New opera tells a UTPA trumpeter's tale of struggles and dreams
Posted: 02/11/2013
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Not many 22-year-old college students' lives become the inspiration for an opera.

But the story of David Moreno, a one-time undocumented immigrant who became a top student, a premier trumpeter, and a member of The University of Texas-Pan American's award-winning Mariachi group is one that the Houston Grand Opera (HGO) wanted to tell.

The story of UTPA Mariachi Aztlán's trumpeter David Moreno inspired the Houston Grand Opera to produce a opera - "Past the Checkpoints" - based on his life as an undocumented student in the U.S. Moreno plays the trumpet in the opera, which premieres in Houston on Feb. 16 and will be performed in Edinburg on Feb. 22. The performance is free and open to the public.
His tale of going for his dream while facing fear, poverty and rejection by the country he knows as home will be showcased in a 45-minute operetta - "Past the Checkpoints" - that will premiere in Houston Feb. 15 and 16, then tour through South Texas.

A performance in Edinburg, which is free and open to the public, will be held at 6 p.m., Feb. 22 at the Edinburg Conference Center at Renaissance, located at 118 Paseo del Prado (off McColl Road). The Mariachi Aztlán will also perform following the opera.

Moreno will play the trumpet in the production commissioned for the HGOco, an HGO initiative that aims to connect the company to the community through collaboration, including performances by its touring company Opera to Go!, workshops, student matinees, camps and other opportunities to discover and learn about opera.

"I never imagined I would do anything like this," said Moreno, a music major at UTPA who began playing a used horn in the sixth grade. "I want to teach music but my dream is to perform."

Born in Monterrey, Mexico, Moreno crossed over to the United States with his family in 1995 on a tourist visa. However, seeking a better life, his parents stayed and the visa expired. Life got "tough, very tough," Moreno said.

"We didn't have a Social Security number, my parents couldn't work. It was a struggle at times for them to feed us (he and two siblings) and put us through school. My dad worked odd jobs, plumbing, electrical work, cleaning yards. My mom cleaned houses and babysat," he said. "It was a struggle but it helped me a lot to get where I am."

When he started playing the trumpet, Moreno said he wanted to be the best at it. "I had the mentality that, even though I didn't have a lot of stuff, I didn't need a lot of stuff to be good at playing my horn," Moreno said. "When opportunities came, I was prepared to take them."

During his teenage years at Rio Grande City High School, he often hid his status from friends and teachers, couldn't drive and missed many school trips because he couldn't fly or pass through a road checkpoint. But hard work, including many hours of practice, led Moreno to win statewide music competitions, head his band as drum major and graduate with honors. With the help of scholarships, he enrolled at UT Pan American, where he joined a number of music groups, including Mariachi Aztlán.

In 2010, the group's winning ways at famed national Mariachi competitions led to an invitation to perform for President Barack Obama at the signing of an Hispanic education bill. Moreno, whose family by then had started the legal proceedings to obtain permanent visas, received his green card just two weeks before the trip ensuring his presence at that historic occasion. He recently made a repeat visit to Washington, D.C. with the troupe as invited guests to perform at Obama's inaugural activities and to attend the inauguration ceremony.

Mariachi Aztlán's sound and growing reputation also caught the attention of then HGO Director Anthony Freud (now director of the Lyric Opera of Chicago) who asked the group to perform the stage performance premiere in December 2010 of the world's first mariachi opera - "Cruzar la Cara de la Luna (To Cross the Face of the Moon)."

The student musicians received scholarship support for their four performances, which Moreno called one of the most difficult tasks he had ever undertaken.

"The music is very demanding. We practiced daily and had to memorize the music for 16 to 17 songs," said Moreno, who performed two solos in that opera, which played to sold out audiences and critical praise.

"David is a fantastic trumpeter and we were really taken by his musical sound," said Sandra Bernhard, HGOco director.

She said the company also saw the operatic potential of a Dream Act child's undocumented life and its relevance in light of the current immigration debate. The Dream Act is proposed federal legislation which would legalize the status of several million undocumented youth, like Moreno was.

David Hanlon, the opera's composer who was also musical director for "To Cross the Face of the Moon" and familiar with Moreno's musical and leadership abilities, said he and the opera's librettist Joann Farias want "Pass the Checkpoints" to show the fear and uncertainty an undocumented status brings. He described Moreno - who is named Gabriel in the opera - as "just a great kid" and his story as emotionally touching.

"The first time David was able to pass the checkpoint was to travel to D.C. with Mariachi Aztlán to play for President Obama ... I find that a poignant, wonderful story about David as a person and what the checkpoint means to so many kids in Texas," Hanlon said. "It is a story of relevance for everybody - it's humanitarian and it is also universal in scope. It is not just about those kids hoping for the Dream Act; this is about our next generation and a big question that we all need to face."

The opera will also make visits to Laredo and Del Rio, then return to Houston for performances in local schools and community centers. Read more about "Past the Checkpoints" at