A Generation of L.A. Opera Singers Comes of Age

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Los Angeles, the pinnacle of pop, isn't usually thought of as prime breeding ground for opera singers. But the time has come for that notion to change.

Consider the impressive array of Los Angeles talent currently onstage in the L.A. Opera production of Daniel Catan's "Florencia en el Amazonas." Four singers out of the ensemble of seven--Rodney Gilfry, Suzanna Guzman, Greg Fedderly and Hector Vasquez--were either born here or trained here, or both. And all except Vasquez now call L.A. home.

Gilfry, Guzman, Fedderly and Vasquez have been singing in prestigious venues around the globe and here in L.A. for a decade or so now. They are, as it happens, hitting their professional stride concurrent with the emergence of L.A. Opera as an important company. "Everybody knows now that there's an opera company in L.A.," Gilfry says.

Yet people still don't expect singers such as these to come from here. "A lot of people [have been] surprised," acknowledges baritone Gilfry, who is the only one of the four singers who was not in the cast when "Florencia en el Amazonas" premiered at the Houston Grand Opera last year.

"They'd ask, 'Where did you study?' and I'd say California, and then they'd be at a loss," he continues. "People are still surprised that I was trained completely in California. They think that's really different."

Raised in West Covina and Claremont, Gilfry first became interested in singing professionally while studying at Cal State Fullerton. "I was going to be a music educator," he says. "I had it in my mind that I didn't really want to be a singer, because I wanted to have a family and be settled. But the bug bit me."

Gilfry completed his master's degree at USC before moving to Europe in 1985 to establish his professional reputation--a traditional path followed by generations of young American singers. During his years abroad, however, he performed at L.A. Opera nearly every season.

That, in part, is why Gilfry, who sang earlier in the season in "La Boheme" (he found "complexity and depth in the role of the temperamental painter that few ever attempt," according to Times music critic Mark Swed), is strongly identified with the company. And that association has become even stronger since the singer returned to L.A. in 1994, with his wife and three young children.

His reputation is now well enough established that he can live anywhere there's an airport, and L.A. is Gilfry's choice. "It's not a problem being based here," says Gilfry, who made his Metropolitan Opera debut last year, as Demetrius in Benjamin Britten's "A Midsummer Night's Dream," a role he first sang with L.A. Opera. "I'm at the point where if somebody wants me, they'll just bring me from wherever I am."

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Fedderly, though not a native, has proven that those who choose to train here don't necessarily have to leave L.A. to find success. Born in Wisconsin Dells, Wis. (population 2,000), he too is closely identified with L.A. Opera. The tenor, who also won positive notices for his singing in "La Boheme" and will return as Tamino in "The Magic Flute" in February, came to L.A. to pursue graduate study, as the first recipient of the Marilyn Horne scholarship at USC.

With one semester left to go, L.A. Opera general director Peter Hemmings cast him in a production of "Midsummer Night's Dream." Once Fedderly had finished school, he moved right into the company's resident artist program.

The program takes emerging talents, pays them a stipend and casts them in a variety of roles in an arrangement not unlike that used by movie studios in the days when they used to keep a stable of players on hand.

After half a dozen or so years as a resident artist, Fedderly began to wonder whether he should change his base. "I always thought if you're a singer, you have to go to New York or Europe, which I didn't want to do," he says. "But Mr. Hemmings was always telling me, 'No, you don't have to do that.' " Fedderly has since gone on to international acclaim, particularly as Tom Rakewell in Stravinsky's "The Rake's Progress," which was seen on PBS' "Great Performances" in 1996.

The downside of choosing an L.A. base? Getting to faraway opera capitals. "It's a lot of hours on the plane, but oh well," he says. "I don't feel like it's hurt me."

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Mezzo-soprano Guzman grew up in El Sereno and attended Cal State L.A., stopping just short of receiving her degree. She spent nine years based in New York before returning to L.A. to live in 1991. She has received positive reviews at the Metropolitan Opera, Washington Opera, Houston Grand Opera and other prestigious venues.

"I was from here, but I started my career [at] San Diego [Opera] and on the East Coast," says Guzman, who credits the L.A. Parks and Recreation programs she participated in as a girl for her interest in the arts. Partly because of the intense competition among mezzos, she says, "I had to leave to get hired here."

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Similarly, Vasquez, who has been heard at the Metropolitan Opera, San Francisco Opera and elsewhere, was born and raised in Huntington Park, but launched his career elsewhere. But he also credits local early exposure to the arts for his choice of profession.

"One of the things that really sticks out in my head is the outreach programs," says the baritone. "I remember as a kid, in what was then L.A. City School District, you'd have a field trip where you'd go down to the Shrine or you come here [to the Music Center] and see a rehearsal or a performance."

Vasquez is in the process of moving from the Bay Area to a small town on the central California coast, but Guzman, Gilfry and Fedderly, who live here, are now associate artists with L.A. Opera--a designation that means they can expect to sing here at least once each season and typically more often than that.

That's one sign of a company and a generation of Los Angeles singers that have come of age. "L.A. has made a quantum leap from zero to five in the scale of opera companies," Guzman says. "Say I meet people in Dresden or France or wherever, they're jazzed that they know someone from this company. And they're definitely impressed by this associate artist thing, because it is one of a singer's dreams, to have that kind of stability in their lives.

"I love living in Los Angeles," she continues. "I wouldn't live any place else."

* "Florencia en el Amazonas" continues tonight at 7:30; Saturday, 1 p.m., Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., $24-$135. (213) 365-3500.

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