Arts & Culture

Fort Worth Opera looks to the future with mariachi work

Three musicians from the legendary 13-piece ensemble Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán in “Cruzar la Cara de la Luna.”
Three musicians from the legendary 13-piece ensemble Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán in “Cruzar la Cara de la Luna.” Arizona Opera

When Anthony Freud was the general director at Houston Grand Opera a few years back, he made a decision on a whim that is now having reverberations in Fort Worth.

The native of southwest London went to check out a performance booked at Houston’s Wortham Theater Center that not only didn’t involve his company, it couldn’t have been more removed musically from his day job. He was attending a performance from Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán, the long-running Mexican folk ensemble whose roots go back to 1897.

“We weren’t promoting the concert, but I thought, ‘Well, I need to go and experience it,’ ” remembers Freud in a phone interview from Chicago, where he is the general director of the Lyric Opera of Chicago. “So I bought myself a ticket, and that place was packed with people I didn’t recognize.

“Sitting in the concert, I was blown away by the whole world of mariachi’s intensity and immediacy and emotion. I sat there thinking, ‘This is totally operatic.’ 

That thought sparked an idea. Freud would go on to commission librettist Leonard Foglia and the late Pepe Martinez, then the music director of Mariachi Vargas, to compose the world’s first mariachi opera, “Cruzar la Cara de la Luna” (“To Cross the Face of the Moon”).

The Houston engagement in 2010, staged in conjunction with the Mexican bicentennial, proved so successful that “Cruzar” has since been performed in Paris, as well as Chicago and Phoenix.

Now it’s coming to North Texas as part of Fort Worth Opera’s 2017 Opera Festival and the company’s Noches de Ópera initiative aimed to widen its audience, as well as offer exposure to Latino composers.

“Cruzar,” which will be performed on April 29 and May 7 at Bass Hall, thematically works well for Fort Worth Opera. It tells the life story of an elderly laborer originally from Mexico who is on his deathbed in Texas surrounded by his family.

“‘Cruzar’ is about a family divided across cultures, across generations, across countries,” Freud said. “It grapples with the question ‘What is home?’ Is home where you’re born? Is home where you live? Is home where you die?”

But the production also raises questions about where Fort Worth Opera — and the fine arts in general — are going in an age of shifting demographics. Opera’s audience in the U.S. remains largely non-Hispanic white while the country’s population is becoming more racially mixed.

Mike Martinez, Fort Worth Opera’s chairman of the board of trustees, says he sees “Cruzar” as a step in squaring this demographic circle locally, though he concedes that he was initially concerned that local opera traditionalists would not be open to the experimentation.

After all, according to a survey the Fort Worth Opera conducted at the end of last season, 95 percent of its audience is Caucasian.

“From a Latino of Mexican-American heritage, mariachi is just part of my life,” Martinez says. “Now, putting on my chairman hat … that’s a little bit different, knowing who the traditional audience is.

“So, yeah, there are things to be skeptical about in terms of whether or not the audience will appreciate not only the production itself, but appreciate the art form of mariachi.”

A new audience

Staging “Cruzar” is part of FWO’s Noches de Ópera initiative that was conceived two years ago after the company’s presentation of “With Blood, With Ink,” Daniel Crozier and Peter M. Krask’s opera about a real-life 17th-century Mexican nun who was too independent for the authorities of the time.

Mark Saville, Fort Worth Opera’s director of development, brought a special perspective to the table when producing “Cruzar” was discussed: he was with Arizona Opera when that company staged the work.

“We found ourselves kind of going out on a limb artistically,” Saville says of the Arizona company. “We weren’t sure how it would be received … Many of us were watching ticket sales up until the final few days prior, and kind of biting our fingernails, unsure of how it would go … but we were blown away. We had five sold-out performances.”

Staging a new genre of works — rather than filling seasons with tried-and-true fare that traditionalists know and love — is a financial gamble, too, for Fort Worth Opera.

The company has suffered fiscal hardships in recent years, resulting in scrapped productions in recent seasons, ending 2015-16 with a projected deficit of $675,000, and most notably, firing its longtime director, Darren K. Woods, in favor of someone (not yet named) who will focus more on fundraising and development.

Martinez says ticket sales for Fort Worth’s “Cruzar” have been strong. Saville points out that the Spanish-language network Telemundo, a presenting partner for a live, free simulcast of “Cruzar” in Sundance Square on April 29, is helping the company market itself to the Latino audience.

He also says they’re also working with community-focused organizations to help spread the word.

Ultimately, Saville says, for Fort Worth Opera to stage works like “Cruzar,” it’s a no-brainer.

“As we began to look at the most recent census data on North Texas, Tarrant County, and Fort Worth, what we found is that we weren’t even close to being representative of really what our community looks like today. We’re 40 percent Latino.

“So as they began to talk about the creation of this multiyear initiative to help bring in a new audience, we started looking at the repertoire that was available to make an initial introduction of opera to a Latino population, while also bringing something new and very different to our traditional opera-going audience. ‘Cruzar’ was a natural fit for that.”

