Cher Public

Okay by me in America

Manhattanites will continue to associate mariachi with tacky nacho restaurants and subway serenades, but that hooty genre of music in fact finds its origins in the subtropics of Western Mexico, where rural migrants once brought trumpets, fiddles, guitarras de golpe, and spangled charro outfits to urban Guadalajara. 

In Mexico, the hybrid folk song style remains traditional at weddings and baptisms; Mexico City’s Garibaldi Plaza still teems with musicians to this day, with many hawking their song catalogues like so many artisanal calaveras. Mariachi bands travel the world, make appearances in Hollywood, and moonlight on Linda Ronstadt albums.

But why stop there? Starting Thursday for a limited run, as part of its Ópera en español series, City Opera premiered America’s self-proclaimed “first mariachi opera” at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater.

The one-act Cruzar la Cara de la Luna (“To Cross the Face of the Moon”) features music and lyrics by the late violinist/composer José (“call-me-Pepe”) Martínez, a book by Texas opera mainstay Leonard Foglia, a 13-piece mariachi orchestra, and a bare-bones plot about diaspora, family, and migration.

Commissioned and first performed by Houston Grand Opera in 2010, the work hasn’t changed much since the start of the decade. Many members from the flagship company reprise their roles in New York City Opera’s current version. NYCO’s revival also retains the Houston original’s minimalist costumes, sets, lighting and direction.

The result is a thematically modest show, about two-thirds sung, albeit one with few innovations beyond the exotic music style itself.

Cruzar presents the familiar tale of a dying immigrant caught between two worlds. Laurentino (Octavio Moreno) is an aging patriarch from Michoacán, Mexico, who moved to America for work, leaving behind his adoring wife Renata (Cecilia Duarte) and first son Rafael, as well as family friends Lupita (Vanessa Alonzo) and Chucho (Miguel De Aranda).

When the story begins, though, Laurentino is on his deathbed in New York, cared for by his second son Mark (Efrain Solis) and granddaughter Diana (Maria Valdes).

In roughly an hour and a half we encounter the ghosts of his past through a series of flashbacks, and follow his offspring in their quest to help him reconcile his two lives. The story is told without much scenery, with only two set pieces—bed and multipurpose platform.

Filling in for the lack of visuals, the show’s orchestra (vividly supplied by the Grammy-winning Mariachi Los Camperos) functions as a kind of Greek chorus, standing at attention onstage throughout the action.

On opening night, the production’s main attraction was, unsurprisingly, the music, which was mostly a pleasure to experience. Despite the genre’s occasional sameness, ballads and stompers were charmingly performed by Duarte, Moreno and Solis, all three of whom brought stirring operatic pathos to their already resonant voices.

Alonzo, who created the role of Lupita in 2010, is apparently the lead vocalist for a Latin-fusion band back in Houston, and her unaffected vocal style endowed a smaller role with winning mariachi authenticity. In contrast but no less affecting was Daniel Montenegro, who brought a more operatic technique to the role of adult Rafael, and stunned with a brilliant tenor.

I wish that the rest of the production were quite so ebullient. For all of his global vision, Foglia (who also directed Dead Man Walking for NYCO in 2002) remains a surprisingly hidebound director with regrettably few imaginative instincts. This was a production of sing-standing to the audience, with spectators asked to do a lot of the legwork to visualize transitions between places and historical periods.

A good measure of dialogue was spoken, too, which meant actors had to, well, act: an easier stipulation for some thespians than for others, apparently. Cruzar’s staging hung them largely out to dry.

I must say Foglia fares not much better as a storyteller. Heavy-handed metaphors—butterflies migrating back to Mexico, comparing how grass grows in Mexico vs. New York, the sensation of collapsed distance induced by a phone call, etc. etc. etc.—dot the libretto’s poetic terrain. “Our hearts don’t forget the South while in the North,” warbles the orchestra chorus. My Northern heart wished it’d remembered to bring a red pen to the proceedings.

Historically, the point most critics raise when considering this mariachi opera has concerned its branding—is it in fact an “opera” or not? I find this question somewhat misguided, as the work is clearly not an opera in the traditional sense.

For me the more interesting question is why a company like NYCO would select this particular black-box-scale production for its season, dress it way down, and then dwarf it further with an auditorium as large as the Rose Theater?

Seats were painfully vacant on opening night, which felt more than a little belittling to the performance itself, especially since the show was intended to expand our understanding of what opera could be.

So-called cultural programming is a terrific pursuit, of course, and one to be applauded. But presenting cultural works also requires more than casual consideration of venue and reception. Were Cruzar presented in a smaller, more intimate, less impersonal space, the audience might have felt closer to the significant sense of identity cleft many migrant workers grapple with.

And for a show such as this, closeness is vital, especially when Mexico already feels so distant, and so far away.

  • NineDragonSpot

    “The result is a thematically modest show, about two-thirds sung, albeit one with few innovations beyond the exotic music style itself.”

    It seems odd, in this global and interconnected age, to read of “exotic music”. Mariachi music isn’t exotic, it’s just unfamiliar to the author. I’m reasonably confident that if he spent a month or three listening to mariachi, reading up about it, talking to fans, the music would lose that tinge of unfamiliarity. At that point, he might begin to appreciate the finer details in the score, instead of being slightly off-put by “the genre’s occasional sameness.”

    (That whole “call-me-Pepe” business was odd, too. Every other journalist simply writes José “Pepe” Martínez. Toying around with the name of an artist in an ostensibly-serious review is not an optimal way to show respect.)

    • NineDragonSpot

      “[Vanessa] Alonzo, who created the role of Lupita in 2010, is apparently the lead vocalist for a Latin-fusion band back in Houston…”

      “Apparently?”

