When Suzanna Guzman was growing up in El Sereno in East Los Angeles she never thought she was destined to play the world’s greatest opera houses. For starters, she knew nothing about opera. If anything, she wanted to be an actress or a rock singer. Even today she comes across as a girl-next-door type--friendly, open and unpretentious--not what one might expect of a mezzo-soprano on the rise.
A veteran of such venues as the Metropolitan Opera, the Washington Opera and the Los Angeles Music Center Opera, Guzman launched her career here before spending nine years based in New York. She returned to Los Angeles in 1991 to be closer to her extensive family, and recently added a new aspect to her burgeoning career--exploring an interest in Latino work.
“Spanish (work) is becoming my real passion,” says Guzman. “The music is so earthy and there’s that tingle that you feel from recognizing your ethnicity in the music.”
Given that passion, Guzman is certainly in the right place at the right time, given that so many Southern California arts institutions are now looking for Latino artworks in order to reach new audiences. An example of this is Guzman’s role as the Mulata de Cordoba in “Journey to Cordoba,” a new opera premiering at Cal State L.A. on Saturday, with a performance next Sunday at the University of Redlands. Commissioned by the L.A. Opera, the piece will also be seen at various sites throughout L.A. and Southern California during February and March.
But her interest in Latin works isn’t the only way that Guzman exemplifies a new breed of opera artist. Where traditional opera singers might simply strike a pose and sing, Guzman is more a singing actor.
The combination has put her in demand. “Suzanna is a standout mezzo-soprano,” says Robin Thompson, artistic administrator of the L.A. Opera. “Because she is so flexible and has such a vibrant personality, we can think of her for characters who don’t normally go with the lower voice.”
Guzman’s go-with-the-flow attitude also gets her high marks from her peers. “She is the optimum sort of person to work with because she’s comfortable onstage and can go in whatever direction the scene takes,” says baritone John Atkins, who has worked with Guzman since the late ‘80s and sung with her in such recent L.A. Opera productions as “El Gato Montes” and “Le Nozze di Figaro.”
“She brings the adaptability that you get in the best musical theater to opera, which is what makes it interesting and fun to work with her and keeps (the opera) alive.”
Singers like Guzman and Atkins--both in their 30s and both respected for combining dramatic with vocal capabilities--may, in fact, be part of a larger sea change in today’s opera. “It’s such a trend to have opera directors treat the singers like actors and give you so much more motivation and direction,” says Guzman. “It’s making opera a more complex piece of theater than it used to be and I like that.”
Guzman likes to tell stories on herself--as if there were any trace of artiste mystique to dispel.
Seated in the stylish Pasadena home she shares with an actor roommate and her 2-year-old son, Coner J., Guzman is quicker to recall the bloopers than the high points of a decade singing professional opera.
There was, for example, the time when she was just starting out that she was approached by someone from the Washington Opera. “He said, ‘I want you to work for Washington Opera,’ ” she recalls. “I said, ‘Great, I love Seattle!’ ”
“Such a dip!” says Guzman, laughing with remembered chagrin. “So Californian. Guzman sticks her foot in her mouth.”
Or, there was the time she appeared alongside Placido Domingo, in the 1985 Washington, D.C., premiere of Menotti’s “Goya"--a performance attended by such luminaries as the Queen of Spain.
“I was a secondary lead, a tavern singer and also (Domingo’s) mistress at the end, and I was onstage for all the bows,” recalls Guzman, who went on with the production to its 1991 European premiere at the Spoleto Festival in Italy.
“Afterward, I was at this table and this woman said, ‘Well, how about that woman who was bowing and bowing and bowing?’ ” Guzman continues. “Then the woman turned and directed it right at me. Well, that was me who was bowing. It was so embarrassing.”
Guzman has come a long way since those wet-behind-the- ears days. Yet her tone remains just as animated when she’s tattling on herself as when discussing her current project.
“Journey to Cordoba,” with music by Lee Holdridge and a libretto by Richard Sparks, is directed by Jose Luis Valenzuela. It will be performed by a cast that includes four professional singers and a chorus of L.A. County High School for the Arts students.
