Q&A: Adriana González on her US debut, ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and the challenge of finding her voice
(Credit: Marine Cessat-Bégler)
Adriana González’s life changed in 2019.
The operatic soprano competed in the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition as one of 20 singers before heading to Operalia and winning first prize in the opera and zarzuela competitions.
Since then, her career has taken off at a breakneck pace, with the soprano appearing in leading roles with companies such as the Opéra National de Paris, Opéra de Dijon, Opéra de Toulon, Teatro de la Zarzuela, the Gran Teatre del Liceu and the Frankfurt Opera, among others. She also released her first solo album.
Incidentally, 2019 was also the year Gonzalez began studying the role of Juliet in Gounod’s iconic “Romeo and Juliet,” an opera that would be the vehicle for her American debut at Houston Grand Opera.
Gonzalez spoke to OperaWire about what it’s like to make it in the United States, debut the iconic role in the world’s most famous love story, find your voice and build a team to support your career.
OperaWire: How does it feel to finally make your US debut? What does it mean to you to do it in Houston? What does this company represent for you?
Adriana González: I am absolutely thrilled! Entering the American circuit is definitely a big step towards building an international career. I see 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 the Houston Grand Opera for being the first to open their doors to me and in a role such as Juliet. We had a wonderful time working on this opera and are delighted to present it.
OW: You play Juliette in Gounod’s masterpiece for the first time in your career. Who is she to you?
AG: For me, Juliette is a young, passionate, loving, little rebel. I find that Gounod’s character is very strong, especially during her second aria, the poisonous aria, where she shows the courage of her convictions. She also looks a lot like Shakespeare’s character, which was a great support. With our director, Tomer Zvulun, we wanted to portray her as a strong young woman who stands up for what she believes in and is not just a victim of fate. It 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 Juliet in the way she loves Romeo and her determination to be faithful to him and their love. I feel very lucky in my personal life to have a partner who is there for me and this whole journey has made me feel blessed to experience this great love.
OW: How do you approach a new role? What process do you undertake in learning and performing the role?
AG: As soon as I receive a job offer for a role, I take the score and I sing a little on it to see what it gives in my voice. I’ll check the range, the technical requirements and the way it’s written.
Then if I accept the role, I normally start working on it immediately, so for Juliette it was about three years ago in 2019. A role is like training for a marathon, so the more you you train, the better you will perform on race day. The same goes for opera. It’s very physical to sing and act, so you have to get used to it.
When I start studying a role, I usually study the history of opera, the composer, the historical social context, and the singers who created the roles. Then I start reading the score and the libretto, translating words that I may not recognize.
Once this process is complete, I will start to work technically on the music: sing all the melodic lines with the vowel “i”, check breathing, posture alignment and correct vowel formation. I know it sounds like Chinese, but it’s the most valuable (and time-consuming) part of the process.
Then, as a “finishing touch”, I will go through it with my singing teachers, my agent, my mentors and my coaches to develop interpretation, phrasing and character development.
OW: Do you listen to other recordings? If so, which artists do you think influenced you the most in this role and why? What makes these interpretations so special for you?
AG: I listen to recordings, especially for the orchestra. For “Romeo and Juliet”, I tried to find a recording with Alain Gaingal conducting, just for the phrasing. Then I found one with Ruth Ann Swenson and Plácido Domingo that I also really enjoyed.
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 before playing the role and what new discoveries did you make while developing and immersing yourself to become her?
AG: I knew about Shakespeare from my high school days, but of course I was a teenager and at the time, my young, immature self was thinking “why would you die for a guy…? “. Now I get it, hahaha…
With experience, age, reading and introspection, I found in her a very determined young woman who could potentially bring peace to a lifelong feud between two families and change the fate of many lives. . At first glance, one can be blinded by all the romance in the story, but when you think about how much the characters represent in society and with each other, the plot thickens.
OW: How did this production help you develop your understanding of the character?
AG: We talked a lot with Tomer Zvulun and Patrick Summers, our director and conductor. Both of their contributions provided such a rich foundation for our characters and their interactions, both dramatically and musically.
On the stage side, Tomer really helped me watch the development of Juliette and how strong she is from start to finish. Musically, Patrick was also very supportive of the development of Juliette’s youthfulness, playfulness and strength throughout the piece. He always encourages us to seek freedom in the structure that allows music to flow.
OW: Musically, this opera looks like a long duet. What are the particular challenges of singing this role and how was the collaboration with tenor Michael Spyres? How does it bring out the best in your musical interpretation?
AG: In an opera like Romeo and Juliet, you really want to have a partner that you click with in every way. That’s what I found in Michael from day one. He’s the perfect Romeo for my Juliet.
We had a lot of fun rehearsing and have a lot in common – both started out in choirs. Musically and vocally, we also have similar opinions, which makes our collaboration very natural. It’s easy with Michael because not only does he sing beautifully, he’s also a great listener. His kindness, openness, stability and pure generosity make him a wonderful stage partner who I feel very inspired and honored to work with.
OW: What is the most difficult moment in the opera, musically or dramatically (or both)? Do you have a favorite moment at the opera?
AG: My favorite moments are the choral parts of Romeo and Juliet. It’s hard to choose, but I have a weakness for backing vocals. Gounod was a master of choral composition, not least because of his religious upbringing, so you can expect beautiful harmonies and dramatic lifts when the choir is present.
The hardest part of Juliette for me is the great development she has vocally and dramatically. Juliette is a long role: at the beginning you want to be flexible and young, and at the end strong and determined. Finding the right balance at each stage is key.
The challenge is also to let your emotions guide you without breaking you. For example, the death scene turned out to be a very difficult moment for me. It has such an honest and loving energy, and the music is so beautiful that as soon as you think about the death of these two characters, it destroys you. But you still have to sing beautifully while dying, so that proves quite a challenge. You want the audience to cry, not yourself.
OW: Your career over the past few years has really taken off and you’re appearing at some of the biggest houses in the world. What have been the biggest 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 has been finding where my voice fit in those early years of study. At 21, I knew I was a complete lyric but I 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. During this time, I was also geared towards the top repertoire which was not comfortable, but I kept trying to fit into that slot, so it became an identity struggle. It wasn’t until I tried Micaëla’s tune at 24 that I felt I had found my voice. That tune encouraged me to sing the whole lyrical repertoire again, and then I knew what my voice was and from there it all kind of fell into place.
Knowing what your voice is, how to use it and take care of it is a big key to sustaining this career. I come from Guatemala where we don’t have a great tradition of opera, so I had to surround myself with people who knew a lot more than me. Today, I am still supported by my singing teachers, my agent, my mentors and my coaches who help me take care of 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.