Suzanna Guzman in the Dallas Opera’s Marriage of Figaro
Suzanna Guzman singing Un bel di at the West Dallas Community School
- The KERA radio story:
- The expanded online story:
This is Suzanna Guzman as Marcellina in the Dallas Opera’s The Marriage of Figaro:
And this is Suzanna Guzman at the West Dallas Community School.
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Guzman aims her voice at a giggling girl who covers her ears. She flirts with blushing boys. Guzman was known in opera circles for her electrifying Carmen. But this performance of the “Habanera” from Bizet’s opera is part of her one-woman show, Don’t Be Afraid! It’s Just Opera! Guzman has performed it for more than 200,000 school children from Alaska to Florida.
There’s a simple reason Guzman does this. A tall Latina born and raised in East LA, she didn’t know a thing about opera when she started in it. She ruined her voice in a rock band, playing the Pacific Northwest. After two months of vocal repair, her teacher sent her to see a doctor. Guzman thought he was a throat specialist; he was actually the director of a fine arts colony with an opera company. After hearing her sing the “Habanera,” he hired Guzman on the spot.
GUZMAN: “And I was Carmen. And I’d never heard an opera before. I’d never seen an opera. And that was my first experience. And the world of opera terrified me.”
Guzman spent much of her career, she says, frightened her ignorance would be discovered. In fact, she is only now finishing her bachelor’s degree in music.
GUZMAN: “To have this natural gift and to be able to understand how to use it, it’s like I found the instruction manual to the power drill.”
These days, Guzman is a senior at Cal State studying orchestration – even as she’s on the board of the School of Music at the University of Southern California.
In West Dallas, Guzman doesn’t teach the students orchestration. She playfully demystifies some of opera. She teaches them basic Italian terms — forte for loud, piano for soft and bravi as the plural of bravo.
[in the background: Un bel di]
In opera, she says, telling a story is important. So she re-enacts Madame Butterfly by singing the famous aria, Un bel di, with the help of accompanist Mark Armstrong and 10 young volunteers. They stand on stage, holding up cardboard images that spell out the story as she sings.
The students, Guzman says, generally have not yet absorbed popular attitudes toward opera as elitist or incomprehensible. So they’ve taught her what to teach, what she can teach.
GUZMAN: “Once, a little boy just stood up in the middle of a 500-student assembly, just stood up in the middle of my song, And I said, sweetheart, can I help you? And he said, Will you teach me to sing like you? And I said, yes, yes, I can. And I made everybody stand up and I taught them that opera is an acoustic art form, we don’t use microphones. We sing over an orchestra. And they said, Over the violins? I said, Yes, what else? Over the drums? Yes. I hate drums, they’re so loud! Oh what else?
“And it became this amazing interactive experience. These kids knew what they didn’t know. So ultimately, I teach them to sing “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” – like opera singers.”
STUDENTS: [start softly under Guzman and build:]
“up above the world so high
like a diamond in the sky
[Guzman] TRIPLE FORTE!–
“TWINKLE TWINKLE LITTLE STAR
HOW I WONDER WHAT YOU ARE.”
[Guzman] -1-2-3, everybody bow!
Click on the image to see a video of Suzanna Guzman in performance as Marcellina (in gray) with Lyubov Petrova as Susanna (in pink) in Act 1 of the Dallas Opera’s The Marriage of Figaro:
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Dallas Opera photo by Karen Almond. Un bel di photo by Angela Elledge.