By Johnny Oleksinski
In a bold move to engage with a broader constituency than the usual operagoing public, Lyric Opera will present the Midwest premiere of José “Pepe” Martínez and Leonard Foglia’s “Cruzar la Cara de la Luna (To Cross the Face of the Moon),” the first and only mariachi opera, in the spring at the Civic Opera House and elsewhere around the city.
For its fifty-eighth season, the venerable company is doing the city a dual service by bringing “Cruzar,” which premiered at Houston Grand Opera in 2010 and played Paris’ Théâtre du Châtelet in 2011, here to Chicago.
The opera will be Lyric’s first Spanish-language presentation. There are other Spanish operas, but they mostly fall outside of the standard repertoire. But for Chicago, the city with the second-largest Mexican community in the United States, this work that thematically begs the question, “What is home?” is timely and engaging for a diverse populace. The opera is also a boon to mariachi, a form so often relegated to the musical periphery, which will ideally be discovered anew by Lyric’s longtime devotees.
This project—large-scale for the fledgling Lyric Unlimited program—was announced on Monday at Pilsen’s National Museum of Mexican Art, with whom “Cruzar” is a collaboration. Speaking enthusiastically about the spirit of outreach, Carlos Tortolero, founder and president of the museum, asserted, “you don’t just sit in your building and wait for people to come to you.”
Only one of five planned performances will take place at the Lyric’s Civic Opera House home. The remaining performances will be put up in thriving Latino communities—in Pilsen at the Benito Juarez Academy and in Waukegan at the historic Genesee Theatre. The trek out to Lake County, in particular, is an acknowledgement of the greater Chicago area’s importance to the city’s booming cultural scene.
For General Director Anthony Freud, who commissioned composer Martínez and lyricist Foglia (director of Terrence McNally’s 1996 “Master Class” on Broadway) to write the work during his tenure as general director of Houston Grand Opera, the combination was a natural one. “[Mariachi] is immediate, emotional and accessible. Just like opera,” said Freud, adding “I’ve rarely encountered audiences who’ve responded with the intensity of cheering and weeping [of “Cruzar”].”
Freud first approached Martínez after being entranced by a Houston performance of Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán, the performers and somewhat-chorus of “Cruzar,” and the group with which Martinez is the music director. Freud giddily described Mariachi Vargas, considered the world’s best mariachi, as “extraordinary virtuosos.” Mariachi Vargas will only perform at the Civic Opera House. For the community performances, the consistent cast of singers will be joined by the University of Texas Pan-American’s Mariachi Aztlán, “a truly breathtaking, young whiz-kid group.”
Mariachi Vargas and Mariachi Aztlán deploy the classic mariachi combination of six violins, three trumpets, one guitar, one guitarrón, a vihuela and a mariachi harp. That ratio of brass to violin necessitates amplification for the singers, all of whom reside onstage alongside the band—not separated by an orchestra pit. But Cecilia Duarte, a charming mezzo-soprano who originated the role of Renata and returns for Lyric’s production along with the entire premiere cast, insisted that the singers are unfazed by amplification and it does no harm to the emotional reverence of the work. Per Freud’s expressed desires, it’s “real mariachi; not mariachi-lite.”
Lyric Unlimited director Cayenne Harris said that the community performances will be expounded upon in schools by curricular activities and involvement with local youth music groups, like young mariachi ensembles. She also described a major symbol of the opera, the Monarch butterfly, which journeys each year from Washington D.C. to Mexico, enduring several generations over the long flight. Though brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers are lost along the way, the desire for home stays strong.
“Cruzar”‘s plot similarly concerns three generations of the Velásquez family, rectifying their Mexican heritage with an American existence, as a father’s past indiscretions unexpectedly come to light. Thematically operatic, to be sure. Though Freud said initially “people found it difficult to visualize or auralize what a mariachi opera would be like,” the beauty and intensity of the Monarch butterfly and the Velásquez clan should find itself right at home among Lyric’s fifty-eight years of operas.
The midwest premiere of “Cruzar la Cara de la Luna (To Cross the Face of the Moon)” will be performed at the Civic Opera House on April 7 and at the Benito Juarez Academy in Pilsen and Waukegan’s Genesee Theatre throughout the month of April.