Mariachi Aztlan at The University of Texas-Pan American is becoming known for grand performances.
In July 2010 the performance group of student musicians was named Grand Champions at the prestigious Mariachi Spectacular de Albuquerque competition. In October the troupe played in the Grand Foyer of the White House for President Barack Obama. And in December they will make an unprecedented appearance with the Houston Grand Opera helping to premiere the world's first mariachi opera on stage.
"We have had an incredible, exciting, and very successful year," said Dr. Dahlia Guerra, dean of the College of Arts and Humanities and founder of the UTPA mariachi. "The students are very talented but it is their hard work, their perseverance, and the long hours of practice that have created these opportunities. It is also the love and passion for the music that carries them through the preparation and inspires them on stage."
Guerra called their win in Albuquerque this summer the most difficult competition that UTPA's mariachi has ever won in its 20-year existence.
"It is significant because they won at both the university and professional level and were selected Grand Champion of the entire competition," she said." The students always go the extra mile because they are very proud to represent their University and community."
Their growing reputation for performance excellence initiated the invite from the White House to perform at the Oct. 19 signing ceremony of an Executive Order renewing and enhancing the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics. The initiative, established in 1990 by former president George H. W. Bush and continued by subsequent administrations, provides guidance on how to best improve educational opportunities and outcomes for Hispanic students.
For all students but one, it was the first visit to the nation's capital and, for all, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
"When he (Obama) walked in we had already started playing, we could see him ... we were thrilled ... our jaws dropped, our eyes widened ... the President of the United States was in the room with us," said UTPA junior James Escobedo, a violinist in the group since 2008 and a music education major. "I don't think anything can top this experience."
"This is the first time the UTPA Mariachi has performed in the White House and for a United States president," said Guerra, who accompanied the group along with music lecturer and mariachi director Frank Loera, Music Department Chair Dr. Pedro Martinez, and other UTPA staff members and South Texas dignitaries. Other Texas and national Hispanic leaders were also on hand for the signing.
The student musicians are now in the midst of a three-days-a-week practice schedule to learn and memorize the music for the opera, Guerra said.
The opera, titled "To Cross the Face of the Moon/Cruzar la Cara de la Luna," was commissioned by the HGO through its Song of Houston project and features music composed by José "Pepe" Martinez, music director of internationally acclaimed Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitán, and text by Broadway director and author Leonard Foglia. The opera will premiere in a concert performance Nov. 13 at the Wortham Theater Center in Houston with a cast of HGO artists and the Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitán, in their only Houston performance of the opera.
According to the HGO's letter inviting the UTPA mariachi to perform, HGO General Director Anthony Freud heard the Mariachi Aztlan at the Houston Rodeo last year and knew then that he had found the right sound and personality for the opera's stage premiere.
"Aside from the Mariachi Vargas, the UTPA Mariachi Aztlan was the only mariachi considered for the performance," Guerra said. " It is a difficult work, 80 minutes of new and original music that must be all memorized. What is a unique experience for our students is that the mariachi is a part of the action on stage and the professional opera singers perform alongside the UTPA mariachi. It will be a unique learning experience for our students in a very professional setting."
According to an HGO press release, "To Cross the Face of the Moon" chronicles three generations of a family, divided by countries and cultures narrating the emotional and spiritual connection to one's country of origin, the challenges of being a stranger in a foreign land and the very nature of home at the heart of the immigrant experience. The music is written specifically for mariachi, with no chorus or additional orchestra.
UTPA's mariachi will perform the opera Dec. 3, 4 and 5 with HGO's vocal cast at the Talento Bilingüe de Houston, a performing arts center in Houston's east end.
Learn more about the UTPA mariachi's 20-year history, their Albuquerque competition win, and the group's experience at the White House. You can read more about the world's first mariachi opera and find information on tickets at the HGO website.