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Behind The Scenes: ‘Cruzar’

San Diego Opera Stages First Mariachi Opera

Evening Edition

Above: KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando sits in on a rehearsal of the San Diego Opera's "Cruzar," the first mariachi opera.

The San Diego Opera is hosting a first this Saturday. Join me for a rehearsal of “Cruzar La Cara De La Luna," the first mariachi opera.

The San Diego Opera wants you to throw out any preconceived ideas you might have about what opera is because these days opera can be like Samson pulling a temple down or Captain Ahab at sea pursuing Moby Dick or even a mariachi band.

"My favorite part of the process," says Leonard Foglia, "is when the band plays on stage for the first time. As they were about an hour and a half ago. They were doing their sound check. And hearing them in their full glory is so exciting."

Exciting because it marks the first time the San Diego Opera is staging a mariachi opera.

"Yes and the reason is there is only one, this is the very first, it premiered in Houston, they were the ones who commissioned it," says Ian Campbell, general and artistic director of the San Diego Opera.

Mariachi Vargas

It all started with the music of Mariachi Vargas. Once the artistic head of the Houston Grand Opera heard them he commissioned “Cruzar La Cara De La Luna,” a Mariachi opera. That’s where director and librettist Leonard Foglia came in.

"Well the only directive I was given was I’d like to create something that would have meaning for the Hispanic community in Houston. I knew right away that I wanted to tell a story more from the Mexican point of view than the American point of view."

Singer Brittany Wheeler says, "My character is Diana Velasquez and I am the American born granddaughter of the main character Laurentino and when we start out we see Laurentino basically on his death bed and so through the process of taking care of him we start hearing names that we’ve never heard, people, places, things that we don’t know what he’s talking about and so Diana becomes curious and tries to pull it out of him and starts finding about other pieces of our family about his history and his past life and she just wants to put it all together before time runs out."

"At first I worried about being the one writing the libretto not being Hispanic," states Foglia, "My heritage is Italian and my father came over from Italy and I’m first generation and once I hooked into remembering a lot of his sense of displacement and his sense of always longing for the old country, that I really grew up in that kind of environment myself."

Credit: San Diego Opera

Poster for "Cruzar"

"The powerful thing about it is it does touch on cross border issues and who are we," says transplanted Australian Campbell, "If we come from another culture and we’re born here or if we’re from another culture and we choose to live here, 'Do we change? Are we different people? Who are we? Where do I belong? Where did I come from? And should I go back at any time?'"

The question for Foglia was, “Are we telling a very specific story or one that also has universal appeal?” His answer came when he took the opera to Paris.

"The moment I knew that it was more than just a border story here in the US, was we had a final dress rehearsal and one of the executives in Paris, a woman came up to me and said I just want to let you know that I brought my children to the dress rehearsal cause I thought they would enjoy the music and when I went up to them after they were with their nanny, their nanny who is Croatian and so the nanny was in tears and she said oh did you like it? And she looked up and said it’s my story. And so I guess the melding of the Mexican American story and my father’s Italian American story I realized that it’s reaching a little bit beyond into more universal territory which is what I’d always hoped."

Ian Campbell hopes it inspires more mariachi operas, "What we have here is yet another variant of music that can be sung to, just listen to mariachi music, it is singing music."

"It’s so perfectly fits with opera and storytelling because that’s what it is, that’s what mariachi music, it portrays emotion and passion, love, all these things that we work with in opera and I think that translates so perfectly to any kind of story," adds Wheeler.

Credit: Katie Euphrat

The San Diego Opera's production of "Cruzar La Cara de la Luna."

But it also tweaks expectations says Wheeler, "It’s not a traditional opera where there’s an orchestra in the pit and there’s a conductor at the front and the singers are on the stage. So we have the backdrop of the mariachi band which is like a beautiful background for our story and in front of that it’s a staged concert version in costume."

"The first mariachi opera is worth hearing around the country," states Campbell, "So it fitted in perfectly well to what we had in mind. And it does reach a different audience. And there are many people coming to the performances of Cruzar who have not se foot in the Civic Theater before. We already know that."

The two Saturday performances were on the verge of selling out on Thursday. But then what can you expect when you have a mariachi band that calls itself the best in the world says Foglia, "They are the best and there’s an authenticity that they bring to it and once I knew we had Pepe [Jose 'Pepe' Martinez of Mariachi Vargas] and his band it was putting that band onstage to actually tell a story, which they had never done before."

For Wheeler, the attraction for audiences is about blending bold innovation with familiar themes.

"It’s about family and I think that we can all react to that. It’ just a family story and it’s really beautiful."

Companion viewing: "El Mariachi," "Blood Wedding," "Flamenco, Flamenco"

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