Suzanna Guzmán leads ‘La Virgen de Guadalupe’ livestream
By Jana Monji

For the Emmy Award-winning star of a holiday tradition, Sierra Madre resident Suzanna Guzmán has found 2020 to be a year of transformations.

Fans can still see her in the city of Los Angeles’ largest theatrical holiday production—the Latino Theater Company’s annual production of “La Virgen de Guadalupe, Dios Inantzin.” An archival version is available to stream for free through December 20.

The mezzo soprano—who has appeared as a principal soloist at the Metropolitan and Washington National operas as well as the Los Angeles and San Diego operas—originated the titular role. Directed by José Luis Valenzuela and produced by the Latino Theater Company in association with the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, “La Virgen” has been performed annually since 2002, featuring more than 100 actors, singers and indigenous Aztec dancers as well as community children and seniors.

This year would have been her 18th year as La Virgen. “It has been absolutely the joy of my life. The cherished role for the village is the role of the angel at the Virgin’s feet. I have witnessed angels going to college now,” Guzmán said. Some locals have made attendance part of their holiday tradition, coming every year.

“La Virgen” is based on the mid-16th century text of “The Nican Mopohua,” the first and oldest source on Guadalupe. Our Lady of Guadalupe is the Catholic title for the Virgin Mary and, according to The Nican Mopohua, she appeared four times before a poor Nahua man, Juan Diego, and directed him to build a shrine that is known as the Nican Mopohua in the mountains of Tepeyac near Mexico City in 1531.

Evelina Fernández (“East Los High”) adapted the story for a stage production. Valenzuela and Fernández are among the founding members of the Latino Theater Company.

Speaking from her home in Sierra Madre via FaceTime, Guzmán recalled, “When we first started it was like cooking dinner without a recipe from your memory.”

Ten days before rehearsals started, Valenzuela dropped a verbal bomb. 

“He told me my first monologue was in Nahuatl, Aztec.”

She penned her lines phonetically.

“I had no idea what I was saying,” she said. “It was horrifying, plus I didn’t have the Spanish script. Spanish is not my first language; English is my first language.”

Valenzuela told her she could put the words in her hands because she was so far from the audience. 

“In dress rehearsal, it worked like a charm,” she said.

For the performance, the battery on the spotlight died.

“It got dimmer and dimmer and then blackout,” she said. “I got three sentences out before it was pitch black on me.”

There was the defective microphone during her second appearance.

“I start to sing, and my microphone battery gives out. The sound guy comes running down with a handheld singing-at-the-Ritz nightclub microphone.”

That was the excitement of live performances.

The pandemic restrictions caught her at the end of an Opera Santa Barbara production of “Il Postino.”

“We kept hearing, ‘They’re going to shut it down. They’re going to shut it down. They’re going to shut it down.’ We were so lucky. March 8 was our final performance,” she said.

Not so lucky was the opera program at the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts (LACHSA) where Guzmán serves as the co-opera director.

“Our spring production was supposed to be ‘West Side Story’ and we had a partner program we were doing called ‘Star-Crossed Lovers,’” she said.

The program included references to people as disparate as French composer Charles Gounod (“Roméo et Juliette”), Spanish playwright Federico García Lorca (“Blood Wedding”), American composer Leonard Bernstein (“West Side Story”) and British singer Des’ree (“Kissing You” from Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 “Romeo + Juliet”) and would have touched on teenage mental health and teenage suicide.

“We had our final room run and the principal said over the speaker, “his is our last day of in-person classes. We are going to shutdown, and everyone needs to go home.”

While Guzmán was optimistic, her students were upset.

“There were tears galore,” because, she explained, “the seniors all knew it meant: no prom, no graduation, no final performance.”

And the uncertainty continued. “Little by little, my contracts started postponing. I have a contract for April 2020. I’m doing the Mother Abbess in ‘The Sound of Music’ with La Mirada Civic Light Opera.”

She got notices that explained, “We are not gone; we are coming back July.”

That then became September.

“Just a month ago, we got a notice that said, ‘Do not despair. Things are looking really good for our one-year anniversary of waiting.’ All of her summer work traveling to festival and either performing or giving master classes were canceled. Then Saul Levine decided to reopen K-Mozart (105.1 KKGO-HD4 Los Angeles and digitally) and he asked Guzmán is she wanted to bring back her show, “The Best in Opera.” Guzmán and Nick Tyler (“The Arts Reports”) now share what is happening in the local arts community.

More difficult is finding a way for her LACHSA students to perform. She’s tried to devise ways for her kids to perform after being certified as a COVID-19 compliance officer. A snow globe concept was way over the school’s budget. Another idea using plexiglass boxes was also nixed. She did find a studio outdoor amphitheater and their performance will be part of the PBS holiday celebration on December 24. which she will host with Brian White.

“One song that we did, ended up being our fall production and it took all of our fall production budget.”

Still, Guzmán has noticed some creative ways others have addressed the pandemic. Esa-Pekka Salonen and Minna Lindgren (libretto) developed a comedic adaptation of Mozart’s “Cosi fan Tutte” as “COVID fan Tutte.” The Michigan Opera Theatre performed Wagner’s “Twilight Gods” in a multilevel parking lot using technology to combine the voices of the singers and the music of the orchestra so that it reached the audience members in their cars via an FM radio station.

Her recent Emmy Award was one of the positive things to come out of “such a surreal year.” Guzman has won many competitions for opera, but opera singers don’t generally win Tonys, Emmys or Academy Awards.”

At first, she thought she might only be receiving a certificate and she even missed the announcement for the Live Special Events-Programming for the Los Angeles Area Emmy Awards in June. There, after all, was no swirl of events and hustle to get red carpet ready. When she got her statue, she had no one to show it off to and got in her car.

“I went to my 99-year-old Aunt Martha who lives in Alhambra,” she said.

For a while, she was even taking it with her and leaving it in her car when she went for groceries.

“I look at this entire period as the phoenix period,” because the holidays will be less stressful, and she can find “such a joy to reconnect with my intimate family” while zooming in for others. Her wish is we continue trying to be responsible and safe. 

“La Virgen de Guadalupe, Dios Inantzin”
Streaming through 11:59 p.m. Sunday, December 20
The play is performed in English with Spanish subtitles