Let me tell you a story

Most opera singers come to the profession through fairly well defined pathways; music degree, post graduate degree or conservatory training, young artists program, and so on.  Occasionally one comes across someone with a very different background.  The English (well Scouse) mezzo Jennifer Johnston read law and practiced at the bar before becoming a professional singer.  Burkhard Fritz studied medicine before committing to singing.  Yesterday Mexican-American tenor Joshua Guerrero, in town to sing the Duke of Mantua, used his lunchtime recital in the RBA to tell us his story in words and music.

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The story starts with a high school kid in Las Vegas with little musical background other than listening to the sort of records that tend to be around Latino households.  He went to the Santa Lucia Seminary to study theology with a view to becoming Father Joshua.  He discovered the choir and joined it.  Somewhere along the line he didn’t become a priest but got a job at a newly opened casino as a singing gondolier!  By now, concert wise, we had heard accomplished accounts of Malavasi’s Romanza and a couple of gondolier songs complete with mimed poling.

At gondoliering he made such a stir that they made him a gondolier instructor in Macau. (Spoiler alert – He doesn’t become Ruler of the Queen’s Navee – at least not yet).  This gave him a couple of years to explore some different rep including jazz, Latin music and the Great American Songbook; represented yesterday by Jerome Kern’s The Way You Look Tonight.  On returning to the US, to his second home Los Angeles, he became a social worker moonlighting as a singer at weddings, events and the like.  He got talented spotted by someone from UCLA.

Despite much persuasion he wasn’t interested in going back to school but he did become involved enough around the edges of the UCLA voice program to attract some attention.  He auditioned for the young artists program which meant singing for “The Boss”.  Cunningly he auditioned with Domingo favourites!  He got in.  So now there’s this kid with, basically, next to no formal music training or experience of opera playing catch up with people with, typically, six years of post secondary training.  Yesterday, to demonstrate the different areas he had to move into, he sang three songs from Britten’s Winter Words.  Purists of the Aldeburgh school might argue that he was overly operatic but he does have a very big, operatic voice.  It also gave his pianist, Andrea Grant, a chance to show off her considerable talents.

In his third year he was invited to take part in Operalia and came second!  And with that came an agent (CAMI no less), professional work and the start of a career.  To demonstrate, and in homage to Domingo, he sang a blistering account of Torroba’s De Este Apacible Rincon de Madrid and followed up with Torna ai felici di from Puccini’s Le Villi.  It’s easy to see why he’s already singing the Duke and will back next season as Rodolfo.  He has a big, muscular, Italianate voice that invites comparisons with, say, Michael Fabiano.  It’s less than four years since his Operalia success and already he has sung with LA Opera, San Diego, ENO, Zürich and others and is booked for major roles in Glyndebourne and Houston.

Worth noting too that this guy is enormously engaging.  He’s funny and interesting to listen to even when he’s not singing.  And it’s always exciting to find someone who has had opera come to them rather than vice versa.  Sometimes, as they say “In Soviet opera the song sings you”.

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Photo credits: Kevin Lloyd

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