With a set by L.A. artist Gronk and costumes by Victoria Petrovich, the opera is funded by a 1993 $100,000 AT&T; grant to the L.A. Opera to support the development of Latino works, the first part of which went toward the 1994 mainstage production of Manuel Penella’s “El Gato Montes.”
“Journey to Cordoba” is a contemporary parable, set in East L.A., about conflicting generational values. “It’s about a high school girl named Miranda (sung at Cal State L.A. by 15-year-old Danielle de Niese and elsewhere by Ariella Vaccarino), so it would be accessible to (audiences) 10 years old and up,” Guzman says.
“If you had told me a year ago that I would be excited about doing children’s theater, I would say you’re crazy,” says Guzman, who spent years acting in children’s theater around Southern California. “I paid my dues.”
But she is indeed excited about her role as the Mulata de Cordoba, a figure based on a Latin American folk-tale character, whom the young protagonist also mistakes for a family member. “She thinks I’m her grandmother,” says Guzman. “She feels comfortable with me and (the Mulata) is an adult who doesn’t treat her like a kid.”
A sense of family is, in fact, an important part of Guzman’s “Journey to Cordoba” experience in other ways as well. “I walked into this room not knowing a single person and I feel like I’ve known them all my life,” says Guzman of her collaborators. “You feel like you’re working with your family, so it’s more personal.”
It’s a far cry from what it’s like working in a major opera house, she says. “The big difference in working on a project on the mainstage at the Music Center is that the opera is the point of everything,” Guzman says. “The important thing is to get the opera onstage and running, so a lot of stuff is left up to our own creativity.”
With “Journey to Cordoba,” the singers are not only present at, but part of, the creation. “In this production, from the minute we get there, we are a team creating,” Guzman says. “It’s never been done before, so we have no standards to come up to except our own.”
That means the text isn’t set in stone. “We have the luxury of saying, ‘I feel uncomfortable with these words, can we fix it?’ ” says Guzman. “They will change it with a Spanish flavor and leave it up to me often, which is great.
“A prime example: When I first meet Miranda, the dialogue as it was written was all in English,” says Guzman. “I felt that the abuela (grandmother) would throw Spanish interjections in.”
And others have been as grateful for Guzman’s contributions as she has been for the chance to offer them. “Her being in ‘Journey to Cordoba’ is fortuitous,” says the L.A. Opera’s Thompson. “She has a real affinity for her background, but she’s not by any means limited to that.”
Above all, Guzman is savoring the pleasures of returning home. “Our first venue is Cal State L.A., where I went to school, in my hometown,” she says. “To be home means I can let my hair very far down.
“Gronk and I have this joke that we can see our houses from the Music Center.”
I n fact, that’s almost literally true. The daughter of a home maker mother and a father who was the first Latino captain in the Los Angeles County Fire Department, Guzman was weaned on L.A. Parks and Recreation activities.
She developed an affinity for the stage that led her, as a teen-ager, to singing. Following a final year of high school spent at an American school in Spain--where she became fluent in Spanish--Guzman returned to California and joined a rock band.
The gig soon took its toll on her untrained voice and Guzman sought help. One teacher gave her the Habanera from “Carmen” to perform for a visitor, who happened to be a conductor in residence at the Inspiration Point Arts Colony in Arkansas, where he promptly cast the teen-age singer.
“I’d never seen an opera, been to an opera, heard an opera, and I was cast, as a lead, in ‘Carmen,’ ” says Guzman.
After that, Guzman began singing with small L.A. companies. She enrolled at Cal State L.A., but stopped just short of finishing her degree. She also took some commercial voice classes at Los Angeles City College.
After college, Guzman began working in musical theater. “Being my voice type and in my 20s, there was no real role for me, so they put me in the chorus,” says Guzman.
And there were other issues. “I’m not really ethnic specific in my appearance,” she says. “At the time, to be Hispanic meant you had to be short. My grandmother is Native American, and I didn’t fit that image either, so I was in limbo.”
In 1983, she was an understudy in the company of “The King and I” at the Pantages. “I had nothing to do in the show and I was bored, so I started singing in opera competitions during the day,” she says. “I was winning and I thought it was just a fluke.”
