The combination of opera and mariachi is not as unlikely as one might think. Both art forms, in the view of Lyric Opera General Director Anthony Freud, tell human stories about love and loss, family and country. Beyond that, said Freud, "mariachi is a unique, joyful, sorrowful cocktail that has the emotional immediacy of Puccini and a sound world as distinct as that of any great composer."
Put opera and mariachi together in "Cruzar la Cara de la Luna" ("To Cross the Face of the Moon") and you have a music theater piece calculated to reach out to communities for which opera and opera companies have had little or no relevance.
That's the idea behind the world's first mariachi opera, which will have its local premiere in a semistaged version presented under Lyric auspices April 7 at the Civic Opera House, with subsequent performances April 19 and 20 in the Pilsen neighborhood, and April 21 in Waukegan. ("Cruzar" will receive matinee and evening performances April 20.)
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Freud commissioned the work during his tenure as general director of Houston Grand Opera. He was looking to create a piece that would resonate with the city's Mexican community while carrying universal appeal. He got what he wanted, to judge from the laughter, tears and cheers with which veteran operagoers and newbies alike greeted "Cruzar" at both its 2010 world premiere in Houston and the HGO's run-out performances at Paris' Theatre du Chatelet in 2011.
Naturally Freud is hoping for much the same audience mix and response in Chicago. Certainly the subject, the immigrant experience, is even greater a hot-button national issue than it was when the mariachi opera was new.
Singers from the original Houston cast will take part in all five Lyric-sponsored performances. Sharing the stage for the work's Midwest premiere will be Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlan, the hugely popular Mexican ensemble that inspired the work and took part in the Houston and Paris performances. Another such group, Mariachi Aztlan from the University of Texas Pan-American, will perform in the four remaining shows in Pilsen and Waukegan.
Freud regards "Cruzar" as a means of extending the company's relationship with Chicago-area Mexican and Latino communities through the outreach and education initiative Lyric put in place following the arrival of soprano Renee Fleming as creative consultant. The National Museum of Mexican Art here is partnering with Lyric for the April 19-20 performances at the Benito Juarez Community Academy in Pilsen and also is contributing works to an art exhibition in Waukegan that will coincide with the April 21 performance.
"Cruzar" was composed by Jose "Pepe" Martinez, longtime music director of Mariachi Vargas and something of a cultural icon in his own right. The libretto and direction are by the Tony Award-winning director Leonard Foglia ("Master Class," "On Golden Pond"), who collaborated with Martinez on the Spanish and English lyrics. The 13 mariachi players will be dressed in traditional mariachi garb, and several of them also will sing, along with the eight classically trained vocalists who make up the cast.
Foglia was living in Mexico when he got a call from Freud proposing the director put together a music theater piece as HGO's contribution to the anniversary celebration of the Mexican revolution and independence.
Having been "blown away" by his first hearing of Mariachi Vargas, Freud wondered, "Why not a mariachi opera?" The idea intrigued Foglia too, and soon the project began percolating in his head. Freud gave him carte blanche in terms of subject matter. He hit on an idea — how does an immigrant deal with the concept of "home"? As part of his research, he spoke to Mexican immigrants, including women working in HGO's costume shop. He recalled the experience of his Italian immigrant father, who had lived most of his life in a suburb outside Boston but never felt at home in America. That's when the concept clicked.
Thus "Cruzar" follows three generations of the Velasquez family as they straddle two countries and two cultures and face questions of personal and national identity.
Foglia wrote the lyrics in English, translating them into formal Spanish before submitting them to Martinez for further reworking into rhymed Spanish as the textual basis of the 15 songs that are linked by spoken dialogue, in Spanish and English.
I asked Freud whether this 67-minute mariachi opera would pass muster for presentation by Lyric Opera if it didn't offer outreach opportunities. Yes, was his emphatic reply.
"I feel very close to this piece," he said. "It's something I feel very proud of, something that I think works extraordinarily well on any terms. The combination of mariachi and classically trained singers presents something very compelling to audiences both musically and theatrically. It deserves a place here at Lyric, just as it deserved its previous performances elsewhere. When 'Cruzar' was first done in Houston, people of all backgrounds came up to me and said, 'You've just told my story.'
"Given the success the piece has enjoyed in both Paris and Houston, where it's been revived again this season, it clearly has a universality of appeal that engages audiences in a way that is true of the greatest examples of our art form."
"Cruzar la Cara de la Luna" ("To Cross the Face of the Moon") will be presented by Lyric Opera at 3:30 p.m. April 7 at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive. The performance is sold out. Tickets are available for performances featuring Mariachi Aztlan, 7:30 p.m. April 19, 2 and 7:30 p.m. April 20, at the Juarez Academy, 1450-1510 W. Cermak Road; and 7:30 p.m. April 21 at Genesee Theatre, 203 N. Genesee St., Waukegan; 312-827-5998 (Juarez); 800-982-2787 (Genesee); lyricopera.org or ticketmaster.com
Sharps and flats
Stephen Alltop has been named music director of the Champaign-Urbana Symphony Orchestra, effective at the start of the fall season. He will continue as music director of the Elmhurst Symphony and Apollo Chorus of Chicago.
Single tickets go on sale Monday for the 27th Woodstock Mozart Festival. Three pairs of programs will be given July 27-28, Aug. 3-4 and Aug. 10-11 at the Woodstock Opera House in Woodstock, Ill. This year's conductors will be Donato Cabrera and Igor Gruppman; the latter also will appear as violin soloist. Other soloists are pianist Vassily Primakov, cellist Nazar Dzhuryn, saxophonist Daniel Gauthier and violist Vesna Gruppman. Call 818-338-5300 or visit woodstockoperahouse.com.
Some 450 University of Michigan singers and instrumentalists will present what is being billed as the North American premiere of Darius Milhaud's "Oresteian Trilogy," April 4 in Ann Arbor. The monumental trilogy will be presented by the University Musical Society and will include ensembles from the schools of music, theater and dance. Kenneth Kiesler conducts. Ten years in the making, the project was spearheaded by composer William Bolcom, a UM professor emeritus who studied under Milhaud. The piece will be recorded in concert for release on the Naxos label.