One day, while walking down the corridor of the seminary where he was studying to become a priest, Joshua Guerrero heard a choir singing sacred music. It was John Rutter’s “The Lord Bless You and Keep You.” The song resonated with him deeply.
“I thought it was absolutely gorgeous and wanted to sing it,” he said.
Guerrero couldn’t read music and didn’t even know if he could sing, but he tried out for the choir and made it.
Although he later realized the seminary was not the right path for him, during his time there he had discovered a love of music that would set him on an unexpected trajectory in life.
Guerrero later found a job as a singing gondolier at the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas. He was soon training gondoliers at the hotel’s new property in Macao, China, where he saw his first full-length opera, “Rigoletto.”
He then returned to Los Angeles where he worked the club circuit, singing jazz and pop in nightclubs. Through a set of fateful encounters, Guerrero joined the Young Artists program at the LA Opera under the guidance of Plácido Domingo. Not long after, in 2014, he won second prize at Operalia, a renowned opera competition, which led to his first professional contracts.
The young tenor has since sung on many international opera stages, including in 2018 at the Canadian Opera Company (COC) in the role of the Duke in “Rigoletto.” He now returns to the COC in Puccini’s “La Bohème” as the lovestruck poet Rodolfo in the second cast of the production.
“I never ever thought I was going to be an opera singer,” said Guerrero, who was born in a simple Mexican-American family where he had never heard of the art form. “It wasn’t what I had planned on doing, but I have always been open to life and open to the signs, and luckily for me, it all worked out,” said the tenor, who believes his career was shaped by a combination of fate and hard work.
Love, Poverty, and Beautiful Music
“La Bohème” is one of the world’s most popular operas with thousands of performances since its premiere in Turin, Italy, in 1896. Composed by Giacomo Puccini with a libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, “La Bohème” tells the story of poor artists and their loves, friendships, and trials.
“These characters have really stood the test of time. They relate because they’re just everyday people struggling with everyday problems—with poverty, with paying the rent, with trying to get through [life],” said Guerrero.
The story follows Rodolfo, a young poet, and his love for the gentle flower-maker Mimì. Yet what starts out as a tender love story quickly turns to pain: Mimì is dying of consumption (tuberculosis) and Rodolfo is gripped by guilt that he is too poor to save her life. Alongside the young couple, we meet the painter Marcello and his lover, the fickle yet generous Musetta. They are joined by a few other equally poor but lively companions—young people sharing joys and challenges together.
“It’s a grand narrative of empathy and care … and it exceeds our fallibility—togetherness becomes their strength,” said Guerrero, adding that “La Bohème” is his favourite opera.
“It’s precious, it really is, and you couple that with some of the most beautiful music that’s ever been written. It’s a classic and it will forever be one of the greatest operas ever written.”
Puccini’s music endures because it has a powerful effect on audiences, he notes.
“With his genius, he was able to manipulate the music … knowing that it would completely play on the heartstrings of people. … It’s a melody that you can hum walking out [of the theatre]. It’s what we want,” he said.
In fact “La Bohème” features some of opera’s most beloved tunes. In the first act alone, we hear three such pieces: “Che gelida manina,” “Sì, mi chiamano Mimì,” and “O soave fanciulla.”
Guerrero’s favourite scenes however are actually in Act 3, in particular the pieces “Marcello. Finalmente!” (a duet between Marcello and Rodolfo) and “Donde lieta usci” (Mimì’s aria) in which the characters reveal their innermost vulnerability.
Opera in the Digital Age
For Guerrero, watching an opera, particularly the vibrant story of “La Bohème” with its love, loss, and camaraderie, is particularly important in today’s digital age.
“We’re all guilty, especially millennials, of shutting ourselves off and enjoying the safety of isolation, and we hide behind the screens and [social media], and some of us will never be willing to take the risk of experiencing that type of love portrayed in the opera.”
He believes seeing productions like “La Bohème” gives people an important opportunity to reflect on and perhaps question their own journeys.
“I think anything that gives us insight or allows us, even if just for a moment, to feel that human touch or the human connection … I think it causes some reflection. Because of the access to information and all the stories that are out there, I think sometimes we lose empathy … it’s all in a story in the palm of your hand, rather than dealing with it as an actual reality,” he said.
Guerrero hopes to encourage more people, especially young people—many of whom have never heard of opera—to experience a performance and perhaps be transformed by the power of music, just as he was.
“Anybody who has gone to an opera for the first time, that I’ve known, has always been changed by it and has always gone back for seconds and thirds. You just have to try it, and the second you hear a live orchestra and you hear these voices singing out without any aid from microphones and amplification, it really just brings the ‘wow’ factor in. A human body can do that? That’s incredible.”
The Canadian Opera Company’s production of “La Bohème,” runs until May 22 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto. For more information, visit: www.coc.ca