Beyond the Bio: Conductor Yabetza Vivas Irizarry

“From the first notes and chords, the clarity in the direction of Vivas Irizarry and the response of the musicians filled with charm the Pablo Casals Hall, of the Santurce Fine Arts Center.”  – El nuevo día | Luis Enrique Juliá 

Athlone Artists is pleased to welcome to the roster conductor Yabetza Vivas-Irizarry, who is garnering attention for her charismatic stage presence and commitment to promoting diversity and inclusivity in classical music. Born and raised in Puerto Rico, Yabetza developed a deep passion for music at a young age, inspired by the vibrant rhythms and melodies of her island’s rich musical heritage. Among her distinctions is being the first Puerto Rican woman to conduct a classical season concert with the Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra.  

“I’ve been waiting for a Puerto Rican woman conductor to emerge ready for the international stage,” says Miguel Rodríguez, President and Founder of Athlone Artists. “Maestra Vivas Irizarry not only has an impressive technical knowledge but also a unique passion for new works that makes her stand out. I’m thrilled to be working with this brilliant artist.”  

In recent seasons, Vivas-Irizarry has appeared as a guest conductor of the Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra (OSPR), where she has led a number of concerts including the virtual premiere of the comic opera ¿Y Los Pasteles? Ópera Jíbara in Two Acts by Puerto Rican composer Johanny Navarro. This season she will conduct the OSPR’s Mother’s Day POPS Concert and several family experiences, opening on February 29 with the program “Sound Adventures: Discovering Opera”: an immersive musical and theatrical experience for children featuring excerpts from seven classical operas translated into Spanish.  

From 2019 to 2022, Vivas-Irizarry received mentorship from Music Director Mei-Ann Chen as a Freeman Conducting Fellow with the Chicago Sinfonietta. She also regularly conducts as part of the Puerto Rico Youth Symphony Orchestra’s El Sistema 100 x 35 program, which provides accessibility to the arts for kids in underserved communities.  

Despite her lifelong love of music, Yabetza never considered a career in the arts when she was young. “I didn’t even start to learn to read music until I was 18,” she admits. But Yabetza grew up in Puerto Rico, where music is the lifeblood of the community. “Here in Puerto Rico, music is everywhere,” she says. She took up playing Spanish guitar and drums – mostly classical jazz and Caribbean music – and played alongside the professional musicians in her Lutheran church. “I was always singing,” she says, “and I sang in the National Choir of Puerto Rico without knowing how to read music – I just memorized everything.”  

Yabetza also excelled in the visual arts, thriving in drawing and art classes from an early age. When she completed high school, she opted to study mechanical engineering, putting her design skills to work. But she never lost her deeply rooted love of music.  

Then one day, the church music director asked her the question that would change the trajectory of her life: “You know you’re a musician, right? You just have to learn the names of what you already know how to do.” 

Yabetza recalls, “that sparked something in me. I was uneasy about it. So, I spent the last years of my engineering degree learning music theory. It was crazy, but I loved it! I decided I was just going to go for it.”  

She applied for and was accepted to the Puerto Rico Music Conservatory as a vocalist, where every student was required to take an introductory conducting class, led by Helen González. “Until I took that class,” Yabetza says, “I just never realized that this was something I could do. I knew this was what I wanted.”  

The only program available at the time was in choral conducting, and she completed her bachelor’s degree in choral music education. She jumped at any chance to conduct – creating chamber ensembles, directing friends’ recitals, and continually making her own opportunities to practice. She eagerly accepted advice from conductors including Kenneth Kiesler, and Roselín Pabón, and headed off to study with Dr. Emily Freeman-Brown at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, where she would earn her master’s degree in conducting.  

“I chose Bowling Green because it focused on contemporary music, and works by living composers,” Yabetza explains. The school hosts a new music festival each year, where she treasured the chance to work with composers like Aaron Jay Kernis and Gabriela Lena Frank. “I believe that orchestras should be programming works that reflect the communities they are performing in,” says Yabetza, who is dedicated to championing the works of underrepresented composers, particularly those from Puerto Rico and Latin America. “I will always strive to celebrate the diverse musical expressions of my culture and the richness and vibrancy of my heritage.”  

In addition to her artistic endeavors, Maestra Vivas-Irizarry has become a passionate advocate for music education and community engagement, providing guidance and support to aspiring musicians and conductors.  She traveled to India to teach music as part of the Global Evangelical Lutheran Church, learning different melodies, prayers, and traditions to better serve those populations at home.  

“I want to implement adventurous programming, to bring in and amplify minority voices,” she says. “It is so important that I bring what I have learned here in Puerto Rico to other places. I am proud of who I am and where I come from.”