The tenor Luis Gomes grew up in Sarilhos Grandes, a small Portuguese town across the Tagus River from Lisbon. There was only one bridge at the time, so studying at the conservatory in the city was not simple. The only opera theater in Portugal, Teatro Nacional de São Carlos, seemed like a world away.
Like other young singers from his country, Mr. Gomes, 31, found it hard to make a career as an opera singer at home. After attending the Lisbon Music Conservatory, he felt it was necessary to move abroad to continue his vocal training. “You need to challenge yourself, and there arrives a moment when you feel like you have to go somewhere else to grow,” Mr. Gomes said in a telephone interview.
But this month he returns to his homeland as one of two Portuguese contenders among the 40 competitors in Operalia, Plácido Domingo’s nomadic opera competition, which has chosen the Teatro Nacional as its 2018 location. The event takes place until Sept. 2.
The other Portuguese contestant is Rita Marques, 28, a soprano who grew up in Caldas da Rainha, a coastal city about 60 miles north of Lisbon. She has been singing since she was 3 years old and trained in Portugal, but began her career in Spain.
To complete his undergraduate degree, Mr. Gomes moved to London in 2008, where he studied at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama. He received a master’s in opera at the National Opera Studio and made his debut at the Royal Opera House there, performing roles such as Edmondo and Lamplighter in Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut” and Pong (of Ping, Pang and Pong) in Puccini’s “Turandot.” On the main stage at Covent Garden, he sang Fenton in Verdi’s “Falstaff” and Beppe in Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci.”
Then last year, he returned to Teatro São Carlos as part of the secondary company in Verdi’s “La Traviata.” He was cast as an understudy for the role of Alfredo Germont and scheduled to sing in one performance. As it happened, the first company singer withdrew just before opening, so Mr. Gomes sang the role through the whole run.
“It’s the classic story,” said Patrick Dickie, artistic director of Teatro São Carlos. “The opera house knew of him last when he was a teenager, and then he went off to study in England. He came back as an understudy, but he ended up doing all the performances and did very well in the role. I’m hoping he’s someone who will have a very long experience with São Carlos.”
Returning home for Operalia was a special experience for both contestants. “When you go out of your country you always dream of coming back and singing for your people, to have that support,” Mr. Gomes said in a telephone interview.
Ms. Marques agreed. “Having Operalia in Lisbon is like a dream,” she said. “Having this great thing in my country not only gives attention to my country and maybe, hopefully, it can bring new singers to my country, new attention to my country and maybe new ways of doing things.”
Unlike its European neighbors Spain, France and Italy, Portugal isn’t really known for its operatic culture. The golden age of Portuguese opera came in the second half of the 18th century, with Baroque-era composers, including Marcos António da Fonseca Portugal and António Leal Moreira. When it comes to musical traditions, Portugal is typically associated with fado, a form of mournful, melancholic singing accompanied by string instruments.
“It’s true to say that in Portugal, where there is only one full-time opera company, that there really are objectively limited opportunities,” Mr. Dickie said. “We’re part of the solution, but we’re not big enough to be the whole solution.” Once Portuguese opera singers reach a certain professional level, they can audition for the Teatro São Carlos company. The majority of its in-house singers are Portuguese, Mr. Dickie said.
“There have been experiments in the past with establishing opera studios, for example in the north and in Lisbon,” he continued, “but it’s fairly ad hoc because there isn’t the sheer maturity or critical mass of operatic culture in Portugal to support a whole generation of artists.”
Teatro São Carlos performs a largely Italian and French repertoire, Mr. Dickie said, with one production following another for a few months, rather than rotating performances.
This will be the second time that Ms. Marques will sing at Teatro São Carlos; in 2015, she performed the role of Soeur Alice in “Dialogues of the Carmelites.” After studying singing at the conservatory in Lisbon and then the Lisbon Superior Music School, she went to Spain, where she took advanced courses at the Centre Perfeccionament Plácido Domingo, a professional training school for young opera singers.
“When I meet people, and they ask me what I do and I tell them I am an opera singer, normally people say, ‘Yeah, but what’s your job?,’” she said. “In Portugal, music is seen as a hobby and not as a profession where you can earn money.”
With Operalia coming to Lisbon, she has a chance to show more of her countrymen what an operatic career can look like.
For Mr. Dickie, Mr. Domingo choosing Teatro São Carlos is significant. “There’s symbolism to it,” he said. “It’s a sign of confidence that this theater is able to host an event like this.
“It’s happening at the right time for this theater because it’s a way of putting a particular company and a particular theater under the spotlight in a very unique way,” he added.
These days, there are two bridges that connect towns on the southern bank of the Tagus to Lisbon, making it much faster to travel to the city. Mr. Gomes hopes that his friends and family will have no trouble popping over to see him perform. But first he has to make it to the only part of the Operalia contest that is public: the finals.