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A Tenacious Talent

Maria Lozano sings like an angel, but there's nothing miraculous about her success.
Maria Lozano. Photo by David Friend
Maria Lozano. Photo by David Friend

In the lively, occasionally chaotic home where Maria Esther Lozano grew up, Sundays were reserved for the opera.

Lozano’s father, an oceanographer, worked six days a week to support his four sons and two daughters. When Sunday came, Lozano sat his rowdy bunch in front of the television in their Ensenada home to watch a weekly opera presentation. The boys and their baby sister squirmed and protested, but the performances fascinated young Maria.

As a pre-schooler, she knew the story of “The Valkyrie,” the second of four operas in Richard Wagner’s “The Ring of the Nibelung,” based on Norse mythology.

“I remember sitting on my father’s lap at 4 or 5 years old while he narrated the Wagner opera,” Maria said. “I found it so entertaining. And that’s how music came into my life. I always knew I would sing; it wasn’t an ambition, it was just a part of me.”

“I wanted the best”

But Lozano may never have found her voice without the guidance of veteran San Diego State University music teacher, Mary MacKenzie.

A faculty member since 1975, MacKenzie loved Mexican music and admired the discipline of her Mexican-born students. So when the Baja Conservatory of Music in Tijuana invited her to teach, she eagerly accepted. For years MacKenzie crossed the border once a week to train the conservatory’s vocal talent. That’s where she met Lozano.

“I wanted the best teacher there, and the best was Mary MacKenzie,” Lozano recalled. “From the first day, I started noticing improvements in my voice.”

MacKenzie immediately recognized Lozano’s singular gift. “There is a spark you find occasionally, and Maria has it,” she said. “Somehow she aligns her voice and her psyche with the music. It’s intuitive to be able to sing with so much heart.”

A powerhouse on stage

Their relationship deepened as the teacher discovered her student’s genuine love for singing and eagerness to learn. For more than seven years, MacKenzie’s rigorous training polished Lozano’s voice while building her poise and confidence. Last year, at MacKenzie’s urging, Lozano entered the nationwide “Next Star” competition sponsored by San Diego’s Orchestra Nova, the first classical music competition in the country to use both Internet and audience voting to select the winners.

She made it to the finals and then—going up against two talented pianists—Lozano won first place. This season, she performed as a guest artist with Orchestra Nova in a February program featuring the music of Villa-Lobos.

Orchestra Nova’s conductor and artistic director, Jung-Ho Pak, said Lozano's obvious connection to the music mesmerizes audiences. “She is quite a powerhouse onstage. Her passion is palpable, and it’s a great combination with her humble nature.”

Humility is not typically associated with performers of any ilk, but in Lozano's case, it may be simply a consequence of the obstacles life has thrown in her path.

Surviving boot camp


Despite his love for opera, Lozano’s father dissuaded her from pursuing a classical singing career. She studied engineering— as her older brothers had—but knew it wasn’t right for her. Looking for a fresh start, Lozano left home for Mexico City. She joined the Mexican Navy, made it through boot camp and toured her country for 3 ½ years as a soloist with the Navy’s Symphonic Band and Orchestra.

At the conclusion of her military service in 2003, Lozano returned home to a family that finally understood the intensity of her commitment to sing. She resumed voice lessons with MacKenzie, enrolled in the music program at Universidad Autonoma de Baja California, and graduated with honors. Recommended by MacKenzie, Lozano was offered a scholarship to continue her studies as a graduate student at SDSU.

Her best effort

Because she lacked money for room and board, Lozano lived with her parents and travelled nine hours back and forth each day from Ensenada to San Diego. Her life became a blur of commuting, studying and teaching music to young students. Then, just as she was about to move to San Diego, her father suffered a fatal stroke. Lozano decided to remain in Ensenada with her mother, but not to abandon her work toward a master’s degree.

And she never stopped studying with MacKenzie. Even today, after tasting success with Orchestra Nova and winning lead roles in the Opera de Tijuana’s performances of “La Boheme” and “Carmen,” Lozano knows she still has much to learn.

“Mary is demanding, but she never belittles you. She knows how to get my best effort,” Lozano said. She laughed aloud recalling a time she emailed MacKenzie to cancel a lesson. “Mary sent me an email in reply.

Do you know that scene in Harry Potter when Ron’s mother sends him a ‘howler’—a magical letter that scolds him aloud? I felt Mary’s email was like that, telling me I had far too much work to do to cancel the lesson. Of course, I went.”

Road to the Met

Like Lozano, MacKenzie was drawn to music at a young age. But her path to the operatic stage was as different from Lozano’s as her deep contralto is from her student’s clear soprano.

MacKenzie had her sights set on The Juilliard School, but a high school counselor insisted she would never get in. MacKenzie believed him. Then a few months before she was to leave for Cornell University, an opera-loving neighbor persuaded her to enroll at Brooklyn College, take music classes for a year and then audition for Juilliard.

“So I did,” MacKenzie said, “and the first time I sang for the choirmaster at Brooklyn College, he said to me, ‘What are you doing here? You belong at Juilliard.’ That taught me an important lesson about what I say to students.”

After earning undergraduate and graduate degrees from Juilliard, she won numerous voice competitions, including a national contest that led to a position with the Metropolitan Opera. MacKenzie also sang with the Lyric Opera of Chicago, and toured extensively as a guest artist with leading American companies. When she eventually decided to quit the tour circuit, Dayton Smith, director of SDSU’s School of Music, persuaded her to join the faculty. In the 35 years since, hundreds of voice students have benefited from her tutelage.

“We are fortunate to have an artist of Mary’s professional stature at the School of Music and Dance, said school director Donna Conaty. “Her deep love of music and genuine affection for the students manifest themselves in everything she does.”

This May, MacKenzie will sit in the audience as Lozano graduates with a master’s degree in music from SDSU. Now a permanent member of the Opera de Tijuana, Lozano looks forward to appearing in the company’s upcoming presentations.

At the same time, she is director of the oldest community choral group in Baja, which has been invited to perform in Chicago this summer. “I love singing, but I also love to teach, and that’s what I will continue to do,” Lozano said. Inspired by her own teacher, Lozano is nurturing a new generation of young talent.

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