Now, get ready for mariachi opera.
Two musical traditions with wide followings will come together April 7 when Lyric Opera will present the Midwest premiere of “Cruzar la Cara de la Luna” (“To Cross the Face of the Moon”), at the Civic Opera House, the company announced Monday. The celebrated, 13-piece mariachi ensemble Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlan will share the stage with the cast of the original Houston Grand Opera production of 2010.
Lyric's new undertaking follows recent initiatives by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to bridge the downtown world of high culture and the rich and diverse culture of the city's large Mexican and Latino population — the fifth largest in the nation, according to the 2010 U.S. census.
“To Cross the Face of the Moon,” with music by Jose “Pepe” Martinez, a composer and arranger and the longtime music director of Mariachi Vargas, and book and lyrics by the Tony Award-winning Broadway director Leonard Foglia (“Master Class,” “On Golden Pond”), will be the first Spanish-language work to be presented by Lyric in its 58-year history. The performance will be semi-staged, with costumes and props.
Lyric revealed its plans at a bilingual news conference Monday afternoon at the National Museum of Mexican Art in the city's Pilsen neighborhood. Among those taking part, along with Lyric General Director Anthony Freud, were mezzo-soprano Cecilia Duarte, who created the central role of Renata for the world premiere; Carlos Tortolero, the museum's founder and president; and Beatriz Margain, cultural attache for the Consulate General of Mexico.
The mariachi opera was commissioned by Houston Grand Opera during Freud's tenure there as general director. Its world-premiere performances in Houston in November 2010 marked the 200th anniversary of Mexican independence and the 150th anniversary of the Mexican Revolution. So successful were the shows that the management of the Theatre du Chatelet in Paris brought the Houston production over to France the following year.
It represents the most ambitious segment to date of Lyric Unlimited, a new program of expanded community engagement and artistic initiatives exploring ways in which opera can resonate with people with little or no prior interest in opera, and communities where Lyric has not had a presence.
A total of five performances are planned. Following the April performance in downtown Chicago, the Lyric production will travel to Benito Juarez Community Academy in Pilsen, and to Genesee Theatre in Waukegan. Mariachi Aztlan from the University of Texas Pan-American will take part in those run-out performances. Dates are to be announced.
“We are going to use (the work) to bring people into the Opera House for the first time, as well as, I hope, attract some of our regular operagoers,” said Freud.
Sung in Spanish and English, with surtitles, “To Cross the Face of the Moon” chronicles three generations of the Velasquez family as they confront questions of national and personal identity, divided across different cultures and countries. As long-buried secrets are revealed, characters reach a new understanding of what makes a family.
The eight-member, multiracial cast represents a mix of classically trained and mariachi singers. Heading the roster, along with Duarte, will be baritone Octavio Moreno as the family patriarch, Laurentino; and baritone Brian Shircliffe as his American-born son, Mark.
Mariachi Vargas adheres to the classic mariachi components — six violins, three trumpets, one guitar, one guittaron(bass guitar), vihuela(soprano guitar) and harp — with all players wearing traditional costumes. Several musicians also will sing in the production.
Freud got the idea of melding mariachi and opera after hearing Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlan perform at the Wortham Center, home of the Houston Grand Opera.
“I had never experienced mariachi before and I was blown away,” he said. “Our opera house was packed with people I didn't recognize. This group of extraordinary musicians and singers performed music that was unbelievably emotional, accessible, immediate. I thought, ‘This is so operatic, why has no one ever made a link between mariachi and opera before?'''
So he set about doing just that, determined that the end product would respect the integrity of both traditions. He claims this is the world's first mariachi opera.
“I wanted this to be real music theater, not folkloric, not troupes of dancers skipping on and off,” Freud explained. “I also wanted it to be real mariachi, not some watered-down ‘mariachi lite.'”
His search for a creative team led him to Martinez, whose influence on contemporary mariachi repertory has been widely celebrated, and Foglia, known for his operatic style of storytelling and theatricality. Since Martinez was then totally inexperienced as a theater composer, Freud thought that Foglia, who at the time made his home in Queretaro, in central Mexico, was the perfect partner to create a coherent dramatic structure out of a series of songs.
The collaboration clicked. Foglia came up with subject matter that would not only resonate with the Mexican and Latino communities but would also have universal appeal, per Freud's intentions. Martinez, who has spent his life composing and playing mariachi, came up with the rest.
The result, said Freud, considerably exceeded his expectations.
“Audiences in Houston were excited and moved by the work. After every performance there were cheers and people crying. Complete strangers came up to me and said, ‘You've just told my story.'
“I don't assume that what worked in Houston will necessarily work in Chicago,” he added. “But, given the size of Chicago's Mexican community as well as that of the city's other Latino populations, I'm confident it will be as successful, evocative, resonant and powerful in its impact here as it was in Houston and Paris."