Growing up in Lawrence, Raquel Gonzalez found an antidote to her shyness: Music.
“I got into music and studied flute in high school and joined a choir, which was a huge step for somebody who’s not a fan being the center of attention,” Gonzalez says. “Singing ended up being a very natural way for me as a shy person to express myself. It’s very cathartic, and, as an introvert, it’s the one very extroverted thing I do. It’s a great way to release and express.”
Music also led her to Juilliard. Now she’s back to sing the role of Tatyana in the Lyric Opera of Kansas City’s production of “Eugene Onegin,” which begins performances Sept. 30 at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.
The opera is based on Alexander Pushkin’s verse novel, a central work in Russian culture. Since “Eugene Onegin” was published as a serial between 1825 and 1832, it has made a mark on the Russian psyche like few other novels. Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky added his lyric genius to that of Pushkin to create an opera that transcends eras and nationalities.
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Pushkin named his novel after Eugene Onegin, a world-weary young aristocrat, but many Russians would say Tatyana, the shy young girl whose love is rejected by Onegin, is the real hero. After Tatyana, an introverted bookworm, writes an impassioned love letter to Onegin, she is crushed by his condescending rejection.
Gonzalez, who sees much of herself in Tatyana, was encouraged by her high school teacher, Vanessa Thomas, to pursue singing. Gonzalez earned both her undergraduate and master’s degrees from Juilliard, and in May she graduated from the Washington National Opera’s young artists program.
“I had a lot of amazing opportunities to sing performances of ‘Madama Butterfly’ and the countess in ‘The Marriage of Figaro,’ and Mimi and Donna Anna in ‘Don Giovanni’ while I was in school, but this is my first role since graduation,” she says. “And I’m really happy to be making my debut at the Lyric since it’s so close to home. It’s kind of a great homecoming.”
Gonzalez had the opportunity to sing the role of Tatyana when she was in the final year of her master’s program at Juilliard, where she was coached by none other than Renée Fleming.
“Even before I sang in ‘Eugene Onegin’ at Juilliard, I watched the DVD of the Metropolitan Opera production starring Renée Fleming and Dmitri Hvorostovsky,” Gonzalez says. “I would watch the final scene on repeat. I had been doing that for years before I got the first opportunity to sing the role. I’ve kind of been obsessed with the opera since I first heard it.”
While at Juilliard, Gonzalez was able to refine her characterization by studying Russian diction with renowned vocal teacher Gina Levinson. Levinson, who was born in Russia, would also explain the importance of “Eugene Onegin” to Russian culture and would tell Gonzalez how every Russian girl wants to be Tatyana when she grows. Levinson came to believe that Gonzalez would be a perfect Tatyana.
Tomer Zvulun, the director of the Lyric Opera’s production, agrees.
“This is the first time I’m working with Raquel, but I became a big fan of hers when I saw her in ‘La Boheme’ at the Glimmerglass Festival,” Zvulun says. “Just working with her this past week has been tremendous. She is a deep, intelligent artist with a phenomenal voice and great commitment. I just think she’s perfect.”
Zvulun is collaborating with set designer Erhard Rom and lighting designer Robert Wierzel on this brand new production and concept for “Onegin.” Although the Lyric is co-producing the opera with Hawaii Opera Theatre, Michigan Opera Theatre, the Atlanta Opera and Seattle Opera, the Lyric is building the sets.
Kansas City audiences will be the first to see this production, Zvulun says. And last year the Lyric built the sets for “The Marriage of Figaro,” which is now touring the country. “I think it’s a testament to the leadership in Kansas City,” he says.
Although it’s a traditional setting, Zvulun and his team are bringing 21st century insights into Tchaikovsky’s opera.
“It’s a traditional approach on the surface,” Zvulun says, “but the angle and approach we’re taking is highly psychological and really dives into the character development and the text, the original Pushkin novel. The most important angle for us is that we approach it as a wistful memory.
“Every one of the characters in the story made a choice in their life that led them to be in a certain existence that is not necessarily their ideal existence. By making certain choices, they blocked other possibilities.”
Gonzalez believes that this heartbreaking nostalgia and regret about choices not taken will resonate with the Lyric audience.
“The drama is so real,” she says. “It’s happening today. You can turn on the TV and see a slightly different version of these stories. It’s exactly what anybody has gone through. Falling in love and telling the person how you feel about them and them not reciprocating. It’s easy to empathize with these characters because we have all been there.”
7:30 p.m. Sept. 30, Oct. 4 and 6 and 2 p.m. Oct. 8. $35.50-$175.50. 816-471-7344 or kcopera.org.
You can reach Patrick Neas at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow his Facebook page, KC Arts Beat, at facebook.com/kcartsbeat.