By Allison Duncan
For an accomplished choral conductor and vocal artist who has performed at venues from Carnegie Hall to the Vatican, Carmen Flórez-Mansi ’92 has an unexpected origin story. She was born in a tiny rural town in northern New Mexico, the youngest of 12 children. Growing up on a cattle ranch, she thought she’d become a farmer like many of her family members.
But she also loved music and had a strong voice. Her family was active in their parish, and Flórez-Mansi sang in the choir. “I found a home in that,” she says. Her parents took her to the symphony and to the Santa Fe Opera for her birthday each year. She didn’t take formal voice lessons until her senior year of high school, but as she developed her talent, her interest in singing grew.
When she traveled to see her brother, who was studying at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in the Philadelphia area, she said she visited Immaculata and fell in love with it immediately. The lush greenery of the campus contrasted with the desert landscape she was used to seeing in the Southwest. And she was delighted that Immaculata had a strong music program.
Although Immaculata was thousands of miles from her home, Flórez-Mansi chose to enroll in the Bachelor of Music program and minor in music education and vocal performance. She honed her singing with Immaculata vocal instructor Dolores Ferraro and was selected to sing the “O Holy Night” solo at Carol Night her senior year.
Music professor Sister Regina Foy, IHM, saw Flórez-Mansi’s love for the liturgy and invited her to help during Mass. “As I progressed musically, I was able to conduct, direct [the choir], and help her select music,” reflects Flórez-Mansi. “It was very much a formational experience for me.”
Sister Christine Noel, IHM, who taught literature, affirmed Flórez-Mansi’s leadership skills. “I think, in particular, because of the single-gender leadership, we had to step up,” Flórez-Mansi says.
She also took advantage of off-campus experiences to develop her skills. “All the musical offerings in the greater Philadelphia area gave a lot of richness for young, burgeoning professional musicians, so I felt very prepared.” She took advantage of student passes to watch the Philadelphia Orchestra rehearse with Riccardo Muti, ranked as one of the world’s greatest conductors. “I’d take the train down and sit right up close and watch him rehearse, and it was really influential in my career going forward,” Flórez-Mansi says, mentioning “his command of the music as well as the way he collaborated artistically with the orchestra members.”
After graduation, Flórez-Mansi returned to her home state and has served as music director at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi in Santa Fe, New Mexico, for more than 20 years. She has led liturgies for special events, such as a vespers service for the papal nuncio and 285 members of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Early in her career, Flórez-Mansi was one of just a few women conductors in the Conference of Roman Catholic Cathedral Musicians, although she says the group now has more women members. Her leadership at the cathedral attracted the attention of a production company who invited her to prepare her chorus to sing Handel’s “Messiah” at Carnegie Hall in 2007 under the direction of John Rutter, whose compositions have become well-known standards in choral repertoires worldwide.
The production company noticed how well Flórez-Mansi’s chorus had performed and invited her to prepare another chorus to sing Rutter’s “Magnificat” at Carnegie Hall in 2016. The next year, she made her debut at Carnegie Hall as choral conductor for Rutter’s “Mass of the Children.” Her husband—to whom her friend Jennifer Viggiano-Smith ’93 introduced her—and their two sons sang in the chorus. Last June, she conducted John Rutter’s “Gloria” at Carnegie Hall with singers from across the country.
Flórez-Mansi and her cathedral choristers were invited to join the Sistine Chapel Choir in 2016 to sing for the closing Mass of the Jubilee Year of Mercy at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. “It was an amazing experience,” Flórez-Mansi said, remembering the Gregorian chant propers they sang. “We were right next to Pope Francis.”
While much of her work involves sacred music, Flórez-Mansi also sees music of any kind as a gift to share with listeners. She is the choral director for The Santa Fe Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, where she leads professional singers in performing six choral masterworks each year. She also conducted two world premieres for The Santa Fe Opera and served as chorus master. “Conducting orchestra and opera singers in modern opera is a very different experience,” she commented. “Since there are no recordings from which to prepare, the stakes are high. With a world premiere, there is much room for creativity and collaboration with the composers, librettists and artists as we bring this new music to life.”
Flórez-Mansi loves using her leadership skills to unite an ensemble in communal music-making and “pull out this beauty that folks sometimes don’t even know that they have within them,” she says. “When we’re able to use [our voice] and share it within a group of people in a chorus, it is magical. … We can’t accomplish that great masterwork by ourselves. We have to have all of the choristers singing together. It is the greatest of collaborations, the same way it is with the symphony orchestra, and even better yet, orchestra and chorus together. There’s 200 people making an incredible sound all together, live.”
When she leads rehearsals in the cathedral, she likes to point to the rose window. “A choir or an ensemble is like that rose window—everybody has their color that they share with the group … their glass through which God shines God’s light,” she says. “Everyone contributes to the brilliance of the final product.”
Choral Music from Baroque to Modern: A Playlist of Carmen Flórez-Mansi’s Favorites
Enjoy this playlist with some of Flórez-Mansi’s favorite music, ranging from the Baroque music of George Friedrich Handel—“I can probably conduct ‘Messiah’ without a score!” she says—to the modern choral compositions of Morten Lauridsen.