I’ll always remember the first time I saw Omar Lopez: he was on stage with Courtney Sanchez and was a little fire ball of unapologetic musical talent streaming through his violin topped with the most irresistible smile. It was impossible to not want to connect with him. What I wasn’t aware of at the time, and that I was honored to be told by the man himself, was a story of reinvention, struggles with alcohol, suicide attempt, split personality, homosexuality in a Christian family and, of course, love.
Omar was initially pushed to learn the violin as a child by its parents from the age of eight until twelve. As most children would confirm, being told to do something can be a turnoff and Omar hated his violin studies. He had dreams of being an engineer, he loved to draw and was passionate about cartoons. He was seen as most likely to work for Disney. Fast forward to his last year of high school at McCallum where Omar was lacking two cultural events to his credit to graduate. He was dragged kicking and screaming to a Yanni concert. That night changed everything for Omar as he fell in love with the music and was struck by Karen Briggs, Yanni’s longtime solo violinist. Omar was mesmerized by the stage presence, the energy, the fire exuding from the performance. This became Omar’s dream, to become that type of violinist. His musical influence were all about R&B and soul, from Whitney Houston to En Vogue, it was a perfect fit.
Omar graduated high school, came out to his personal circle and went to college. The studies were not the best fit so he joined the workforce a year later in 1998 and became a dog trainer at Petsmart for 6 weeks. “I loved it! I had so much fun!” he declared. At the same time, Omar worked at Radioshack and eventually performed as a side act at The Forum after spending all his savings on a beautiful, red, electric violin. An agent for DreamSound Orchestra scouted him there while looking for a violinist. That was the call that started Omar on a fantastic journey and two years tour but also the emergence of his second personality, Phoenix.
Omar saw himself as a little nerdy kid, he was self conscious of his performance and was struggling to live within his christian faith as a gay man. Phoenix became the Ego, powerful, fearless, secure but also mean. On one hand, Omar was feeling the strains of the life on tour, missing his family and his home, on the other hand, Phoenix was thriving as an artist and embracing the natural high of each performance. This resulted in a very emotional and conflicted state of mind. Phoenix also showed himself off stage in unsuccessful personal relationships. Omar perceived himself as insecure, Phoenix was the performer, the strong and proud one. One breakup led Omar to a suicide attempt in 2000, while on tour. He overdosed on sleeping pills but was found on time to be rushed to the hospital and have his stomach pumped. He admits completely that it was a cry for attention, a selfish action driven by despair.
2001 came around and 9/11 changed everything, for a lot of people. Omar refused to get on a plane and decided to continue his career at home, in Austin. He joined The Brew which became his new home, and his new school, playing with some of the most talented musicians in town including Michael Rodriguez, a teacher to Omar in music and in life. Phoenix sometimes made it difficult to interact with some members but the Ego had been invited in and it’s not that easy to kick the guest out. The Brew was a learning experience about respect and interaction. Being in Austin gave Omar the opportunity to start his own projects too which led to two albums and a tour opening for Pat Benatar. Omar found himself reevaluating his priorities in 2008 as the economy collapsed and tours were cancelled.
Omar took a position working the front desk at Dance Institute. The last eight years had been as exhausting and damaging as the music world can be. Linda Holland, owner and director of the Institute became his proclaimed Godmother. With Lindsey LeBlanc Brewster, manager and co-director of Dance Institute, they helped Omar create a new version of himself through the next two years.
Omar had started drinking to cope with lack of touring. The natural high of the stage was something Phoenix demanded. As fate would have it, Spanish guitarist and PBS artist Benise reached out to Omar while looking for violinist. Karen Briggs had left Yanni to play with Benise in 2005. Omar became his idol’s understudy during the tour in Lebanon in 2009. Linda at the Institute supported Omar to leave for a month. He also met, one week before leaving on tour, the titled “love of his life”, Brian, who promised to wait for him while he was away.
The next year was a whirlwind for Omar. He was in a relationship, went back on tour in the fall with Karen and Benise, depression was creeping up and the heavy drinking started. Omar was craving stability and creativity, Phoenix wanted to party and surround himself with the likes. In February of 2011, at 190 pounds, Omar ended his relationship with Brian, who had decided to move to New York, and started a workout regimen which would enable him to get back to an acceptable 145 pounds. Omar toured twice more that year, this time as the lead violinist for Benise as Karen was focusing on her role as a mom.
2012 offered the most dramatic challenge as Phoenix increasingly driven towards fame and partying was becoming meaner and verbally abusive. Omar was becoming two different persons on and off stage. On May 5th 2012, Omar drank himself sick, reached home, not remembering how, and decided to quit drinking. He’s been sober ever since. Omar also came out to his professional circle in 2012. He had always been supportive and performing at Pride events but it was the time needed for his parents to be comfortable with it too. It had been an ongoing struggle for Omar and his family to accept homosexuality within the christian faith.
Last February, as Omar was walking from his car to his apartment, he noticed a neighbor having difficulties with his 3 months old puppy, Scarlett, as she was pulling on her leash, and winning. Omar offered to help train her, honestly mentioning his limited 6 weeks experience at PetSmart, a long time ago. The owner took him on his offer and as Omar took Scarlett for daily walks to the park, he started to build a clientele and developed Totally Pawz as a pet training business, a now successful and fulfilling one. Omar could incorporate his fitness routine to his new career.
But what about Phoenix? Omar kept taking away from him: the stage, the fame, the parties, the alcohol. So Omar finally let him go. “I never wanted to be famous, I never wanted to be a star” he told me. “ I’m happy to be home and embrace Austin, to be healthy, fit, to have a career growing Totally Pawz and someday be married. I feel whole and I want to create a heightened version of myself.” With Phoenix gone, he’s now pursuing his music career as Omar Lopez. You can enjoy his performances in town but I must warn you, as Courtney Sanchez did:”you don’t know what you’re in for.” Brace yourself and enjoy.
Omar is a poster child to me for Austin that encompasses music, love of animals, fitness, entrepreneurship, faith, resilience and reinvention. It’s a perfect example of absolute passion for life and what we go through to embrace it all.