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Photo courtesy of Fort Worth Opera

What does a mariachi opera sound like? This.

By and large, operas are composed in Italian, German or French, usually accompanied by classical orchestras. But a new show at Fort Worth Opera in North Texas goes against the grain.

The new show, called “El Pasado Nunca se Termina” is designed to help draw more Latino faces to the opera company in Fort Worth, Texas: written in Spanish, it features mariachi accompaniment.

The music was written by Mexican composer José “Pepe” Martínez, who’s been dubbed the “Mozart of Mariachi.” The all-Latino cast tells a story that is chock full of Mexico’s traditions and cultural history. “El Pasado” (or “The Past Is Never Finished”) is the latest Spanish-language programming to come out of the studio’s “Noches de Opera” program.

Over the past two years, legendary ensembles like Mexico’s Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán and Mariachi Nuevo Tecalitlán have come to Texas to stage these one-of-a-kind productions.

Paulina Magdaleno is Fort Worth Opera’s audience engagement and special events manager. It’s her job to dream up fun events and opportunities for the company to connect with its audiences.

Magdaleno said she loves her work, and that she wouldn’t do what she does for Fort Worth Opera if she didn’t think they were being sincere about their mission to draw Latino audiences into its famed Bass Performance Hall for opera performances.

“Our Spanish-language programming actually started as an initiative 2017. It was Fort Worth Opera’s effort to reflect the diversity of our community. But now it’s a program,” she said, adding that this meant it’ll remain for the foreseeable future.

“El Pasado” is the third Spanish-language show produced at Fort Worth Opera. Next year, they’re bringing “Zorro” to the stage. But Magdaleno is most excited about what’s happening in 2021. That’s the year Fort Worth opera is expected to premiere “The Last Dream of Frida and Diego (El Ultimo Sueño de Frida y Diego),” a Spanish-language opera exploring the passionate relationship of iconic Mexican artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera.

Magdaleno said this program better reflects the Latino community in North Texas and could help introduce them to the opera world, hoping that they one day also come see “La Bohème,” an opera mainstay.

Photo of the world famous Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán ensemble performing in “Cruzar la Cara de la Luna” at the Fort Worth Opera. Photo by Karen Almond/Fort Worth Opera

Fort Worth Opera’s artistic director Joe Illick said producing Spanish-language programming is necessary and that representation is important. Fort Worth has the state’s fastest-growing Hispanic population.

“Of course everybody thinks that Verdi is beautiful and that Puccini is beautiful and Mozart is beautiful,” Illick said. “But all of us identify with our own culture and our own roots in a special way. And so it’s important to tell everybody’s story.”

“El Pasado” centers on a bittersweet love story that begins during the Mexican Revolution and it concludes in the present day. And like most tales of star-crossed lovers, “El Pasado” involves the fate of two families – wealthy landowners, and the indigenous people who work on their plantation. Significant themes like indigenous erasure, classism, and unspoken links to Mexico’s history are explored in the lyrics written by librettist and director Leonard Foglia.

“I lived in Mexico for nine years. And I’ve always been fascinated by the notion of the mestizo and the mixed-blood,” Foglia explained. “You know, what really makes up present-day Mexico.”

Foglia, an Italian-American, leads and directs productions on Broadway regularly. He’s known locally for directing the Dallas Opera’s productions of “Everest” and “Moby-Dick.” But when asked about writing the lyrics to a Spanish-language opera, he said the inspiration didn’t come from within.

Foglia recalls that Anthony Freud, then-head of Houston Grand Opera — now general director of Lyric Opera of Chicago — called him “one day, and said, ‘What do you think of the notion of a mariachi opera?’ And I said to him, ‘What do you want it to be about? And he said, ‘All I want is something for the Hispanic community. I want something for them.’”

With that in mind, Foglia posed a couple of questions to himself before he started writing: “When you look in the mirror what do you see? Where does this face come from? What are my roots? Which is sort of a terrible, clichéd word. But that’s what started the whole process.”

Photo by Karen Almond/Fort Worth Opera

At a recent rehearsal for “El Pasado,” Foglia and the show’s actors gathered around a piano to rehearse.

The piano begins and tenor Daniel Montenegro begins to belt, his voice filling the room. Montenegro, who is half-Mexican and half-Cuban, is playing Luis, one of the opera’s star-crossed lovers. He said playing this role brings him great joy because it’s allowed him to reconnect with his childhood, growing up in California surrounded by music.

“It was such a long time that I had been away from home,” he said. “And when I got cast in this piece, you know, I was like, ‘Wow! I am Mexican. This is my heritage.’ And just to dive into that and to be able to sing with this amazing mariachi, it really was like, ‘This is home.’”

The star of “El Pasado,” Abigail Santos Villalobos, has similar feelings. “This is my first time working on a fusion piece like this,” she said. “It has been an amazing experience. You feel represented for the first time. It’s a privilege and an honor to be cast in opera that represents a voice that is not often heard in this environment.”

The Cuban performer says the show reminds us of our past and encourages us to build upon it.

“It connects with every single Latino. You don’t have to be Mexican necessarily to connect with this story,” Santos Villalobos said.

And that’s a message that all audiences can connect with.

KERA’s Hady Mawajdeh spoke with director and librettist Leonard Foglia about the mariachi opera “El Pasado Nunca se Termina” and its ability to draw a younger and more diverse audience.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Leonard, this is a sort of Romeo-and-Juliet story. We’ve got star-crossed lovers, adversarial families and drama, right? What else should the audience know? You mentioned before we got started here this theme of ‘going home.’

