Education

His rare vocal talent was discovered at a McDonald’s drive-thru. Now he’s an FIU grad

Rare vocal talent was discovered at a McDonald’s drive-thru

Edgar Sanfeliz-Botta is graduating from Florida International University with a bachelor’s in music, but a few years ago he was a Cuban immigrant working in a McDonalds. Roberta David, a professional choral director, heard him sing and insisted he
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Edgar Sanfeliz-Botta is graduating from Florida International University with a bachelor’s in music, but a few years ago he was a Cuban immigrant working in a McDonalds. Roberta David, a professional choral director, heard him sing and insisted he

Roberta David just wanted a chicken Caesar salad from the McDonald’s drive-thru. Instead, she found one of the rarest and most talented singers she had ever heard.

David, a professional choral director, said her eyes widened when she saw who was singing “Once Upon a Dream” from Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty” behind the window.

“Was that you?” she asked the young man in the red apron. “Are you a countertenor?” Edgar Sanfeliz-Botta smiled back and said yes, he was one of the select few men with the vocal range of a woman.

Sanfeliz-Botta had been at a Sunset Drive McDonald’s for just over a year, earning money to bring his family over from Cuba. After work, he taught music to elementary students at Conchita Espinosa Academy using the choral conducting degree he earned in Cuba.

“When I came here, a lot of people told me to forget about music and get a real job,” Sanfeliz-Botta, 27, said Wednesday as he stood behind the graduation stage at Florida International University’s basketball arena.

“I said, ‘no,’ ” he said, shaking his head and sending his pink “Class of 2017” tassel swinging. “I’m the kind of person who needs to follow my heart.”

Moments later, Sanfeliz-Botta and his fellow music school graduates took the stage and sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” and FIU’s alma mater.

But back in 2014, Sanfeliz-Botta didn’t see music in his future. Not until David got involved.

After she ate her lunch, David began her campaign to get Sanfeliz-Botta to train his rare voice. She looped through the drive-thru every few days and eventually left him a Christmas card with her phone number (and $20) inside.

“He didn’t call for a few days,” she said. “I thought, ‘Maybe he thinks I’m some kind of stalker.’ 

Eventually, Sanfeliz-Botta agreed and auditioned for FIU’s music program. With the help of a hefty scholarship, he started classes in August 2014.

“We realized we had hit the musical jackpot with Edgar,” FIU President Mark Rosenberg told the room full of graduates, some of the more than 5,000 students graduating this week in ceremonies Sunday through Wednesday.

His singing professor at FIU, Kathleen Wilson, called him a “diamond in the rough.” She said his final student recital was standing room only.

“I’m going to go right out on a limb — I think he will have an international career,” she said.

While at FIU, Sanfeliz-Botta kept teaching at the Academy and picked up new work singing at concerts and playing the organ at churches. He said he had taught himself to play the huge instrument using library books and practicing on the only concert hall organ in Cuba.

He earned enough to bring his parents, his grandmother and his twin sister to Miami. He’s the main breadwinner for the family, and thanks to his encouragement, his sister is pursuing a physical therapy degree at Miami Dade College.

Sanfeliz-Botta plans to take the next year off to work and make sure his family is secure before he heads north for his doctorate at the prestigious Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University.

“From the womb of my mother I was always singing,” he said. “Now I know I can make a life out of it. Nobody can tell me what I can’t do anymore.”

Alex Harris: 305-376-5005, @harrisalexc

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