and London, England. “It’s the next step, to be a songwriter,” he said. “And for me, it’s a big leap.”
In addition to his own shows here, Varela will bring two other acts in to perform at the Savannah Center: A Fleetwood Mac tribute show on July 15 and The Sweeney Family Band country comedy revue on July 16. “I’m friends with both of these acts and I think the people will enjoy them,” Varela said.
Still, the best part of the week for Varela will be singing in The Villages.
“It’s like coming home,” he said.