Well, I’ve lived in Mexico for nine years. And I’ve always been fascinated by the notion of the mestizo and the mixed-blood. You know, what really makes up the present-day Mexico, which is the mixture of the indigenous with the Spanish. And I start most of the pieces that I write with a question, and this one was, “When you look in the mirror what do you see?” What does this face tell you about your history, your past, your heritage? Because, you know, we tend to blank a lot of that out in the United States. One of the American characters in the opera asks that question of himself. “When I look in the mirror, what do I see? Where does this face come from? What are my roots?” — which is sort of a terrible cliché word. But that’s what started the whole process about this one character trying to find out what his past was.

This is your second mariachi opera. The first was a hit. This one in all the reviews I’ve read has gotten nothing but raves. And, I’m curious, what drew you to this genre of cross-mixing opera and mariachi music?

Well, it wasn’t my idea. I can’t take credit for it. It was Anthony Freud, who was the then head of Houston Grand Opera, who’s now head of Lyric Opera of Chicago. He called me one day, and said, ‘What do you think of the notion of a mariachi opera?’ And, you know, I was living in Mexico at the time, and I knew how passionate the music was, how melodic it is, which can sometimes be a bad phrase in opera. I happen to like melodies. And I just knew it was character-driven and passionate. And I thought it was a great idea. So, it was his idea to do it.

His inspiration behind doing it was a pure one. He told me, once we decided to go forward with it, and we had José “Pepe” Martinez to write the music, he told the board of his opera, “I’m not doing this so we build our audience for ‘La Bohème.’ I’m not doing this for us. I’m doing it for them.” And I said to him, “What do you want it to be about? What do you want it?” And he said, “All I want is something for the Hispanic community. I want something for them.” And I heard Daniel talking about what it is to see similar faces up on the stage, and that’s what I’ve noticed as it’s gone along. Not only are you putting Mexicans and Mexican-Americans up on the stage. Not only are we telling their story. We’re telling it with their genre of music. And I didn’t, honestly, realize the power of that until I got in front of an audience.

You’ve helped to bring some pretty big shows to life onstage, you know – “Moby-Dick,” “Everest” – alone here in the North Texas region. And those are huge. This is also huge. You’re bringing in one of the world’s best mariachi ensembles, bringing together Latin voices who are also at the top of their game. And I’m curious, how does that compare? Or is it slightly different?

Well, these are different in that I’ve written a libretto for them. They’re characters I’ve created. They’re not based on anything. But when it all comes down to it, it’s all storytelling. It’s what I’ve done my whole life, as a director, in librettos. We’re out there to tell a story. What is the best means to tell it? In this case, the best way to tell it is to put a 15-piece mariachi band center stage and all the singers up front and tell our story that way. Or if it’s something like “Moby-Dick,” we’re going to have projections, animation, and film — just all the spectacle opera can.

And you know, I always try to be driven by the text. And the best way to tell the story from what’s given to me. When I created it, it’s a little bit harder because I have to switch gears from one to the other.

It’s just stories, right? They’re just stories. Do we enjoy a big blockbuster film any more than a small independent film? We enjoy them, just in different ways. As long as they’re fulfilling in the end.

Mariachi music is beloved by many. For you, you mentioned that melody, you mentioned that variety. What do you enjoy most about it?

I think the unabashed, open-throated singing — you just heard Vanessa singing a while ago — it’s like you just heard people opening up their hearts and souls and just pouring it out.

Does that not happen in opera?

Of course I should say yes. Of course, that happens in opera. But mariachi singers walk a more — probably a more — dangerous life vocally. They sing like they’re never going to sing again. Opera singers always want to make sure they sing again.

Mariachi music is beloved by many. For you, you mentioned that melody, you mentioned that variety. What do you enjoy most about it?

I think the unabashed, open-throated singing — you just heard Vanessa singing a while ago — it’s like you just heard people opening up their hearts and souls and just pouring it out.

Does that not happen in opera?

Of course I should say yes. Of course, that happens in opera. But mariachi singers walk a more — probably a more — dangerous life vocally. They sing like they’re never going to sing again. Opera singers always want to make sure they sing again.

This show has been brought to the Fort Worth Opera as part of an initiative of sorts. For the past couple of years, they’ve been trying to reach Latin, Hispanic communities. It’s really a part of their DNA now. And you’re assisting with that. You mentioned seeing Latin faces in the audience. And I’m curious, do you think this works?

Both in Houston and upper Chicago where I premiered the first opera and then the second opera, both general directors said to me, “People walking into this building that have never walked into this building before. Just to see this piece.”

How they receive the piece is of course important. I want them to relate to it. I want them to enjoy it. I want them to feel part of it. But you also want them to feel part of the building. You want them to feel ownership of that place. It’s like, “Oh the opera house. That’s where the white people go,” you know? “That’s where the other people go.”

On some level, they come to this simply because it’s a mariachi band, simply because it’s a Mexican story. But then the next time they drive by the building—they’ve been in that building. Something that means something to them has happened. Whether they come to see the opera “La Bohème,” whether they come to see “Porgy & Bess” — I don’t really know any of the statistics on that. Because I guess my mission is still the same one given to me originally, which was, “This is not for us. It’s for them.”

This report originally appeared on KERA’s “Art & Seek.”

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