Not restaurant music

The highest hurdle companies that stage ‘Cruzar’ have to overcome is the perception among non-Latinos that mariachi is more appropriate table side at a Mexican restaurant while scarfing down queso than in an opera hall that puts on ‘Carmen.’

Freud concedes that, because he’s British, he didn’t grow up with negative connotations about mariachi. So he had no qualms about staging a work that meshed these seemingly opposite worlds.

“In the U.S., there are associations between mariachi groups and restaurants, rather than concert environments and maybe, perhaps having approached it with a completely open mind with no associations, maybe it did help,” he says.

“Also, undoubtedly what I was helped by was the fact that Mariachi Vargas is an extraordinary group of virtuoso musicians and singers. My first experience of mariachi was in an opera house in a professional concert environment rather than in a more domestic environment,” he said. “I was hearing those musicians who are absolutely at the top of their game. I was blown away by their sheer quality.”

Martinez is well aware of the stereotype but that could work to Fort Worth Opera’s advantage.

“I don’t know if it will change [audience’s minds], but I think that they’ll get a different dynamic or different dimension to the music,” he says. “So, from that regard, it fits really in with the whole idea that we are always trying to do something cutting-edge … We’ve grown that reputation as a company and, although this is not a production that we’re premiering, it still is new to the region and new to the overall audience, so, in that regard, it fits perfectly with our identity.”

Plus, the audience being reached is not just the one inside Bass Hall. The Sundance Square simulcast will reach many more. Turning the performance into a public event was inspired in part by what Dallas Opera has done with simulcasts of performances at Dallas’ Klyde Warren Park and Arlington’s AT&T Stadium.

“We have definitely learned from them, what they have done,” Martinez says. “The buzz around the Sundance [event] is extraordinary, so we’re expecting a pretty solid crowd there, as well.”

But is it opera?

While “Cruzar” generally has received positive reviews in cities where it has been performed, not everyone has been persuaded. Lawrence A. Johnson, writing for Chicago Classical Review, applauded the “fine cast and lively playing” but dismissed the work as “awfully thin salsa” and said that “it is no way an opera.”

The Chicago Tribune’s John von Rhein liked the opera much more but said, “For me, the stretches of spoken dialogue, some of it underscored by music, put ‘Cruzar’ far more decisively in the camp of musical theater than opera.”

Steven Brown, in a very enthusiastic Houston Chronicle review of Houston Grand Opera’s 2013 performance, labeled it a “chamber opera” but concluded, “Was ‘Cruzar’ an opera? That didn’t matter at all.”

But Freud sticks by calling it an opera. “It seem to me that opera encompasses a whole range of musical styles,” he says. “Ultimately, it’s telling stories through words and music. To me, that’s utterly universal. It transcends continents. It transcends centuries. It transcends ethnicities.

“To me, opera is musical theater. People are free to describe it as they wish,” Freud said. “To me, opera is an open label which can be applied to a whole range of musical and theatrical styles.”

In fact, Freud was so enamored of “Cruzar” that, after moving to Chicago, he commissioned a second mariachi opera, “El Pasado Nunca Se Termina” (The Past Is Never Finished). Also, the Lyric Opera has done a concert that was a mash-up of mariachi and arias.

“Again, [‘El Pasado’] is a story that spans generations and spans countries, but it’s not about a family divided. It’s about cultural inheritance. Whether there is [space] for a third mariachi opera, I’m sure there is. Whether it’s me who will commission it, I have no idea.”

El futuro is now

Meanwhile, Fort Worth Opera has announced that its Latino-themed opera for next season will be “Maria de Buenos Aires,” a tango operita from renowned Argentinian tango composer Astor Piazzolla.

“What’s going to be most intriguing is the presentation of it,” said Saville. “Tango is very visceral. It’s very sensual, and we wanted to kind of give our audience a very intimate experience ...

“Normally, we would present it in a smaller venue space but instead we decided to do something completely new and never done before. We’re creating a 200-seat theater-in-the-round on the stage in Bass Hall.”

Many observers, such as Arts Council of Fort Worth President Karen Wiley, are looking forward to “Cruzar.” “I’m excited about it,” she says. “This is part of Texas heritage and Texas culture.”

Still, Martinez notes he has heard some grumbling among the opera faithful.

“One will never be able to please everybody,” he says. “That said, I would say the overwhelming response is, ‘OK, I’m interested. I’m willing to give it a shot and check this out.’

“The reality is Latinos [in North Texas] are going to make up the majority before too long,” he continued. “It would not make sense for us as a community arts organization that wants to be civic minded and be influential in the lives of our constituency, if you will, and not accept the reality of the pure numbers, right?

“It would not make sense for us to wait 20 years to all of a sudden start reaching to a changing demographic and say, ‘Please come fill our seats, please appreciate what we do in terms of creating art.’ It’s a long process.”

Cary Darling: 817-390-7571, @carydar

Cruzar la Cara de la Luna

  • 7:30 p.m April 29 and 2 p.m. May 7
  • Bass Hall, Fort Worth
  • $17-$175
  • There will be a free simulcast of the April 29 performance in Sundance Square.