In May 2020, the vocal ensemble Cantus celebrated its 25th anniversary. Lauded as the “premier men’s vocal ensemble in the United States” by Fanfare magazine, Cantus began in 1995 as a student group at St. Olaf College in Minnesota. Among its founders was tenor Brian Arreola.
In 1998, the year Arreola graduated from St. Olaf, having majored in cello and voice, he and his 11 singing mates decided to take Cantus on the road.
“We drove up and down the east coast, playing festivals and churches,” he recalls. “We paid ourselves what we would have made flipping burgers.”
The success of that summer tour inspired the men to establish Cantus as a non-profit and become one of the few full-time professional vocal ensembles in the country, with numerous recordings and awards to its credit.
Arreola stayed with Cantus for a decade, but as he entered his early 30s, the seven months on the road each year became wearying, so he entered graduate school at Indiana University, where he earned his Doctor of Music. In his final year of graduate school, a lecturer position in the UNC Charlotte Department of Music opened, and he joined the faculty, becoming assistant professor of voice soon thereafter. His wife, cellist Mira Frisch (they had met as students at St. Olaf and married in 2008), had joined the department previously.
In his first year of teaching, Arreola began directing the Opera Workshop program, which gives students training in opera performance. “I feel it’s really important to create those opportunities. We have a lot of talent here.”
The program has had numerous triumphs. Opera Workshop has twice won awards in the National Opera Association's Opera Production Competition, the only competition available for collegiate opera. In addition, Arreola’s students have gone on to win national level competitions in voice and opera and to receive graduate assistantships at prestigious universities such as Indiana University and Louisiana State University.
In the years since he left Cantus, opera has become not only an important area for his teaching, but also for his own performance and research. He sings frequently with Charlotte’s Opera Carolina and also performs with other companies. In 2013, for example, he originated the role of “Luis” in Terence Blanchard’s jazz opera, Champion, at Opera Theatre of St. Louis and reprised the role in 2018 at New Orleans Opera. In fall 2019, he sang the role of "Pinkerton" in the IN Series production of Puccini's Madame Butterfly in Washington, D.C. He returned to IN Series in January 2020 for the role of “Don Jose” in the company’s cabaret version of Carmen.
Arreola is also composing a new opera, with support from a Faculty Research Grant. Working with a librettist at Georgetown University, he will address the immigration crisis in the United States, with a particular focus on the detainment and separation of migrating children and parents. The topic has special resonance for Arreola, whose father was Hawaiian and Filipino and whose family included three adopted siblings from Asia. Growing up in Waukesha, Wisconsin, Arreola says his mixed-race family “stood out,” an experience that, he says, “has always informed how I move in the world.”