Of tax returns and “Traviata”: Miami soprano Susana Diaz balances her day job with an opera career

By David Fleshler

Soprano Susana Diaz tackles the demanding role of Violetta in Verdi's "La Traviata" this week at Miami Lyric Opera.

It was a rainy Friday evening, and a rehearsal for the Miami Lyric Opera’s production of La Traviata was about to begin in a classroom at Barry University.

The singers portraying Alfredo, Gastone and other roles were there, dressed in street clothes and seated at student desks. The accompanist sat ready at an upright piano. But there was no sign of Susana Diaz, the Coral Gables soprano who was to sing Violetta. As the clock reached 7:04 p.m., Conductor Beverly Coulter looked up and said, “OK, let’s go ahead and begin.”

The door opened, and in walked Diaz, whose long auburn hair and prominent cheekbones make for a dramatic presence. Barely pausing for breath as the piano struck up the opening, she stood by a desk and sang Violetta’s first words, Flora, amici, as the upper-class courtesan welcomed guests to her party.

Her theatrical entrance was the result of pretty mundane circumstances. It had been a day of minor crises in her day job as an accountant. Her laptop had died, and an insurance company client had requested financial reports a month early. She disposed of these problems by 5 p.m., went home, dressed quickly and showed up ready for a run through of one of the most demanding roles of the soprano repertoire.

Balancing an operatic career with a job that still pays most of the bills has become more challenging for Diaz, as her singing life has become busier. Last summer she sang with five other soloists in a zarzuela concert at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall. In July she sang Musetta in Puccini’s La bohème with Miami Lyric. She made her debut with the Orlando Philharmonic last February as Frasquita in Carmen, sang a pops concert with the orchestra in March and will sing a “Mozart in Prague” concert in October. In June she made her Merkin Hall debut in a program co-sponsored by the New York Historical Society called “The Music of the Cuban Wars of Independence.” In July she made her Los Angeles debut with the Bilingual Foundation for the Arts.

In Uruguay recently to sing at Montevideo’s Teatro Solis, she suddenly received an urgent message to cut a check for a client. “I had taken care of everything, not anticipating this,” she said. “I take my laptop everywhere, and a lot of things are done electronically so it’s not an issue. As my career has taken off, especially in the past year, I’m finding it a little stressful.”

Raffaele Cardone, the Italian-born tenor who founded and leads Miami Lyric Opera, is a canny judge of voices. He chose Diaz first for the role of Adina in Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore, then Gilda in Rigoletto, Violetta for an amplified, outdoor performance of La Traviata, and last summer for Musetta.

Her voice, he said, is ideal for the Verdi, bel canto and similar roles that require both tonal lyricism and coloratura virtuosity. Among these, he said, are the leading roles of the operas of Bellini, Donizetti, Rossini and Massenet.

“I think she has a high-quality voice still in the growing process,” Cardone said. “I wanted her to get some more training. I’m having her build up slowly until she is in a major opera house. That is my intention for her. I tell her stay away from verismo. The verismo requires a heavier voice. I see her as a more bel canto.”

The opera company’s low budget forces it to use a smaller orchestra and plainer sets than Palm Beach Opera or Florida Grand Opera, but many fans value the productions for their generally high vocal quality and authentic interpretations. For singers, the lack of resources means no support from coaches or stage directors. But Diaz said this can be a strength, as it forces singers to look deeply into the roles themselves, leading to an intensity of focus that often bears fruit on stage.

“It’s a great company to work for,” Diaz said. “Because the resources are so few in terms of financial resources, you have to hone your skills, make your craft pretty much on your own. There’s no stage manager here. You’ve got to do your own research. I talk to people. I do research. There’s no coaching, so it’s your responsibility to find out all the nuances, the traditions.”

Miami Lyric’s productions take place at the Colony Theater in Miami Beach, an intimate setting that rewards subtle acting. “She’s a fantastic actress,” Cardone said. “She’s so perceptive as she goes to the role. She’s intelligent. To be a singer these days, you have to have culture and be intelligent.”

All these qualities were on display at the Barry University classroom, as in the first act when she showed patient amusement at Alfredo’s advances and spun effortless coloratura. In the gambling scene, as Alfredo and the Baron confront each other, her soaring cries of anguish were moments of great tonal beauty, with a searing edge of pain. And as Alfredo attempts to humiliate her in public, her expression was of a woman deeply hurt but unbroken.

“I identify so much with the role,” she said. “I find it so easy to connect with it emotionally. Vocally it just fits like a glove. I’ve been told my voice has a melancholic quality, with an edge. I think that fits Violetta because she’s a strong woman and yet at the same time there’s so much sadness.”

Diaz came late to opera. Her first musical memory was not promising. At age two or so, she accompanied her sister to a Suzuki violin lesson, where she saw magnets that looked like chocolate chips. She ate them. A few years later, she discovered she enjoyed singing and joined the Miami Choral Society. But doesn’t every member of the chorus dream of one day being a soloist? “I wasn’t interested,” she said. “I didn’t want to be an opera singer. I liked singing in the chorus more.”

Although she was spent the first years of her life in the Flushing neighborhood of eastern Queens, New York, she grew up in Coral Gables. Her father, Guarione Diaz, was prominent in the Cuban-American community as chief executive officer of the Cuban American National Council, a large social service organization.

She majored in biology at the University of Miami, planning to be a doctor. But she also started voice lessons with the late Lee Kjelson from whom, she said, “I learned how to serve the music through my voice, brain and heart.”

At choral camp her voice started to get attention. “Everyone was like, you should go to grad school.” So she did, earning a master’s degree from the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, where she is now completing her doctoral dissertation on the contemporary Cuban-American composer Aurelio de la Vega. She also went to Florida International University and earned a practical degree in accounting. “My mother’s an accountant, my mother’s father is an accountant,” she said. “I love math. I used to do tax returns for fun.”

In the long term, as she gets more engagements and continues to take voice lessons, Diaz hopes to sing in major houses. “I would like to see myself singing in Europe one day,” she said. “I’d like to sing major roles at major regional companies. I don’t care about fame, but I would like to sing with great orchestras and great companies, as a great musical experience.”

Manny Perez, the prominent Miami vocal coach whose students include Eglise Gutierrez, Elaine Alvarez and Elizabeth Caballero, said he met Diaz about seven years ago after hearing her sing Caro nome at Florida International University.

Perez, who is chief executive officer of Piano & Art Gallery, a large Coral Gables piano store, made her a deal. “He needed an accountant for his piano store, and I wanted to study voice again,” she said. “I was working as the accountant at his store and he was my voice teacher.”

Perez said she has the right voice for Violetta, whose difficulty lies in the varied lyric, coloratura and dramatic demands it makes on the singer. “I think Traviata is going to be her great role,” he said. “She has the ability to float the voice, to do the pianissimos, which is so hard, and to do the coloratura. And when it’s a role that’s melancholy, where the soprano is sad, she really does that well.”

“Apart from being this wonderful singer, she probably one of the nicest people you could ever meet,” Perez said. “There’s no diva about her. She’s just an overall nice person. She’s friendly to everyone, she does things for people, she helps people with their taxes.”

Miami Lyric Opera’s production of La Traviata takes place 8 p.m. Oct. 7 and 9 at the Colony Theater in Miami Beach. 305-674-1040; miamilyricopera.org.

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Sun Oct 3, 2010
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