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The Coachella Valley has an appetite for art and culture, clearly evident from the impressive calendar of events reaching from Palm Springs to Indio. Institutions such as the McCallum Theatre, the Palm Springs Art Museum and Annenberg Theater, and a handful of high-caliber community stages point to our need to immerse ourselves in the arts. Organizations exist that are dedicated solely to cultural propagation.
The newly created OperaArts is one such entity devoted to bestowing the artistic experience on an eager community. And it all kicks into high gear this spring, with three events designed to stimulate a culture-hungry public.
The anchor of these springtime additions will take place on April 11, when OperaArts presents the Festival of Opera and Art at Palm Desert’s Civic Center Park, free and open to the public. In addition to fine art exhibits, excellent food and vendors, OperaArts will be bringing to the main stage an amazing roster of talent from the opera, operetta and musical theater worlds.
Maestro Gualtiero Negrini will be conducting a top-tier orchestra with a stellar lineup of talent, featuring sopranos Shana Blake Hill and Rachel Eskanazi-Gold, mezzo-soprano Cynthia Jansen, tenor Christopher Campbell and baritone Roberto Perlas Gomez.
We had a chance to glean a little more insight into the life of an opera star during a frank discussion with Roberto Perlas Gomez, a baritone with more than 80 roles to his credit.
When did you know you wanted to be an opera singer?
ROBERTO PERLAS GOMEZ: At the age of seventeen I had a bit of an epiphany... On a lazy Sunday afternoon in Elyria, Ohio in my senior year of high school, I was taking a nap after a typical family day and was half awakened by some of the most beautiful music I had heard to that point in my life. Walking to the source of the music, I stood in front of a small television with my dad and listened until the piece that had begun in my stupor had finished. Then I went back to sleep.
When I fully awoke from my nap, I asked my father what it was that we had listened to and he told me that it was Luciano Pavarotti singing ‘cielo e mar’ from La Gioconda. For the next several years, I would spend many hours a day listening to every opera and singer that I could get a hold of on LP; I had fallen in love with this most unique art form at a relatively young age.
The following year as a physics major at Case Western Reserve, I knew in my heart that I would not be happy unless I pursued opera to the best of my ability, and after a failed year of trying to double major, I decided to give opera my best shot.
This has led to a career that has lasted over 20 years, over 80 operatic roles, leading roles in numerous regional companies and contracts with over half a dozen international opera companies, not to mention many premieres of original operas. I doubt I’ll ever have the fame of international opera celebrities, but my career has certainly been personally significant.
Do you also perform in other genres, such as Broadway or contemporary?
I perform Broadway songs to fill out a program or a concert. I do sing a lot of contemporary music, however. As the principal cantor for a rather large Catholic congregation in Newport Beach, I will typically sing four to six services on any given weekend and will do anything, between pre-renaissance chant to Christian rock. I’ve even been known to play a little rhythm guitar.
To what do you attribute the resurgence in opera, particularly among American youth?
Opera companies in the U.S. have been incredible at educating future audiences with student matinees, student dress rehearsals and opera in schools. These companies feel that they are responsible for their own future and are taking active steps toward guaranteeing future interest.
Grade school and high school education in the States cannot be expected to give young students the same emphasis on opera that, say, the same educational systems in European countries can. Let’s face it, it’s not as much a part of our American tradition as it is in Europe; our tradition is the American musical. So opera companies make up the gap. Also, the popularity of opera has to be attributed largely to the use of operatic music in media: television, movies and advertising. At a young age, I remember hearing opera in Bugs Bunny cartoons and commercials.
Furthermore, in my generation, Pavarotti and Domingo were instrumental in making opera mainstream, and their influence cannot be overstated.
Where would you like to be in five years, both personally and professionally?
I am a very blessed person and feel that I am in the best place right now that I have ever been. With the exception of when I was going through my first and hopefully only divorce, I’ve always felt this way at any point in my life.
In five years, if I continue to have the work that I have right now, albeit with some more substantial international contracts, I would consider myself a truly fortunate man who would have had experiences with which few people could ever identify. As it stands now, I’ve already had a significant body of operatic work which few professional singers will ever have.
The same goes for my personal life. I have been in a relationship with a wonderful woman for over eight years.
