By Cris Franco
With the premier Los Angeles performance the first mariachi opera, Cruzar la Cara de la Luna, theatrical history was made in mid-February at the Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for the Performing Arts (The Soraya) on the CSUN campus. Initially commissioned by, and premiered at the Houston Grand Opera in 2010, Cruzar la Cara de la Luna (To Cross the Face of the Moon), was created by Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlan’s José “Pepe” Martínez and Broadway’s Leonard Foglia.
This new production’s innovative director, Dan Guerrero, proudly proclaimed, “I love everything about this work except the stares that I got from some people when I told them that it was a mariachi opera. They’d stop cold in their tracks. It’s that very uniqueness of combining a musical style not traditionally associated with opera that makes it so brilliant and so rewarding to work on. Plus the content is extremely timely. A love story set against an epic tale of immigration, it’s a bit of a dichotomy and I relished the challenge.”
To bring his concept to fruition, Guerrero created a versatile performance space in the practical set design of Efren Delgadillo, Jr. that complimented his thoughtful production, explaining, “Because the opera is so very intimate, I didn’t want the intensely personal spoken-and-sung narrative to be lost in the very large Soraya Theater. So I did away with the orchestra pit and brought the audience closer to the performers. The magnificent Mariachi Vargas inhabited the stage throughout the journey while immersive projections (by Yee Eun Nam) fill the Soraya with a light and visual spectacle too beautiful for words. You would have been amazed!”
True to the American-Latino immigrant experience, the storytelling freely flows between English and Spanish as the characters, too, cross to and from their beloved homelands in el sur in search of better lives in el norte. This is where Cruzar la Cara de la Luna truly breaks new ground as it delves into the seldom-explored nuances of immigrant life. Although those characters still in Mexico reap the financial benefits of the American remittances, what’s left in the wake are fractured families: lonely women and virtually fatherless children.
The opera has played Houston, Chicago, San Diego, and Paris. However, the Soraya production was the first all-new installment with an all-Los Angeles cast and first-rate creative dream team: choreography by Lettie Ibarra, authentic costumes by Garry Lennon, and lighting by James Sale.
The sterling ensemble was led by the lyrical Daniel Rodríguez as Laurentino and beautiful soprano Alba Franco-Cancél as his wife Renata, the couple around which the memory play revolves. In the role of Lupita (Renata’s confidante and fellow wife-left-behind) the masterful Suzanna Guzmán brought a charming yet moving portrayal of that señora we all know: a simple woman in a complex situation. The ebullient ranchero icon, Juan Mendoza, brought classic mariachi vocals as the joyful “Chucho”, Laurentino’s longtime friend. In the piece’s only non-singing role of “Victor”, Daniel Mora from FX’s The Bridges, played the rough coyote who, at Renata’s insistence, guides both her and her son, “Young Rafael” (solidly played by Jesús Martínez) on a treacherous midnight trek across the desert — with heartbreaking consequences. A lesser actor might have come across as a villainous mercenary, but in the skillful hands of Mr. Mora, we saw the painful humanity of a man witnessing the great cost of attempting a shot at the American Dream.
Portraying Laurentino’s progeny on both sides of the border was the crystalline bell canto of Natalia Ferreiro as his American granddaughter “Diana”, the dramatically gifted tenor Jonathan Arana as “Rafael” (his Mexican-born son), and renown baritone Gregorio Gonzalez who brought vocal prowess and emotional depth to the role of “Mark” – Laurentino’s conflicted American-born son.
“While we hired a superb cast, it was a real challenge finding our players,” adds Guerrero, “because the piece is a chamber opera – meaning there’s lots of dialogue. So we had to not only find singers who could act, but also act and sing in Spanish and English as the story requires. And not just our pocho Spanish. They had to sound like native speakers and have fabulous voices. Fortunately, Los Angeles has such a rich talent pool that we got our first choices on all the parts. I think everyone saw the value in recounting this journey which so many of our families have made.”
Cruzar la Cara de la Luna was produced by The Soraya under the direction of Thor Steingraber, who stated, “We were proud to create this new production, with director Guerrero and musical director José “Pepe” Martínez, Jr., son of the composer. This was a passion project for Martínez and everyone involved.”
The passion burned brightly as opening night approached. “It was a real labor of love and truly a one-of-a-kind experience,” said Guerrero at the time. “Our musical director spoke only Spanish and our rehearsal pianist spoke only English. We had one artist who had never sung in an opera before, but did have extensive musical theater credits. We had another artist who is a true mariachi singer but has never been in an opera, or any theatre piece for that matter. Mixing them all in with our bilingual opera singers was delicious [as] they all blended effortlessly to become a family with one goal in mind – to serve the piece. This has absolutely been one of the most rewarding experiences of my career and I have been blessed with many.”
And Cruzar la Cara de la Luna is a bit of a blessing upon the future cannon of sung dramas as it unequivocally demonstrates the viability of incorporating mariachi aesthetics into yet to be written theatrical compositions. Surely this mariachi opera and an animated block-buster like Disney’s mega-hit Coco, which also incorporated ranchero rhythms throughout its songbook, heralds the long overdue inclusion of more authentic Mexican music into American theater and perhaps the creation of the long awaited mariachi musical? Let’s hope it happens pronto.