Hometown favorite Gutierrez to open opera season in “Traviata”

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Eleven years ago, a young woman arrived in Miami from Havana, and while singing in the Florida Grand Opera chorus for three years, became a sensation in the Cuban-American community where she was virtually adopted as a favorite singer of arias and zarzuela.

Eglise Gutierrez returns to Miami Saturday night, not as chorister or mere local favorite, but as a supremely talented artist on the brink of a major international career. The soprano is making her belated local opera debut as Violetta in FGO’s season-opening production of Verdi’s La Traviata, which runs through Dec. 6.

The afternoon after election day — one of those improbably perfect November Miami days of 74 degrees with a light breeze and no evidence of summer’s soul-crushing humidity –  was not a working day for the singer. But the petite Cuban soprano was at the Ziff Ballet Opera House patiently posing for photographs. In the sun-dappled lobby, a natural with her striking features, sensitive eyes, and hourglass figure.  Later, she walks across the street for a light lunch to talk about her career and the challenging role of the doomed courtesan Violetta, a part she is sharing in these double-cast performances with Ailyn Perez.

While personally unpretentious, Gutierrez takes her art and profession very seriously and does not suffer fools gladly. She is quick to go off the record with an anecdote or withering, very funny aside about the compromises faced in opera, the most collaborative of art forms.

Violetta is famously considered the most difficult of all soprano roles in the regular repertoire, requiring bel canto flexibility, an assured top range, and the acting ability to encompass the dramatic peaks, not least Violetta’s searing death scene.

“It’s a very challenging role in every way,” says Gutierrez over lunch. “It’s so beautiful, so classic.”

“For the first act, you have to have the coloratura in your voice, the trills, the high notes. Then the second act is very dramatic. The whole opera is definitely a challenge for me.”

These Miami performances were to be Gutrierrez’s debut in the role. But this summer when this new co-production was set to premiere in Cincinnati, Hei-Kyung Hong suddenly fell ill, and Gutierrez was tapped to sing her first Violetta five months earlier than expected. She learned the role in just three weeks and, judging by the adulatory reviews, earned a triumph.

“A star is born,” enthused one critic, while Opera News wrote that “It was impossible to believe these were Gutierrez’s first Violettas,” calling it “a radiantly assured performance that many a more seasoned soprano would envy.” Gutierrez seems to earn similar reviews nearly everywhere she sings—including a rave from the usually taciturn Bernard Holland in The New York Times for her Lakme, a role had great success with in New York and at Sarasota Opera.

The singer has primarily staked her claim in the bel canto repertoire, which fits her gleaming top notes and high, flexible voice like a well-tailored glove. She feels fortunate to sing such challenging coloratura roles like Lucia and Amina before coming to Violetta, since they helped to pave the way vocally.  “I’ve been singing all these roles before Traviata,” she says. “But Traviata is early Verdi and bel canto. People say, ‘Oh Traviata, be careful!’ But for Lucia and Sonnambula you need a dramatic voice also.”

The hardest challenge for such an expressive artist is keeping the volatile drama and emotion of Violetta’s dire situation in a dexterous balance so as not to overwhelm the quality of the singing. “The difficult thing is when you get lost between the emotion and vocalism. Because this role is extremely emotional. I love the role so much! So you have to find the balance between using your voice and your technique.”

Conductor Elaine Rinaldi was not impressed the first time she heard Gutierrez. In her former post as FGO chorusmaster, Rinaldi passed on the soprano initially, largely because Gutierrez was singing the wrong repertoire, music from heavier dramatic roles like Mimi. But following prolonged work with Miami voice teacher Manny Perez, Rinaldi heard Gutierrez’s dazzling coloratura, and was “totally blown away.”

Even as an FGO chorus member, Gutierrez possessed impressive confidence and “a true sense of artistry,” says Rinaldi. “She always had a special sense of what she was singing. She has that real something that when she sings you just have to listen.”