Have you performed here in the desert before?If so, what was the experience like. If not, what are you expecting?
Just this past year, I have performed in several opera events [Annenberg Theater and Marrakesh Country Club in Palm Desert] supported by OperaArts.
The audiences here are very knowledgeable and enthusiastic about opera and for a relatively small region, support the arts very well. As with all things, opera could always use more support, and it would be great to see full productions being mounted at the Annenberg, but from a performer’s perspective, I have not felt the lack of any support. Rather, I have experienced a huge interest in getting more opera out to the area.
Still, it would be a lot of fun to do a Barber of Seville or a Rigoletto at the theater.
Describe the differences in performing a current opera, such as Nixon in China by an American composer, compared to more classical works, like Puccini or Verdi?
The more traditional works have the advantage of being familiar to an audience and to a singer since portions of these works are part of our media as I previously mentioned. This really helps, especially in this age of supertitles, for the audience to know what is going on in a piece.
This allows the audience and performer to sit back, absorb and enjoy the performance of a work.
Contemporary works can be challenging to listen to for the unseasoned opera-goer. The harmonic language is often so unfamiliar that it can border on being strange for the uninitiated and difficult for the performer to execute. Also, the rhythmic component of many contemporary works is far more complex. Nixon has the added challenge of a libretto that is far from being a simple narrative. The parody and metaphor in the story give the work an added depth, but this can be another challenging element for the novice opera-goer.
Yet, understanding and performing such a work can be fulfilling on a profound level that simpler stories cannot convey. I have many memories of awakening to music from many contemporary operas, Nixon in particular. The music will often draw me back to my experiences in Verona, Italy where I performed this opera for the first time.
The music can be haunting.
What role are you playing in Nixon in China?
I portray the Chinese premiere, Chou en-lai. He is a fascinating historical character: the diplomatic face of the People’s Republic and, along with Chairman Mao tse-tung, one of the principal leaders of the bloody Communist Revolution.
In the opera, he also ends up being the moral conscience. There is constant self-examination in the text of his character as well as allusions to his personal deeds as viewed through historical perspective.
You recently made your European and Italian debut. How do American and European audiences differ?
Opera is a European tradition. Americans will never really know what it means to grow up with operatic music the way Europeans do; it’s not part of our culture. Our government doesn’t allocate financial resources to it in the same way European countries do.
Therefore, as a generality and because of their familiarity with the works, Europeans have certain personal expectations of what they want to see, or not see, in their productions. For example, someone from Northern Italy may be expecting to hear a traditional Verdi opera and might be disappointed to watch an updated version of Ballo in Maschera taking place in a modern day South American country, while a season ticket holder in Berlin who has watched the same production of a Richard Strauss opera might be expecting a new take on Salome.
By contrast, here in the States, as a generality, we want to see traditional versions and stagings of opera, just so that we can understand what the whole thing is about, and we are usually deeply moved by the complexity of the drama that unfolds in front of us, often for the first time. That initial experience can turn the curious opera-goer into a lifetime fanatic, as I can personally attest.
What role do you covet—your dream role?
I have performed every role that is significant for my voice type.
My favorite and most often performed is Figaro in the Barber of Seville, which I have sung in about ten productions with regional companies throughout the States, with an emphasis on West Coast opera companies, but I have also sung many leading Verdi, Puccini and Mozart roles.
If I were to be able to sing these roles regularly (as opposed to occasionally) in larger houses, such as the Met, I would consider my career truly exceptional, surpassing what I already consider personally successful.
Who were your inspirations or role models growing up?
Aside from Pavarotti and Domingo, my favorite singer is the great Swedish tenor, Nicolai Gedda. Of the three, the one I listened to the most was Gedda, whose artistry is unsurpassed. The nuance of his singing is something that can move me on a daily basis.
I’m sure to get some objection to this, but I feel that opera is the most complete of all live art forms. Aside from extremely technically sophisticated singing, it contains great drama and theater often with elaborate sets and costumes, dancing in the form of ballet, and live orchestra.
For the casual observer, it contains great interest; for the seasoned observer, it contains a lifetime of reflection and internal experience.
If You Go— Festival of Opera and Art, Sunday, April 11 from noon to 5 pm at Palm Desert Civic Center Park, Main Stage area. Free to the public. For more information visit operaarts.org