In a year that it bested top universities and professionals to win one of the nation's premier Mariachi competitions and next played for President Barack Obama at the White House, the Mariachi Aztlan at The University of Texas-Pan American is now readying to perform in what one Houston arts critic called "a new, spectacular, evolutionary art form."
On Dec. 3, 4 and 5, the Mariachi Aztlan will perform in the premiere of the Houston Grand Opera's fully-staged production of "To Cross the Face of the Moon (Cruzar la Cara de la Luna)," the world's first mariachi opera.
A concert performance of the opera by the HGO and the world famous Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán debuted at Houston's Wortham Theater Center Nov. 13 to rave reviews. Its music was composed by the Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán's musical director José "Pepe" Martinez with lyrics by Leonard Foglia, an acclaimed Broadway director and author. However, UTPA's Mariachi Aztlan was requested to step in to take on the stage production of the opera that will include sets, costumes and on stage action movements by the 15-member group of student musicians.
"Aside from the Mariachi Vargas, the UTPA Mariachi Aztlan was the only mariachi considered for the performance," said Dr. Dahlia Guerra, dean of UTPA's College of Arts and Humanities and founder of UTPA's mariachi.
In his letter inviting the UTPA Mariachi to perform, HGO General Director Anthony Freud wrote that he had 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.
In July 2010 the Mariachi Aztlan was named Grand Champions at the prestigious Mariachi Spectacular de Albuquerque competition, besting not only other university mariachi groups but professionals. The invite to perform at the White House grew out of their growing reputation as one of the country's top non-professional groups. They were invited to played for President Obama at the Oct. 19 signing ceremony at the White House of an Executive Order renewing and enhancing the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics.
Guerra described the opera performance as difficult work-80 minutes of new and original music that the musicians must memorize. The students have been participating in three-night-a-week rehearsals since late October. They leave Saturday, Nov. 27 to be able to rehearse on the stage of Talento Bilingüe de Houston, a performance venue in Houston's east end. At a recent rehearsal on campus, most of the students expressed their nervousness about performing on stage but also excitement about the opportunity.
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.
Guerra, who attended the Nov. 13 sold out concert performance in Houston with the Mariachi Vargas, described the opera as beautiful and moving. The title, she said, is a metaphorical reference to the migration of the monarch butterfly.
"The story line is sad but uplifting. It is the typical story of the immigrant family that is split," she said. "It made me think about our own community and how it was so relevant for the time, especially in light of the current immigration debate. This opera captures the anguish, the struggling, the suffering that first generation Americans go through, be they Hispanic or any first-generation American. When I saw it I thought, 'this is Fiddler on the Roof for Hispanics.'"
The www.examiner.com reviewer Gary Lindsay described the music as "achingly beautiful."
"The music for To Cross the Face of the Moon was alternately delicate, grand, somber, celebratory, melodic, symphonic and effortlessly touching to the soul," he wrote.
Culturemap.com reviewer Theodore Bale called it a "stunning, emotional work" and the cast, which will perform with the Mariachi Aztlan, as "unconditionally excellent." Bale included HGO director Freud's program notes in his review as important to the future of opera.
Freud's notes read "...exploring the fusion of opera and mariachi takes both art forms in new directions; the piece will allow us to reach new audiences; it celebrates the historic 2010 Mexican anniversaries in a spectacular way; it allows us to build dynamic and meaningful relationships with communities around our city for whom opera and opera companies have typically had little relevance."
Guerra said this opera makes a very important and significant social statement.
"I can see this opera being important one hundred years from now," she said.
The December performances will feature eight members of the HGO's vocal cast with 15 members of the Mariachi Aztlan. The opera will be performed in Spanish and English with projected translations. The performances are Friday, Dec. 3 at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, Dec. 4 at 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m.; and Sunday, Dec. 5 at 5:30 p.m. The stage performance will be held at Talento Bilingüe de Houston, 333 S. Jensen Road, Houston, Texas. Tickets are $25 general admission and $22 for students up to age 18 and seniors (over age 65). Tickets and information can be obtained at Talento Bilingüe de Houston or by calling (713) 222-1213.