Meet the Artist: Baritone Levi Hernandez
By Tamara Vallejos
It’s been nearly a decade since baritone Levi Hernandez last performed with Opera Colorado, but now he’s finally back to sing the role of Marcello, who in many ways acts as the glue that holds together the group of friends in La Bohème. And after just one performance, he’s already a hit: Hernandez “delivers the role with the right amount of forceful comedy and mild cynicism,” according to a new review in the Boulder Daily Camera. Today we check in with Hernandez and learn about what drew him to opera in the first place, his favorite part of the rehearsal process, and what he thinks about Marcello’s relationship with Musetta. If you didn’t catch Opening Night on Saturday, don’t worry! You still have four more chances to see Hernandez and the rest of this great cast, when the run of La Bohème continues with performances tonight and on Nov. 10, 12, and 15.
Let’s start at the beginning: how did you come to opera, and how did you decide to make a career of it?
I was obsessed with instruments and anything that made noise. As a kid, I gravitated toward any instrument that I wanted to learn. I drove my parents nuts. I started off with alto sax, then bari sax, French horn, tuba, and piano. My father tried to teach me guitar, but that wasn’t successful.
I was exposed to opera as a senior in high school, through my teacher, but I always sang, ever since I was a little kid in church choir and whatnot. I knew I wanted to go into music, but I wasn’t sure exactly how. In high school, my voice teacher said I should probably think about going to college and getting my music degree. So I went to Westminster Choir College to study music education and choral teaching, and they offered me a little more money to audition for their performance program. I did, and they said I should probably consider this. I found that being on the stage by myself was a different kind of high. Instead of being in the chorus, when you’re singing such incredible music with a group, I loved performing solo.
My first opera was Don Giovanni. I was an understudy for Masetto, which I never sung. But I went through everything. I was a part of props, costumes, etc., so I got to see how everything worked. I got to see the whole product, and that’s when I knew that this was really what I wanted to do.
One of the great things about opera is how many entry points there are. You can love the music, or the drama, or the literature, or any of a dozen other things. What about you? What is it about opera that really draws you in?
What attracts me to opera is being able to be somebody else. There is an aspect of what we do that is our own idea and what we put into it, how we develop the character and flesh it out, but it also has to be in harmony with what the composer and the librettist put together. Being able to explore those things as an individual, figure out how all that goes together and coincides with what was written, is great. The genius of Puccini is that he fleshed it out for us, it’s all there in the music.
What is your background with La Bohème and the role of Marcello?
The first time I was introduced to this opera was when we were listening to recordings in undergrad. I knew it was a beautiful piece, but it wasn’t until I got to graduate studies at AVA, the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia, when I was assigned Marcello and I got to do it. Since then, I realized I had been exposed to La Bohème throughout Moonstruck, for example. I went back and saw the movie after all these years and thought, “Oh my God! This is the whole thing!” You have those weird moments with this work. Ever since AVA, it’s been one of my favorites. I’ve had the pleasure of doing two different roles, Schaunard and Marcello. But what is there not to love about the piece? It’s an incredible piece.
What do you like most about playing Marcello?
I think the character has a wide palette of emotions that he gets to explore. Not only is he vulnerable, but he’s an artist. I think everyone can relate to him on some level. I love that he can go from zero to a hundred in a matter of seconds. His volatile relationship with Musetta is fantastic, and you get to experience that jealousy, that anger and that frustration. They have this fight-hard, love-hard aspect of their relationship. He goes through these emotions, as a character, in such a wide way. It’s incredible.
What does Marcello think about the characters around him? And what does he really think about Musetta?
I think the four guys are really good friends, but I think that he and Rodolfo are the closest. It’s their apartment, they are the ones responsible for it. I think that they all love life, they all live for the day and they don’t get bogged down with not being successful and making tons of money. They’re happy, and they’re making the best of what they have.
As far as his relationship with Musetta, I think we all have one of those friends who is totally like that. They are on-again, off-again, arguing in the corner of the bar, or outside in the snow arguing. Later on, they’re all lovey dovey on the couch or something.
What do you think happens to them after the curtain goes down in the opera? Do you have an idea?
You know, I think the death of Mimi snaps everybody into a reality that they hadn’t really thought about. In a sense, it’s time to grow up. I don’t think that he and Musetta live happily ever after. I think they decide to go their separate ways.
How about the rehearsal process? From start to finish, is there something that really gets you excited?
It’s really getting to know your colleagues, and sometimes it is a reunion of old friends coming together, and sometimes it is meeting new friends that you’ve always wanted to meet because you have so many mutual friends. This world is so small that—oddly enough, exactly like in La Bohème—you become instant family. You’re together for three or four weeks, and you get to learn about their kids, their family, their parents, their life, and where they live. Anya [Matanovic] has shown me pictures of her house in Vermont, and I’m just so jealous. I can’t wait to visit. Now we’re besties. I really think that’s my favorite part, that we get to know each other so well, and I think it’s important for this kind of situation because we’re trying to bring a real human aspect to what we’re playing. We have to be able to know one another, to be able to trust one another to be real and in the moment.
Stepping back from being in the production, what is your favorite thing about experiencing La Bohème as an audience member? Do you have a favorite act or moment?
I do have a couple of favorite moments. As an audience member, I love that scene in Act II, in Paris with all the vendors, people and children. Wow. It’s incredible to watch. One of my other favorite moments is between Rodolfo and Mimi where she says, “Are we alone? I was pretending to be asleep,” all so they could have that intimate moment. I’m getting all welled up, just thinking of it! It is one of those moments that they don’t realize is their last moment. It really gets to you.