Considering Joshua Guerrero’s scant early musical education, it is not far-fetched to say that he became an operatic tenor almost by accident. At the age when most young singers are eagerly pursuing vocal majors at colleges and music conservatories, Guerrero was working as a gondolier in Las Vegas crooning for gamblers.
“It was my first professional gig,” he explained. “I gave my own little show two or three times an hour. At least I learned how important it was to entertain people with my voice.” And from Las Vegas casinos, Guerrero went to Macao, spending another couple of years training gondoliers there.
San Diego Opera will present Guerrero and soprano Ailyn Pérez in One Amazing Night, a concert slated for Wednesday, December 11, at the Balboa Theatre. So I took the opportunity to interview him by phone last week, even as he was recovering from jet lag returning from his successful run as Des Grieux in Frankfurt Opera’s production of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut. He happily filled me in on his transition from amateur gondolier singer to internationally coveted operatic tenor.
When Guerrero decided to take the opera plunge, he landed in Los Angeles and studied with noted Russian baritone Vladimir Chernov at U.C.L.A. In 2012 he was accepted into Los Angeles Opera’s Young Artist Program, where he was encouraged by the company’s General Director Placido Domingo.
In 2014, Domingo’s international Operalia, The World Competition, for young singers was held in Los Angeles, and Domingo urged Guerrero to enter. The annual competition typically attracts 800 to 1,000 entries, and a mere 40 singers are selected to compete in person. Former Operalia winners include current opera headliners such as Joseph Calleja, José Cura, Joyce DiDonato, Elizabeth Futral, Nina Stemme, and Erwin Schrott.
“I entered Operalia not expecting much, but Domingo said I was ready, so I entered not expecting to clear the first round,” Guerrero said. “I saw myself as just another Mexican tenor up against a lot of heavy-hitting tenors.”
Guerrero surprised himself and everyone else by taking second prize and winning the competition’s CulturArte Prize.
“This win was the tipping point for me,” said Guerrero. “Even more important than the prize money, I landed a great agent in Damion Bristow, who lined up lots of good work for me.”
One of his important roles came shortly after his Operalia win, singing Count Almaviva in Los Angeles Opera’s 2015 revival of John Corligiano’s grand opera The Ghosts of Versailles, headlined by soprano Patricia Racette and baritone Christopher Maltman. I heard Guerrero in that production and noted his confident, fresh tenor in that massive 24-member cast.
As Guerrero recalled the experience of singing in that production, it sounded like nothing less than a trial by fire.
“It was my first success immediately after Operalia, but it was scary for me, because I was called to jump in at the last moment when the originally contracted singer dropped out. I had to learn the part in five days, a difficult vocal part with all kinds of weird interval leaps. It was a huge juggling act for me, but doing it I proved a lot to myself, especially that I could work successfully under pressure. And I came to love the beautiful quartet at the end of the opera!”
Music critics loved Guerrero’s Des Grieux in the recent Frankfurt Opera production.
“Joshua Guerrero’s Des Grieux was the very definition of passion, pouring out vocal gold,” wrote Rick Perdian in the British Seen and Heard International online source.
In his review of the Frankfurt Opera Manon Lescaut, Jeremy Hirsch in Canada’s online Schmopera stated, “Guerrero’s best singing happens when he flips into his upper register. He opens his mouth and high notes seem to gush out. One feels like a child giddily holding his breath through a tunnel or floating above her seat on the first drop of a roller coaster. You don’t want the fun to end.”
“For a long time, I have felt that bel canto roles and Verdi are too structured,” Guerrero observed. “My temperament favors those highly dramatic spinto roles that follow a downward tragic curve such as Don José and Romeo. Maybe it is just my Latin blood that caters to that sort of desperation.”
We can expect plenty of drama in San Diego Opera’s One Amazing Night. Pérez and Guerrero appeared together in Santa Fe Opera’s 2016 production of Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette, and their San Diego program will include duets from that opera as well as from Puccini’s Madama Butterfly and Manon Lescaut.
San Diego Opera will present Ailyn Perez and Joshua Guerrero in One Amazing Night at 7:30 p.m. on December 11, 2019, in the Balboa Theatre in downtown San Diego as part of the company’s dētour Series.