See the singer in five performances of “I Give You My Home,” June 3-5
Aliana de la Guardia effortlessly jumps from task to task in her sunny Haverhill studio office. Surrounded by bamboo plants, percussion instruments, and old records, de la Guardia starts her day by taking calls from her opera company’s ensemble. She proceeds to rehearse and develop future shows with composers over Zoom. Administrative work dominates her afternoon as venue bookings and grants must be attended to. Running a chamber opera during a pandemic is no easy feat.
Despite all the ongoing challenges she has faced, de la Guardia finds the positive in everything. When the pandemic disrupted Boston’s theater industry, the artistic director of the multidisciplinary artist-run troupe, Guerilla Opera, refused to panic. Instead, she chose to see the tumultuous pandemic period and related restrictions as an opportunity to experiment and push the art form’s boundaries.
Over the past two years, de la Guardia produced virtual and live work with a smaller ensemble, only one to three people in size. The Cuban-American performer-director embraced shorter interactive shows and rarely does a Guerilla production run over 90 minutes. “COVID was great for us in that it offered an opportunity to get into much more experimental work that delves into other genres of the performing arts, which we never had the chance to do,” says de la Guardia. “We recently did a piece with just poetry and no singing in it whatsoever. We did another that was mostly improvised and featured just the cello.”
In January, Guerilla Opera began its 15th-anniversary celebration with “Guerilla Underground,” a virtual speakeasy experience and performance series that explores the operatic in the form of monthly live streams. This season opened with Marti Epstein’s Rumpelstiltskin, an animated film reimagination of the classic fairy tale. De la Guardia hopes the series will push opera forward and expand its definition. “For us, it’s about examining the art form and taking it apart,” says de la Guardia.
The soprano and artistic director is currently working on “I Give You My Home,” an original, one-woman opera inspired by Boston-based landscape architect and peace activist Rose Standish Nichols. Directed by Cara Consilvio, the opera will focus on a modern woman who’s channeling Nichols’ spirit. There will be five performances performed over one weekend only on Friday, June 3 through Sunday, June 5, 2022 at the Nichols House Museum, her former family home. De la Guardia, who also stars in the project, says the live performances will be filmed for an upcoming film adaptation.
“We want to produce strange and bizarre work that can tour and be available to more people,” says de la Guardia.
Tickets can be purchased online from the Nichols House Museum. The first performance on Friday, June 3 will conclude with a special reception and toast to Guerilla Opera’s 15th Anniversary Season.
Despite not coming from a theater or opera family, de la Guardia began performing at a young age. The New Jersey-born director never considered a career outside of the performing arts. De la Guardia sang in choirs and played the violin and bass growing up. Her mother put her in preschool dance lessons where she would dress up and perform small numbers. In middle school, she starred in musicals like ”Hello, Dolly,” and ”Les Misérables.” Opera wasn’t on de la Guardia’s radar; choir and theater acting occupied most of her free time.
But everything changed when her high school course teacher Susan Porter encouraged her to try classical music. “My course teacher told me that I should take some singing lessons and try to develop my solo voice,” says de la Guardia. “That was mind-blowing to me. I didn’t know that you could take singing lessons the same way you could take violin lessons or anything like that.”
Through voice lessons, de La Guardia discovered that she could make an “extravagant, operatic sound.” Coming into her senior year, she knew opera was the best fit for her; it allowed her to simultaneously be an actor and classical singer.
In 2001, de la Guardia came to Boston to earn her bachelor’s and master of music degrees in vocal performance from the Boston Conservatory, which she says provided her with the most formative experiences of her life. The award-winning soprano learned how to navigate the industry and interact with artists. She also met composers who wrote music specifically for her. “It’s hard not to feel special when somebody writes something particularly for your voice and dramatic interpretations,” says de la Guardia.
Months after obtaining her masters, de la Guardia co-founded Guerilla Opera with a group of her Boston Conservatory classmates. Created in 2007, this artist-led ensemble company has accumulated a repertoire of 40 new works. Guerilla operates without a conductor, which she says is unusual and distinguishes them in the field of opera.
De la Guardia served as general manager for over a decade before being appointed sole artistic director in 2021. “We were a bunch of students just graduating, and we decided to stick together and become this experimental group; we wanted to shake up the industry,” says de la Guardia.
Over the past decade, de la Guardia has prioritized mentoring the next generation of artists. She has helped organize Guerilla’s professional development programs, which provide peer learning and hands-on group exercises for directors, conductors, and artists. She hopes these workshops will help artists be financially stable in the ever-changing opera industry. “Artists have been vulnerable for a very long time, not just during COVID,” says de la Guardia. “We’ve always been gig workers. There is no way for us to have health insurance except to have a day job.”
Guerilla Opera’s artistic associate, Magdalyn Chauby, doesn’t know where she’d be without de la Guardia. Chauby, hired in August, is a graduate student at the New England Conservatory and aspires to have a similar career to her boss. “I love the professors at the Conservatory, but it’s very different when you can interact every day with somebody who’s living a version of the career path that you would like to take someday,” says Chauby.
De la Guardia has pushed the Boston native to take risks and network. “The biggest piece of advice that she gave me was to focus on building relationships and maintaining connections, which I think is vital,” says Chauby.
The multi-talented de la Guardia finds joy in taking on a heavy workload. “For me, being involved in Guerilla opera was always a multi-hyphenate situation, where sometimes I’m the one that’s doing the marketing and the accounting,” says de la Guardia. “But when it’s rehearsal time, I have to switch my mindset and be in performer mode.”
Guerilla’s artistic projects & production manager Sarah Schneider admires de la Guardia’s direction and calmness in the most chaotic circumstances. Schneider calls her-hard nosed boss an artistic visionary. “She’s an interesting artistic director because she doesn’t come from a directing background,” says Schneider. “She is always looking to push the needle, whether that’s finding unique projects or hiring artists from diverse backgrounds that will make our work more interesting.”
De la Guardia is excited about Guerilla’s future projects. As of now, nine shows are currently in production, most of which can be seen in person at small, intimate venues.
“Next season, we will have a lot of productions because throughout the pandemic we have been writing and doing all of this prep work,” says de la Guardia. “So now, we’re just ready to explode with new experimental work.”