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Almost A Diva

COVER STORY

Suzanna Guzman Is a Mom, a Dedicated Sister and an Avowed Angeleno Devoted to Her Community. Not to Mention an Opera Star.

March 07, 1999|MARY MCNAMARA | Mary McNamara is a Times staff writer. Her last feature for the magazine was on Pop icon Peggy Moffitt

You don't look like an opera singer."

That's what the kids tell her and it makes sense. The only opera singers most of them have seen are of the Looney Toons variety--zaftig, with a horned hat and a vibrato you could drive a Mack truck through. But even taking into account the multicultural, multifaceted appearances of real opera singers, the kids are still right. With her long dark hair and lanky grace, Suzanna Guzman looks more like a folk singer than a mezzo-soprano. She's 5-foot-8 and slender enough to look taller; her laughter is sudden and loud, and she talks faster and more exuberantly than a teenage girl who's just discovered the narrative form. Stories and observations, memories and wry asides, hopes and dreams and plans, all fleet and often non sequiturs, rise and dart about her like accidental notes.

So if the words "opera singer" conjure images of velvet-trailing, bonbon popping, fan-snapping petulance, then Guzman would seem a poor impostor. Especially when she's singing Natasha in an operatic rendition of "Bullwinkle," which she did last year as part of the Los Angeles Opera's community outreach program.

The audience--public school students--liked it. They just had a hard time believing it was opera. Or that Guzman, who at one performance upbraided a few tough-guy hecklers in Spanish, was anything more than one of them pretending to have this fancy-schmancy job.

"Being Latina, I look at these kids like they're my cousins," she says. "I want to startle them enough so they can open up that part they keep so closed off. I want to show them that being creative takes courage too." And anyway, it was neither the first nor the most egregious case of mistaken identity she's encountered. When she was singing with the Metropolitan Opera in New York nine years ago, she would hang out during the day with some of the neighborhood kids. In the evening, "the Opera would send a limo, and I'd come down the stairs in my gown and hair up and the jewelry, and these kids would stand there watching and their mouths would drop open. They were so impressed," she says. "They thought I was the fanciest, most successful hooker they'd ever seen."

Don't get Suzanna Guzman wrong. Behind that sense of humor is a serious resume. An associate principal artist with the Los Angeles Opera for seven years, she performs regularly at the Music Center. This season alone she sang in "Falstaff," "Fantastic Mr. Fox" and "Madama Butterfly." Last year, her performance of "Carmen" at Houston's Grand Opera so electrified audiences, it won rave reviews in the national press. She has performed with companies around the world, including the Metropolitan Opera in New York and the Washington Opera, and at the Edinburgh Music Festival and the Dresden Music Festival. She is, says Peter Hemmings, general director of the L.A. Opera, "a splendid artist of national importance."

"She always makes her characters very interesting," says Times music critic Mark Swed. "Some singers still just stand and sing. She really understands how to use the stage."

But Guzman remains a satellite that circles the white hot core of supernova singers. Despite her impressive resume and the kudos, she is not yet an international star, not yet a diva.

To become a diva requires that magical alchemy of voice, emotion, acting ability and force of personality. To become a diva, one must also sing lead roles at the leading operas--New York, Chicago, San Francisco, L.A., which Guzman has not yet done. To become a diva, it helps if one possesses single-minded, unencumbered freedom.

Which Guzman does not.

She is the single mother of 6-year-old Conor. She is a devoted daughter and sister. Each of these states of being requires energy, requires time, requires a sense of balance. The blinders one must don along the solitary path to superstardom would make Guzman's life impossible.

And unacceptable. Without her family or her sense of community, without her sense of priorities and perspective, without her generous energy and ability to laugh, she'd just be another opera star who, when mistaken for a hooker, would simply snap her fan, turn on her heel and stalk away.

And how badly does the world need another diva?

*

Suzanna Guzman is a native Angeleno, but not in the program bio sense, with its implications: Well, yes, she was born here, but only because she had to be born somewhere, and now she is more a citizen of the artistic world. Guzman is a native in the tribal sense--she was born and raised here; her grandparents and mother died and are buried here. Her father, two sisters and many aunts, uncles and cousins still live here. She owns a house here; her son goes to school here. She is virtually addicted to community outreach work--this month she will begin a series of 10 concerts around Southern California for the Da Camera society, and she continues to host "L.A Opera Notes," now in its second season Sundays on KKGO Classical 105.

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