Apparently it wasn’t. Guzman won the Metropolitan Opera regional auditions in 1984 and 1985 and, the second time, was given the chance to go to New York to sing in the finals. Unfortunately, “The King and I” was set to go to Broadway at the same time.
“I had to make a choice,” Guzman says. “Was I going to continue being Amazon No. 2 in ‘The King and I’ or go to New York and do the Met competition?”
Guzman decided in favor of the Met, and although she didn’t win the finals, she found some fans in the right places. “The people who were my champions came backstage and said, ‘I want you to work for me,’ ” she says.
During the past decade, she has brought her theatrical and vocal skills to a variety of roles, including the title role in “Carmen,” which she has sung at the Houston Grand Opera and L’Opera de Nice and is scheduled to sing at the Kennedy Center in April.
She has performed often with the San Diego Opera--where she debuted as Emilia in “Otello” in 1985--and with the L.A. Opera, where in 1994 she played Marcellina in “Le Nozze di Figaro” and Annina in “Der Rosenkavalier,” and where she’s slated to sing Suzuki in next season’s “Madama Butterfly.”
Times music critic Martin Bernheimer wrote that Guzman “introduced an uncommonly elegant and sympathetic Siebel” in L.A. Opera’s recent staging of Gounod’s “Faust.” He called her Annina, in last spring’s “Der Rosenkavalier,” “irresistibly wily” and cited her “poignantly giddy Marcellina” in “Le Nozze di Figaro.”
She is popular with both administrators and artists. “She takes direction well,” says Thompson, who has been with the L.A. Opera for six years. “And vocally, the improvement in tone quality has been dramatic.”
What’s more, Guzman also has a good attitude. “She has a great sense of humor and when she smiles, her whole face lights up,” says Thompson.
Yet because mezzo-soprano is a voice type that singers tend to grow into with age, Guzman has often played relatively sedate characters. “Because my voice type is lower, I often play mothers or the sympathetic sister,” she says. “Hopefully, now I’m starting to do more of the sexy parts, the bad women.”
She’s also eager to cross-dress onstage more often. “I love pants roles,” says the singer who assayed Siebel in L.A. Opera’s recent production of Gounod’s “Faust.” “Pants parts are sympathetic, good for comic relief, or they’re really sweet, tortured souls.”
Such joys help compensate for the downside of a profession that’s not as consistently glitzy as it may appear. “It’s an incredibly lonely occupation,” says Guzman. “You’re working with people who you may never see again, people who may not speak English.
“You often cannot communicate with your colleagues except when you’re singing onstage,” Guzman continues. “The glamorous side of opera is that you travel to many fabulous cities, but a lot of times I end up sitting in the room watching ‘Dynasty’ in German with the sound turned down.”
The language factor figures differently, of course, when it’s opera in Spanish. “What was exciting about ‘El Gato Montes’ was to sing in a foreign language which I understand 100%,” Guzman says.
“When I sing in German or Russian, for example, 10% of my brain is concentrated on translating and you’re a little distracted. But when I sing in Spanish or English, it comes out of you 100% emotion and passion.”
And for an artist who strives for an accessible humanity not usually associated with the opera stage, that matters. It’s also, in part, why Guzman feels such a connection with “Journey to Cordoba.”
It’s a project that hits close to home, in a number of ways. “Basically the message of ‘Journey to Cordoba’ is don’t sit around and be a victim,” Guzman says. “Get out and run and let your spirit fly.
“I don’t like the victim thing anymore. The sentiment of the ‘90s is let’s take charge of our lives again, and I love putting that message out there, because I want that for my son.”
* “Journey to Cordoba,” Luckman Center for the Arts, Cal State L.A., Saturday, 2 p.m., $8-$12; (213) 466-1767. Also: University of Redlands, next Sunday, 3 p.m., $3-$5 or $20 for family of up to 6; (909) 793-2121, Ext. 3264. Norris Theatre, Rolling Hills Estates, Feb. 19, 1:30 and 3:30 p.m., $10; (310) 944-9801. La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, Feb. 26, 1:30 p.m. and 3:30 p.m., $8; (310) 944-9801. Wadsworth Theater, March 4, 11 a.m., $8-$22; (310) 825-2101. Lobero Theater, Santa Barbara, March 5, 3 p.m., $7-$12; (805) 963-0761.