Fort Worth Opera star’s pandemic-time career zooms from zero to Zorro
On stage and off, Zorro has swashbuckled into Gabriella Enriquez’s life when she's needed a hero the most.
The 25-year-old singer-actress-dancer stars as Ana Maria, the fearless and tortured love interest of the title character in Zorro, Hector Armienta's new opera being world-premiered by Fort Worth Opera this week.
Since Enriquez landed the role three years ago, real life during the pandemic has also involved some fearlessness and a bit of existential torture — a tale to which so many artists can relate.
"Ana Maria is prideful, she is not afraid to be courageous, she is passionate, she's loving, impulsive and impatient," Enriquez says, "and I think that I hold a lot of those qualities because both of us care so much."
From fortuitous to unfortunate
The Santa Fe, New Mexico native accidentally “auditioned” for Zorro during a 2018 Christmas party at the Santa Fe home of Fort Worth Opera artistic director Joe Illick.
“I showed up with my brother (also an opera singer) — he's the one who was invited," she says. "I saw a book of songs I sang at my recital the previous month, and (Illick) said, 'You want to sing them right now? I'll play for you.' I said sure. So I basically gave a little concert in his house for his guests. I thought it was just a fun moment. And then a couple months later, I get a phone call from him offering me the role."
That spring, FWO announced the world premiere of Zorro for its 2020 season, with Enriquez in the cast. She went on to graduate from Oklahoma City University, performed in shows in Houston and Wichita, then packed up her equity card and moved to New York in the fall.
But within months, COVID hit and shut down the entire performing arts industry. FWO canceled its whole 2020 season and eventually pushedZorro to 2022.
Even with a date “TBD,” Zorro remained the only engagement on Enriquez’s calendar.
“I actually booked the first national tour of Tootsie: The Musical; I was going to be in the ensemble covering the lead, and literally right after I found out, the shutdown happened," she says. "I had three other projects lined up besides that one and Zorro, and all of them canceled. Zorro was the only one that still held on."
Trying to make her mark
Pre-pandemic, Enriquez had settled into a New York life of multiple auditions per week while juggling two jobs — nannying and working at Lululemon.
"Going from college, that transition was really hard where 90 percent of your day in college was dedicated to my craft and 10 percent to survival," she says. "But now the opposite, living in New York, 90 percent of my energy was focused on survival and 10 percent was — I got to maybe practice that day, I got to go to an audition, I got to take a dance class or work on my website."
But the hard work was worth it, she says, to do what she loved and land some successes, such as a guest appearance on Law & Order: SVU.
Once the pandemic, shutdowns, and loss of work sank in, however, it made the young performer question her dreams.
“There have been moments where I'm like, 'Should I just stop? Is theater going to be obsolete? What importance does theater have?" she says. "Especially after the pandemic it's like, 'Am I an essential worker? What's going on?'"
Fueled by the motivation that artists like herself are "helping showcase humanity and what is going on inside of us," she says, she pushed herself to keep moving forward with the craft she'd always had such passion for — and that included learning her challenging role for Zorro.
On her way to Fort Worth, Enriquez stopped in Oklahoma City and studied the score with her former college voice teacher. While she’s "cross-trained" in both musical theater and opera (as well as acting and dance), Zorro is her first full-fledged professional opera. She realizes FWO took a chance on her, and she wanted to get everything from the diction to the vocalizations correct.
The music in Zorro is "Puccini-esque," she says, with Mexican folk and Spanish influences. It is sung in "Spanglish," with both English and Spanish translations projected for the audience.
There was a time when opera singers and music theater performers didn’t mix company — admittedly, Enriquez says, she thought she might have to choose one track or the other. But in 2022 — when artists need jobs and all art forms need relevance, those snobbish, siloed days are over. (Look at the success of genre-mixing Hamilton.)
"I value mastery, but I do believe that if you work hard at something you love and you care about, that you can do well," she says. "And I feel like I have been granted the opportunity to do just that. All I did was choose what I cared and I loved, and I was given a chance to do it by Joe (Illick), and I don't think I would have gotten this opportunity from anybody else. I know I wouldn't."
Fake it till you face it
Tales of Zorro — the sword-wielding hero who leaves behind the mark of the “Z” — have been around since the early 20th century. Yet Mexican-American composer Armienta's story (despite being set in the 1800s) is a bit more modernized, Enriquez says. Ana Maria, described as a champion of the poor, isn’t nearly as much of a damsel in distress as Zorro's love interests in some other iterations.
Damsel-in-distress or not, there are still some pivotal, passionate kissing scenes between Ana Maria and Zorro (tenor César Delgado). Kissing scenes being rehearsed in surgical masks (and not just the one Zorro famously wears to mask his identity).
As part of FWO’s strict COVID protocols for the cast and crew, face coverings are being worn throughout rehearsals, some of which last 12 hours a day and involve not just singing and acting, but dancing, sword-fighting, and physical interactions. (The performers will not wear masks during the show itself.)
“I haven't even seen some of these people's faces,” Enriquez says with a laugh. "For example, my Zorro, I've only seen his face a couple of times. And we're lovers and we kiss all the time. We're, like, faking it, you know? So when the show comes, I'm like, it'd better be good."
Each cast member also has his or her own rental car and hotel suite, and they don’t socialize outside of rehearsals. The entire opera is being put together in just over a week of rehearsals, Enriquez says. At night, she goes back to her hotel room and auditions online for future roles.
Despite the nontraditional (but necessary) constraints, Enriquez says she could not be more grateful for the "gift" of Zorro and the opportunity to learn so much, so soon in her professional career.
"What I find is because of the masks, we really look at each other and we really take each other in," she says. "And because we're all understanding of what a privilege it is to be able to put something like this on at these times, we're all a little more graceful towards each other."
'Zorro,' presented by Fort Worth Opera. January 26, 28, and 30 at Rose Marine Theater. Tickets, $50, at fwopera.org. Follow Gabriella Enriquez at gabriellaenriquez.com or Instagram: gabriella.oe.