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."