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From Football to Figaro

Budding opera singer transfers power of gridiron to music

Strength and heart. Those are among the qualities used to describe great athletes. Twenty-three-year-old music student Priscilla Gandara carried these traits from her high school football field in El Paso, Texas, to the opera stage at NMSU.

“I played football in high school and middle school,” Gandara says. “After my third concussion, I wasn’t able to play contact sports anymore, so I had to transition to another elective.”

Gandara’s school counselor suggested choir, and Gandara’s mother, Cynthia Estrada, who raised her daughter as a single mom, supported the idea. 

“She’s always been very artistic. All my children are. I kind of pushed her a little bit into choir, because I’m a musical parent, and she loved it,” Estrada says. “Her teacher started noticing her voice and they said ‘Well, why don’t you do opera, Priscilla?’ It just went uphill from there. I don’t think it’s something I was surprised by because I already knew she had a beautiful voice. I just didn’t know it was going to be this amazing.”

The young opera singer was offered the opportunity of a lifetime to participate in an opera workshop in Austria in summer 2022 with 25 other singers from across the United States, Europe and Asia. Thanks to the St. Paul’s United Methodist Church congregation in Las Cruces, which raised $3,000, and her GoFundMe account, Gandara was able to make the trip. 

It was a series of firsts: first time using a passport, first time on a plane, first time on a train and the first time performing in an opera.

Gandara, who will graduate with a bachelor’s degree from NMSU in December 2022, was cast in the role of Marcellina in the Mozart opera “The Marriage of Figaro.” The role required her to do six months of preparation prior to flying to Austria. Once there, she and other singers had intense rehearsals leading up to a week of performances in Vienna.

In addition to the opera, Gandara and the other singers performed a German concert for the community. She was asked to perform two songs, and one was the closer for the show. Gandara’s selection for a key role in “The Marriage of Figaro” came as no surprise to her voice teacher at NMSU.

“Priscilla arrived with a voice of rare size and quality,” says Eike Gunnarson, affiliated faculty in applied voice in the Department of Music. “At the time it was untrained, but she quickly learned what kind of vocal habits were holding her back. She had an innate understanding of musical essence that is rare for her age, and that can only be taught to a limited degree.

“Priscilla is a natural performer who shines on stage and has that special ability to captivate her audience with her personality and, of course, her voice,” Gunnarson adds.

Gandara is among the first in her family to graduate from college thanks to a choir scholarship to NMSU and the 1888 scholarship. 

Jake Taylor, director of choral studies, identified her talents early on. 

“Priscilla is an exceptional student whose abilities span a broad spectrum,” Taylor says. “She excels on the stage and in the classroom. Furthermore, her leadership qualities are beyond her years. Priscilla will be successful in whatever musical path she chooses and her contributions to our profession will be great.”

Gandara is applying for graduate school, but will complete her student teaching in fall 2022 to become a music educator in public schools. 

It’s been a challenging road for Gandara. But her dedication to training and perseverance coupled with support from teachers and family have transformed her larger-than-life voice into a talent for life.

“I went into music not knowing a single thing about anything, always feeling like I was behind, and yet I think I became a success at it,” Gandara says. “Anybody can do it, if you have the heart to do it. It’s not an easy task. It’s not. But it’s an amazing life. I wake up every morning to go to my student teaching job and it’s amazing. I feel blessed every day because I’m teaching music. I'm doing what I love every single day. Not many people can say that.”


Priscilla Gandara played football at Coronado High School in El Paso, but after three concussions, she began focusing on music.


Priscilla Gandara (left) participated in an opera workshop in Austria in summer 2022 with 25 other singers from across the United States, Europe and Asia. She performed two songs as the lead in “The Marriage of Figaro.” 


In April 2022, Gandara performed her senior voice recital at NMSU at the Atkinson Recital Hall.