Q & A: Adriana González on her U.S. Debut, Taking ‘Roméo et Juliette’ & the Challenge of Finding Her VoiceBy David Salazar
(Credit: Marine Cessat-Bégler)
Adriana González’s life changed in 2019.
The lyric soprano competed in the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition as one of 20 singers before heading over to Operalia and taking home first prize in both the opera and zarzuela competitions.
Since then, her career has taken off in rapid succession with the soprano appearing in leading roles with such companies as the Opéra National de Paris, Opéra de Dijon, Opéra de Toulon, Teatro de la Zarzuela, Gran Teatre del Liceu, and Oper Frankfurt, among others. She also released her first solo album.
Incidentally, 2019 was also the year that Gonzalez started studying the role of Juliette in Gounod’s iconic “Roméo et Juliette,” an opera that will be the vehicle for her U.S. debut at the Houston Grand Opera (she also presented an aria from this very opera in her Operalia winning performance).
Gonzalez spoke to OperaWire about what it feels like to make it in the USA, debut the iconic role in the world’s most famous love story, finding her voice, and building a team to sustain her career.
OperaWire: What does it feel like to finally make your U.S. debut? What does it mean to you to do it in Houston? What does that company mean to you?
Adriana González: I am absolutely thrilled! To step into the US circuit is definitely a big step towards building an international career. I take this as a big responsibility, but also as a sign that the hard work is being done in the right direction.
I am very grateful to Houston Grand Opera for being the first to open their doors to me and in such a role as Juliette. We have had a wonderful time working on this opera and we’re excited to present it.
OW: You will be taking on the role of Juliette in Gounod’s masterpiece for the first time in your career. Who is she to you?
AG: To me Juliette is a young, passionate, loving, little rebel. I find that Gounod’s character is very strong, especially during her second aria, the poison aria, where she shows the courage of her convictions. She is also very similar to Shakespeare’s character, so that has been a wonderful support. With our staging director, Tomer Zvulun, we have wanted to portray her as a strong young woman who stands for what she believes in and is not just the victim of destiny. This is one of the most beautiful love stories in history.
OW: How is she similar or different from Adriana?
AG: Personally, I find myself close to Juliette in the way she loves Romeo and her determination in being loyal to him and their love. I feel very lucky in my personal life to have a partner that is there for me and this whole journey has made me feel blessed to experience that great love.
OW: How do you approach a new role? What process do you undertake in learning and interpreting the role?
AG: As soon as I get a job proposition for a role, I take the score and sing a bit through it to see how it feels in my voice. I will check the tessitura, the technical demands and the way it’s written.
Then if I accept the role, I normally start working on it immediately, so for Juliette that was about three years ago in 2019. A role is like training for a marathon, so the more training you get, the better you will perform on the day of the race. The same goes for opera. It is very physical singing and acting so you have to get your body used to that.
When I start studying a role I will usually investigate the history of the opera, the composer, the historic social context and which singers created the roles. Then I get to reading the score and the libretto, translating words I may not recognize.
Once that process is done, I will start working on the music technically: singing all melodic lines with the “i” vowel, checking the breath, posture alignment and correct vowel formation. I know it sounds like Chinese but this is the most valuable (and longest) part of the process.
Then as a “finishing touch” I will go through it with my singing teachers, agent, mentors and coaches to expand on interpretation, phrasing and character development.
OW: Do you listen to other recordings? If so, which artists do you feel have influenced you most in this role and why? What makes those interpretations so special for you?
AG: I do listen to recordings, especially for the orchestra. For “Romeo and Juliet” I tried to find a recording with Alain Gaingal conducting, just for phrasing. Then I found one with Ruth Ann Swenson and Plácido Domingo which I also enjoyed very much.
OW: The character is iconic, not only because of the opera itself, but especially because of Shakespeare’s play. What did you understand about Juliette prior to interpreting the role and what new discoveries did you make as you developed and immersed yourself in becoming her?
AG: I knew about Shakespeare from my high school days, but of course I was a teenager and back then, my young, immature self thought “why would you die for a guy…?”. Now I get it, hahaha…
With experience, age, reading, and introspection I have found her a very determined young woman that could potentially bring peace to a lifelong quarrel between two families and change the fate of many lives. At first sight, we can get blind sighted by the whole romance of the story, but when you think about everything the characters represent in society and to each other, then the plot thickens.
OW: How has this production helped you develop your understanding of the character?
AG: We have discussed a lot with Tomer Zvulun and Patrick Summers, our staging director and conductor. Both of their inputs have made such a rich base for our characters and their interactions, both dramatically and musically.
On the scenic side, Tomer has really helped me look at the development of Juliette and how strong she is from start to finish. On the musical side, Patrick has also been very supportive in developing Juliette’s youth, playfulness, and strength throughout the piece. He always encourages us to look for freedom within the structure which allows for the music to flow.
OW: Musically, this opera is like one long duet. What are the particular challenges of singing this role and what has it been like to collaborate with tenor Michael Spyres? How does he bring out the best in your musical interpretation?
AG: In an opera such as Romeo and Juliet, you really want to have a partner you click with in every way. That is what I have found in Michael from day one. He is the perfect Romeo to my Juliet.
We have had a lot of fun rehearsing and have quite a lot in common – both started out at choirs. Musically and vocally we also have similar opinions, so that makes our collaboration very natural. It is easy with Michael because not only does he sing amazingly, but he’s also a great listener. His kindness, openness, stability, and pure generosity make him a wonderful stage partner with whom I feel very inspired and honored to work with.
OW: What is the most challenging moment in the opera musically or dramatically (or both)? Do you have a favorite moment in the opera?
AG: My favorite moments are the choral parts in Romeo and Juliet. It’s hard to choose, but I have a weakness for choirs. Gounod was a master at choral composition, especially because of his religious education, so you can expect some beautiful harmonies and dramatic buildups when the choir is present.
The most challenging part of Juliette for me is the big development she has vocally and dramatically. Juliette is a long role: At the beginning, you want to be flexible and youthful, and at the end strong and determined. Finding the right balance at every step is key.
The challenge is also allowing your emotions to guide you without breaking you. For example, the death scene has proven to be a very difficult moment for me. It has such an honest, loving energy, and the music is so beautiful that as soon as you think of these two characters dying, it destroys you. But you still have to sing beautifully as you die, so it proves quite a challenge. You want the public to cry, not yourself.
OW: Your career over the last few years has truly taken off and you are appearing at some of the greatest houses in the world. What have been the greatest challenges you have overcome so far in your career? And for you, what is the key to sustaining this career?
AG: The biggest challenge so far was finding where my voice fit in those first years of study. At 21, I knew I was a full lyric but didn’t know where to start. The repertoire was too heavy for my vocal development at the time so I had to wait a bit and be patient. Meanwhile, I was also oriented to sing the higher repertoire which wasn’t comfortable, but I kept trying to fit into that box, so that became a struggle of identity. It wasn’t until I tried Micaëla’s aria at the age of 24 that I felt I had found my voice. That aria encouraged me to sing the full lyric repertoire again and then I knew what my voice is and from there everything sort of fell into place.
Knowing what your voice is, how to use and care for it is a big key to sustaining this career. I came from Guatemala where we don’t have a big opera tradition, so I had to surround myself with people that knew a lot more than I did. Today, I am always supported by my singing teachers, agent, mentors, and coaches who help me care for my voice and encourage its development in a healthy way.
Once you have your team, it’s up to you to do the work and focus.