.Mariachi Memories 

WEO’s ‘Cruzar’ haunts and uplifts

Laurentino is dying. He dreams about the wife and child he left behind in Mexico many years ago, and as he does, his American family learns about them for the first time. Is a reunion possible, given what has happened? And can it atone for loss, heartbreak—and betrayal?

West Edge Opera’s production of Cruzar la Cara de la Luna (To Cross the Face of the Moon/Mariachi Opera 2010) explores those questions as it also explores a nontraditional opera form.

Like all the classic performing arts, opera is expanding centuries-old ideas concerning its limits and finding new audiences as it does. Cruzar was commissioned by the Houston Grand Opera, and premiered in 2010, with music and lyrics by José “Pepe” Martínez and book by playwright Leonard Foglia. Called the “first mariachi opera,” it draws on the commonalities of storytelling between the two music genres, said music director Sixto Montesinos.

Montesinos has studied the history of mariachi, from its roots in the Mexican state of Jalisco, when it was “just musicians playing around the town,” he said. Then, with the advent of the 1940s and ’50s and the “golden age” of Mexican cinema, mariachi musicians were prominently featured in film, dressed in elaborate costumes inspired by Spanish matadors.

“Jorge Negrete, who was trained as an operatic tenor, became a cinema icon … a heartthrob,” Montesinos said. He was joined by Pedro Infante, also trained as a tenor. “The vocal nature of mariachi is very operatic, like a tessitura where the song tells a very dramatic story,” he said. “The music is passionate, telling of heartache and unrequited love. It cuts right through and projects to the audience.” This, he noted, is very similar to opera.

In fact, “It’s surprising that [the combining of mariachi and opera] took so long to come about,” he said. 

Yet Cruzar is not traditional opera. Its running time is only 75 minutes, with no intermission. Montesinos describes it as a “show with beautiful songs.” One review of the New York City Opera’s production of Cruzar echoed this: “[the] core is full-throated mariachi, the likes of which you have perhaps not heard before, with an expressive, exuberant force. But equally, there are moments where the strings and music slip into a Nelson Riddle-like suppleness that reminded me of supposedly simpler times of lush bands, the great singers, and fully composed soundtracks of classic films.”

The band in this production—seven-member, San Jose-based Mariachi Azteca—are just as important as the opera vocalists. “They will be stars,” Montesinos said.

The band had never been involved with opera and its presentation. The performance venue, The Italian Renaissance-style Oakland Scottish Rite Center, came as a bit of a shock when band members toured it for the first time, Montesinos said. “One musician said, ‘This is so much better than someone’s backyard.’”

Staging director Karina Gutiérrez reiterated that in this production of Cruzar, the mariachis, rather than standing stationary in a pit, will be much more interactive, moving around the stage with the performers.

Cruzar is her first experience directing opera, but she brings a wealth of experience directing theater. She was recruited to act as dramaturge for WEO’s upcoming special presentation of excerpts from its first commission, Dolores, based on a few weeks in the life of civil-rights leader Dolores Huerta. Then, “WEO entrusted me with directing Cruzar,” she said.

Gutiérrez preferred not to look at recordings of previous productions of the opera, partly “out of respect for their original creations, and partly because this is a new piece created for the Bay Area,” she said. Creator Martínez passed away in 2016, but some of the performers have appeared in past productions of Cruzar. She is proud of presenting the first fully BIPOC cast for the piece.

Laurentino’s state of consciousness, as it ebbs and flows between memories and the present, influenced the staging, she said. “There is an elemental nature to the story, a fluidity.” The story’s central metaphor—in which a caterpillar’s death allows the birth of a butterfly, which will then migrate and begin the cycle anew—evokes both the natural world, as in the migration of Monarch butterflies from Mexico to the U.S., and the life cycle of generations of the family portrayed.

Both Gutiérrez and Montesinos believe Cruzar will attract audiences who do not usually attend opera. The storyline, the running time and the fact that Cruzar is told largely in Spanish with English surtitles, will combine to bring people in, they said.

“Mariachi Azteca is beloved in the Bay Area,” Gutiérrez said. “They will bring in lovers of the genre.”

Many in the East Bay and greater Bay Area will feel a deep connection to the themes presented in Cruzar. Speaking for a WEO website story, Montesinos said, “As an immigrant myself, I obviously connect with Cruzar at a very deep and personal level. I know what it’s like to cross from one side to the other. I know what it’s like to go from one country to another country and what that does to a family. What that does to the psyche of everybody in the family and the things that you have to deal with.” 

Montesinos moved to Texas from Mexico at age 10, not speaking English, and was engulfed in a mostly alien world. Now, as a professor at Moraga’s St. Mary’s College, “English has become my primary language. But still the heart of me is in Spanish … I keep going back, researching, reading sources in Spanish,” he said.

Montesinos appreciates that many parts of Cruzar are in Spanish, “because the more Spanish I hear, the better I feel, and the more connected I am to my right to my roots. The opera knows that’s how hearing your home language works. It connects you to your own roots.”

WEO materials describe Cruzar as “at times joyous, funny, touching and tragic.” It would not be inappropriate to add “timely.”

“It’s been incredibly humbling to work on this piece,” Gutiérrez said. “Part of the process is the enrichment of the roles with the performers’ own family trajectories.”

Cruzar la Cara de la Luna, presented by West Edge Opera, July 23, 28 and Aug. 5. Oakland Scottish Rite Center, 1547 Lakeside Dr., Oakland. Some $10 Community Bronze Seats available. 510.841.1903, www.westedgeopera.com



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