Rinaldi says that she’s also impressed by the soprano’s holistic view of opera as an art form. “For her, acting and singing are not separate. The music and the drama are the same thing. That’s why she’s so riveting on stage.”

Eglise Gutierrez was born in Holguin, Cuba, and attended the National School of Arts in Havana, first playing classical guitar before changing her major to voice. She left the island for Miami in 1997, and, as she said, “My life changed completely. I met so many wonderful people, that when they heard me, they believed in my talent.”  Foremost among them was Perez, her teacher and mentor for the three years she lived in Miami. “Most importantly he encouraged me to concentrate on bel canto repertoire.”

“She had this dusky tone then and people thought I was giving her bad advice,” recalls Perez, who has also been the teacher of other acclaimed Miami sopranos like Elaine Alvarez and Elizabeth Caballero. “But I told her you are a true bel canto coloratura soprano and those are the roles you have to sing.”

Perez was instrumental in encouraging Gutierrez to attend the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia a small but highly elite school, where she honed her artistry, while often returning to Miami to sing concerts and zarzuela here.

Gutierrez has many favorite singers, but, for her, Maria Callas –the most celebrated of all Violettas — remains the greatest of all time. “She had such a huge, huge genius and a huge heart. Plus she worked so hard, and she had the best conductors, the best coaches.

“I just fell in love with her voice the first time I heard it,” she adds. “I don’t care about one wobble on one little note. The color of her voice I love, she has the perfect trills, scales, pianissimo. When she sings bel canto, she has everything.”

Gutierrez plans to stay centered in the Italian bel canto and French repertoire, recently turning down yet another invitation to sing Mimi. Future engagements include Elvira in I Puritani in Madrid opposite Juan Diego Florez, Violetta in Seattle, Donizetti’s Linda da Chamounix at Covent Garden in London and many Gildas around the world.

Massenet’s Manon is a role she definitely wants to learn, as well as Ophelia in Thomas’s Hamlet.  “I would love to do Ophelia. There’s so many French roles I would love to do and Handel. I think Handel fits my voice.”

This homecoming is a heart-warming one for the singer, an artist with such overwhelming popularity among Miami’s Cuban audiences that in more than one local concert appearance she received a thunderous and prolonged standing ovation upon her entrance.

While she appreciates the unconstrained hometown enthusiasm, Gutierrez prefers to be judged on her hard work and the artistry of her performance.

“I don’t want to get a standing ovation because of who I am or because they’re my friends,” she says. “I want to get a standing ovation when I deserve it because I sing well.

“I try always to do my best and give everything on the stage. For me that’s very important. When it comes from the heart it’s always best.”

 Florida Grand Opera’s production of Verdi’s La Traviata opens Saturday at the Adrienne Arsht Center’s Ziff Ballet Opera House in Miami and runs through Nov. 25 with two performances at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale Dec. 4 and 6. Eglise Gutierrez and Stephen Costello star as Violetta and Alfredo Nov. 15, 21 and 23 and Dec. 6 with Ailyn Perez and Leonardo Capalbo singing Nov. 19, 22, 25 and Dec. 4. $10-$250; 800-741-1010;; www.fgo.org.

[Photo: Philip Groshong for Cincinnati Opera.]

Posted in Articles, interview


One Response to “Hometown favorite Gutierrez to open opera season in “Traviata””

  1. Posted Jun 13, 2009 at 9:33 am by Karen Preston

    I saw and experienced the phenomenal voice of Ms Gutierrez last evening while attending the Andrea Bocelli Incanto Concert, and I was astounded by her performance!! When you first see her walk onstage, you think like I did, that she was just another young performer given an opportunity to sing w/Bocelli. Well……that soon evaporated when I heard her solo. She absolutely will take your breath away, with her amazing voice and presence. Maria Callas is my favorite Opera Soprano, and Ms Gutierrez is on her way to be the new star that will be the one that people can honestly say is more talented than Callas…..and at so young an age and so early in her career….BRAVO!!!!

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