ORLANDO—Fernando Varela’s “Coming Home” PBS Special tells the story of a singer who found strength in his family, support from The Villages and transformational power in his voice.
This concert – which Varela debuted Tuesday at Orlando’s Dr. Phillips Center — is a career and life-defining moment for a kid from Puerto Rico who spent two decades believing his dreams would come true.
And they did.
Now PBS will broadcast his story and his music to America and the world.
“I’m excited, because this is that moment when so many components of your life and your career come together,” Varela, 36, said backstage Tuesday, shortly before the start of the PBS dress rehearsal concert.
“Sure, there’s pressure, but pressure is a good thing,” Varela added. “I’ve been preparing for this concert my entire life. This is my moment.”
A lot of Villagers will share that moment tonight at 7:30. Fifteen buses filled with over 800 Villagers have been booked to go to Wednesday’s concert, which also features singing guest star Jackie Evancho.
The theater holds about 2,700 seats many of them will be filled by Villagers.
“I love it,” Varela said. “My career started in The Villages with Maestro Bill Doherty and Central Florida Lyric Opera. I met my wife (Susan) singing in The Villages. Bill’s here tonight and he’s playing a part in this concert. So are all the people coming from The Villages. They helped create me, and for me they are like family.”
Tuesday night’s program was for a select audience of friends and supporters and filmed by PBS. Parts will be used in the special, which is expected to air nationally in March, near the time Varela releases an album in the United States.
Varela gave a power-packed performance Tuesday filled with passionate songs and sensual dance moves. He also paid tributes to his family, The Villages and his Puerto Rican heritage.
This was a concert of spectacular proportions, featuring nearly 50 musicians, about 12 television cameras, almost 10 dancers, two aerialists on a high wire, and hundreds of theater crew and television technicians. The stage show included pyrotechnics, glittering lights and compelling videos.
It all came together to tell Varela’s American musical tale about struggle, rejection, hard work and, ultimately, success.
Varela was bursting with energy, and ripping into the music with soulful abandon. He opened with “Lucky Man,” a bouncy number. Varela appeared from backstage wearing a red velvet jacket and sang the number as about a 10-piece horn section came waltzing down the aisles.
Varela’s gift is that he is at home singing pop and jazz, as well as classical numbers. Next up was “Nessun Dorma,” one of Varela’s signature operatic numbers in The Villages.
“How many of you have ever been told you can’t do something,” Varela asked the crowd before singing the number. “I was told I could not be a singer. (At 17 he was rejected by the University of Central Florida.)
“They told me not to quit my day job. Well, I quit my job and dedicated my life to singing. This song is for all of you anywhere whoever chased a dream.”
Varela then raged through “Nessun Dorma” with an almost evangelical fire. He earned a standing ovation and set the concert tone for the evening.
He sang “If We Fall,” a number that featured a couple of aerialists doing what looked like a ballet on a high wire that stretched to the top of the ceiling over the stage.
Varela teamed with youthful Jackie Evancho, 16, on a soaring duet called “A Thousand Years.”
Evancho, like Varela, gained public notice on “America’s Got Talent,” and also like Varela, she is a classical-crossover singer.
The show eventually turned into a musical autobiography, but something more. It glued together the fabric of Varela’s career and his life.
His mother Margarita and father Julio were sitting in the front row, next to the side of the stage.
At one point Margarita handed her son a red fan to help him cool off. “Thanks Mom, that matches my suit. I’ve got two directors here tonight,” Fernando cracked. “And my mother is director No. 1.”
Later, she talked about this special concert.
“It’s so exciting,” she said. “I feel like this is a second birth. Here I am, watching Fernando taking a big step in his life.”
Julio Varela was just as excited.
“Tonight is the culmination of 19 years of believing,” Fernando’s father said. “None of us ever doubted that Fernando would make his dreams come true. Tonight is about going to the next level.”
Varela showed his vocal prowess on a multilingual cover of Eric Carmen’s “All By Myself.” It didn’t matter if it was Spanish or English, when Varela hit the high notes the song’s power resonated with the audience, including the Villagers in attendance.
One was Maestro Bill Doherty. Varela introduced Doherty and had him step into the orchestra to conduct, “I Believe In You.”
“I’m honored to have here tonight one of the very first people who ever believed in me,” Varela said. “He was my first voice teacher – Maestro Bill Doherty.
“Bill saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. That’s why I want Bill to conduct the orchestra for this song.”
Later, an emotional Doherty talked about the evolution of Fernando Varela.
“I saw him as a kid and I watched him grow,” Doherty said. “In the beginning, it was a struggle for Fernando. I just told him to keep working and keep putting the time in.
“He’s one of the hardest workers I’ve ever had. He was very serious and he always embraced a challenge. I’m so proud of Fernando and what he’s accomplished. And not just music, he has a very giving heart and he’s very genuine. And he cares about people.
“I think that’s why people in The Villages like him so much. They watched him grow up in front of their eyes. They feel like he’s their kid or grandkid.”
Two longtime friends and fans are Villagers Debra Heath and Linda “Bert” Berthiaume.
“It’s so exciting to be here tonight, because this is music history for Fernando and The Villages,” Heath said. Berthiaume agreed.
“Fernando can sing anything; he’s a remarkable talent,” she said. “He’s so supportive of people in The Villages and needy children around the world. I’m proud of him.”
Varela brought dancers to the stage to do a hot tango on “Por Una Cabeza.” Salsa dancing and a Latin band paid tribute to Varela’s home country on “En Mi Viejo San Juan/Preciosa.”
A poignant moment came when Varela sang the soft “You’ll See My Face,” written by Grammy Award winner Stephan Moccio, who played the number on piano.
Other highlights included “The Prayer,” “Titanic” and “Three Times A Lady.” Varela also performed “Vivere,” the upbeat title track from his hit album in Europe.
A couple of little fans named Izzy and Rog — children of Fernando’s backup singer Jenn Warren — summed up the night best.
“Fernando’s a lot of fun,” Izzy said.
“And he can sing,” Rog added.