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The Sunday Conversation: Mezzo-soprano Suzanna Guzman

The mezzo-soprano, who plays Bertha in San Diego Opera's 'The Barber of Seville,' talks KCET's 'Open Call,' Placido Domingo and L.A. County High School for the Arts.

April 08, 2012|By Irene Lacher, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Mezzo-soprano Suzanna Guzmán at California State University, Los Angeles.
Mezzo-soprano Suzanna Guzmán at California State University, Los… (Genaro Molina, Los Angeles…)

Mezzo-soprano Suzanna Guzmán hosts "Open Call," KCET's new Thursday evening show featuring performances at Southern California's top arts schools and institutions. The L.A. native maintains an active performing schedule — her next gig is singing the role of Bertha in San Diego Opera's production of Rossini's "The Barber of Seville," opening April 21 — and helps groom young artists as the director of L.A. County High School for the Arts' Office of Community Engagement.

Tell me about "Open Call."

It is highlighting exceptional talent that's bred here in Southern California. For me personally because I'm from here — my old joke was I could see my home from the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion — the beautiful thing about "Open Call" is I grew up with all of this — the Ambassador Auditorium, UCLA's Royce Hall.... To be able to present our world-class people, who are here in our town right now, just makes my heart sing.

Is the thrust to provide a platform for young artists?

I think it's more a platform to show the spectrum of emerging and established artists in Los Angeles. We do have people from the Colburn [School]. The Colburn Orchestra — I get real excited about this — while it is amazing college-age artists, Maestro Yehuda Gilad is anything but an emerging artist. He's established with his roots down to the center of the earth. It's not like we're focusing on college or high school orchestras; it's focusing on how high the bar is and how the kids and established artists are meeting that high bar. This is for me personally where the arts thrive the most, when we see the young talent intertwined with masters, like I was when I grew up in opera with Marilyn Horne and of course with Plácido [Domingo] and Sam Ramey, these fantastic bastions of opera.

But this does provide young artists with an extraordinary platform. Are you trying to give young artists a hand? Is it harder for them to break in now than it was for you?

I'm a bad person to ask that question because there's a certain kind of artist who it doesn't matter if they're singing in a church, in a school or Carnegie Hall, they're going to perform and I'm one of those people. I got to stand there and do what I loved, and sometimes it was at the Kennedy Center, and sometimes it was at an inner-city elementary school that I'm working at. In my work with the kids at the L.A. County High School for the Arts and at USC and at UCLA, I still see passions that burn so bright that they're going to perform no matter what.

In this tough economy I would think it would be even harder.

Here's a perfect example: L.A. County High School for the Arts is a public high school that only has 600 students. In the last three years they have tripled the number of applicants. There are only 150 spots for incoming freshmen, and last year we had 1,100 applicants.

Because they're not going to private schools?

They're not going to private schools or they're not finding arts in public schools and they're yearning for it. I thought this was just an anomaly because the kids at L.A. County are doing so amazingly — there's 98% matriculation; they're going to the best schools in the country. But OCHSA [Orange County High School of the Arts] is experiencing the same phenomenon. They tripled the number of applicants in the last three years. I see a direct relationship to the diminishing of the arts in public schools and the increase in applications to these two famed schools.

You've seen the growth of opera in L.A. over the last few decades. Did you ever expect it to be where it is now?

Actually, I never thought it would be, but I have to say that when I heard all those years ago that Plácido was coming to Los Angeles, he brought with him the kind of passion that ignites. And I was very fortunate — during my debut season at the Kennedy Center I did a show with Plácido [now L.A. Opera's general director] and he was talking then about Los Angeles and his ideas. Do you know how they say a neighborhood is doing really well if a Trader Joe's is there? That's how I felt when Plácido said he was coming to Los Angeles, like, woo hoo, we're going to be on the map!

You have performed as part of the Music Center's outreach programs. Are you still performing your one-woman show, "Don't Be Afraid: It's Just Opera!"?

I perform it all the time.

What's scary about opera and how do you break through that?

The scariest thing about anything is the fear that you're going to look stupid and someone will point at you and say you're an unsophisticated goober. What people forget is all music and all art is about communicating and telling a story, and if you don't get it, it's not communicating itself. And that's all it is. And that's what many people are afraid of — they think it's not simple. And it is; it is that simple in all its complexity.

Did you have a classical arts education as a child?

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