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City Opera Commissions Work On A Modern St. Francis

'St. Francis de los Barrios' places opera in Tijuana

City Opera Commissions New Work About A Modern St. Francis
City Opera Commissions Work On A Modern St. Francis
City Opera champions new and contemporary works in English and Spanish with an emphasis on community building. It just commissioned its first opera, "St. Francis de los Barrios."

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City Opera champions new and contemporary works in English and Spanish with an emphasis on community building. It just commissioned its first opera, "St. Francis de los Barrios."

Joseph Martin Waters had an idea for an opera. He was listening to Pope Francis recount the story of why he took his name from St. Francis of Assisi.


"He said it was because Francis was the first environmentalist, a person who thought of himself as not above the other creatures on the planet and saw people as part of something bigger than themselves," Waters said.

City Opera also has its eye on the bigger picture. Founded in 2014, the company wants to tell stories rooted in the community of our border cities.

"And that got me to thinking it could be a very interesting subject to bring Francis into the present day," Waters said. "So we decided to set it in Tijuana and then started looking into the community there, and it turns out that there’s an HIV epidemic going on in Tijuana, so one thing led to another, and now we have an opera set in Tijuana among the transgender sex workers living in poverty and danger and who are afflicted with HIV and trying to bring that into, in some way happening in, our present time in a magical realistic setting."

Waters is composing the opera and Allan Havis, who teaches theater at UC San Diego is the librettist providing the words. He was excited by the possibilities of a modern St. Francis.

"Because it wasn’t literally the historic St. Francis, but it was an archetype on the border or in Tijuana, and the idea that there would be a political undercurrent — it wouldn’t just be about simply a religious point of view or a spiritual point of view — but there would be a body politic," Havis said.


In this newly commissioned work, Francis is bisexual, a cross-dresser and stricken with HIV.

"We decided he would be a counter tenor, somebody who could go from a man’s voice way up to this woman’s voice and really be between genders," Water explained.

The opera is still a work in progress, but Waters has five songs that are ready to be performed in concert to tease what the opera will be like. One song is called "Corner Room in Hell."

"This is where Francis has been badgered by this corrupt Tijuana chief of police for quite a while and at a certain point, has just had it, and Francis just rips him a new one, and I thought the right style for this was a tango from hell, and I thought what happens if I combine tango with heavy metal and with intense wobble bass," Waters said.

As with many artists, Waters has been inspired to create art in reaction to policies coming from the new Trump administration.

"'Corner Room in Hell,' I was thinking of Donald Trump when I was writing that piece. It let me take out some of my anger," Waters said.

Such overt politics may not please everyone but that is fine with City Opera and its artists. In fact, part of the challenge of creating modern opera is to define a new relevance for it.

"To puncture cliches and to actually make people a little uncomfortable with a social or political idea," Havis said. "Because I think a lot of opera, classic opera, is comforting whether it is to cry or to laugh or get emotionally romantic with the lead, I didn’t think this particular opera would be escapist, it would be very for our time and our problems."

Which raises another challenge — will it find an audience? City Opera hopes so.

"I think the opera, even though it has some trigger points of politics and emotion and pain, I think the end is very hopeful," Havis said.

The next task for City Opera is to find an unconventional space suited to the opera because it likes to do site-specific projects rather than to perform within the conventional four walls of a theater — yet another way it wants to redefine opera for a modern audience.

Selections from "St. Francis de los Barrios" will be presented at the NWEAMO Festival (New West Evolving Arts and Music Organization.) The festival takes place on the campus of San Diego State University, March 16-19. City Opera singers will perform at 7 p.m., Friday, March 17 in Smith Hall.