      Yes, she is.

      Los Guerreros de la Musica (LGM).

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w7AxqacsUbE&sns=em

  • NineDragonSpot

    “Manhattanites will continue to associate mariachi with tacky nacho
    restaurants and subway serenades…”

    Sort of a terrible thing to write about Manhattanites. Surely they’re not as provincial as all that?

    The winners of last year’s Latin Grammy for Best Ranchero/Mariachi Album were New York’s own Flor de Toloache. The album, Las Caras Lindas, has its release party at Joe’s Pub last summer. They had seven performances in NY this January, including venues like DROM, BB Kings, and BAM Cafe. Maybe you could check them out.

    • Camille

      Nope, not really so terrible at all to write about Manhattanites.

      You & me, professor — we are used to mariachis in the background of our environment but these guys on the east coast — not so much, really. They really do NOT have the same degree of familiarity as it is a far more recent thing, from around the last twenty to twenty-five years or so.

      There are, further, so MANY people from so many places here that it may well be that an individual never comes across one particular group or ethnicity, unless one lives in that area, honest. I mean, I have Tibetans down the street and I think that is by in large an “exotic” group for most Manhattanites (read: NYC residents) who, frankly, are no longer the cosmopolites of the New Yorker magazines of yore.

      I know that I most certainly register as “exotic” to my neighborly Tibetans, whom I am grateful for as they not only practise meditation but yield up copious amounts of incense, curry and yak butter at Green Tara groceries. Yum!

      • NineDragonSpot

        Camille, you have buried the lede.

        YOU CAN GET YAK BUTTER IN NY?

        Never heard of it being sold around here. I am jelly.

        I’d be willing to bet that your Tibetan neighbors think of you as “that nice lady who hums Bellini and buys all the yak butter”, not as an “exotic” creature. They’re New Yorkers, after all.

        As for mariachi music -- I live in San Francisco, not Salinas. I get my heaviest dose of mariachi and conjunto norteño while driving through the Central Valley. But it would never occur to me to say that mariachi was the music of tacky nacho shops and subways. It’s disrespectful. Which is why I was surprised to see Mr. Rozen slandering New Yorkers in that fashion. It’s not the sort of sentence I would expect to see in a professional review.

        • Camille

          Yes, I knew that the yak butter would get your juices flowing, but actually, I was just having a bit of phun! What I CAN do is recommend this absolutely excellent and echt glat kosher style (sort of and it that concept exists in Tibetan cooking — Ayurvedic?) restaurant when next you are in NYC. It will necessitate a ride to the wilds of Queens but, I assure you, your health and wellbeing will be restored by this master, this wizard, of cuisine.

          See: http://www.pundatibetanrestaurant.com

          You will be happy that you did! A very gentle and kind soul, the master chef does eyeball analyses of one’s wellbeing and prescribes a remedy, right then and there. Not to be equalled in the swankier booths of Manhattan.

          Also, if near Carnegie there is the Radiance Tea House, thankfully still in existence, and that Japanese place, also nearby, you recommended once a long while ago we have gone to and it was not bad at all, happy to report!! There is now a new Chinese of, I think, the northern type, on 54th Street across from MoMA, which is cheap, plays loud music, and has different types of stuff, some icky, I think. Maybe there is something good there yet. We are persisting. There is also a Thai place which serves northern food, quite different from the popularly diffused stuff.

          Don’t be hard on JR as he is perhaps new to NYC? I don’t know, but think that overall he said enough positive about this little opera, (and was having a bit of fun with something he was unfamiliar with), and which I regret was not able to get to; the life stories depicted therein are all too familiar to me, most of them sad, and I would have hoped for a happier twist in this work, I dunno?

          I promise to scout out some yak butter in the meantime and I do know where to get Bangladeshi goat, but only on the weekends!

          Kindest regards from the Right (Wrong for me) Coast Camille

  • Ivy Lin

    I don’t see why the condescending attitude towards mariachi music. It’s a folk musical tradition that’s as valid as the Neapolitan love songs or in modern times the urban hip hop. Opera singers like Juan Diego Florez, Placido Domingo and Javier Camarena regularly program them into recitals, guitar strumming and all. I find it a totally joyous way for singers to honor their heritage and I always give a few dollars to mariachi singers in the subway.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wQg2qPGCE4U
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BapIfrDe79M
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hvNNRuROUPw

    • NineDragonSpot

      I would add that “Mexican heritage” is simultaneously “world heritage”. It is a part of humanity’s cultural legacy, available to all who come to it. The members of the Latin Grammy-winning Flor de Toloache have roots in Mexico, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Cuba, Australia, Colombia, Germany, Italy and the United States.

  • Betsy_Ann_Bobolink

    Has there been a Klezmer opera?

  • chicagoing

    I bumped into a documentary on PBS here over the weekend about a Colombian composer, Eustacio Rosales, whose unproduced opera “Andina” is discovered by his great grandson sitting in boxes in his aunt’s basement. The grandson, who studied film at Columbia College here, makes it his mission to have the work performed even though he has no musical background and thinks of opera as “a dinosaur that forgot to go extinct”. The film, “The Way to Andina” finishes with footage of a semi staged concert performance. I was only able to watch segments of the 70 minute film but it was interesting and well worth lookng out for.

    • NineDragonSpot

      Thanks for the tip. The website for the composer (set up by the filmmaker, I suppose) documents the CSO’s premiere of Rosales’ Three Spanish Dances in 1932 (an intriguing program shared with Sinding, Alfvén, Glazunov, and Grieg). Alas, the composer died a couple years later.

      The film (and, I guess, the bonus features -which include a full performance of the opera) is available for streaming rental. http://andinalives.com/watch/