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Mariachi Aztlán and Lyric Opera of Chicago continue exciting fusion of two genres
Posted: 06/02/2014
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A combo of opera and mariachi drew cheering sold out audiences again this spring in Chicago when The University of Texas-Pan American's acclaimed Mariachi Aztlán teamed up with the Lyric Opera of Chicago to perform "Canciones y Arias."

UTPA's Mariachi Aztlán performed in the Lyric Opera of Chicago's production of "Canciones y Arias" in April. It is the second time the group has collaborated with the celebrated opera company on a production. Photo courtesy of Todd Rosenberg Photography.
This is the second year in a row that the Mariachi Aztlán has collaborated with the opera company on a production. In 2013, after hearing about the mariachi's performance with the Houston Opera Company of the world's first mariachi opera Cruzar la Cara de la Luna (Across the Face of the Moon), the Lyric Opera invited the group to perform the same opera there with the Lyric Opera cast.

"We have found them to be energetic, hard working, ambitious and disciplined. Their performances are high energy and their musicianship top-notch," said Cayenne Harris, Lyric Unlimited director. "They are excellent ambassadors of both The University of Texas-Pan American and of Mexican culture."

"Canciones y Arias" traces the drama and the passion of the history of song demonstrated through traditional canciones (songs) of the mariachi genre and classical operatic arias, using as examples the famous Mexican singer Jorge Negrete and the highly regarded Mexican composer Manuel Ponce as well as selections from the operas of Verdi, Puccini, Donizetti, and more, said Dr. Dahlia Guerra, dean of UTPA's College of Arts and Humanities and founder of the University's mariachi program.

Performing with the group requires hard work, dedication and sacrifice said Adolfo Estrada (BA '13), a vocalist who also plays the regular Spanish guitar in the Mariachi Aztlán. Estrada, from San Antonio and who will begin a master's program in ethnomusicology in August at UTPA, said playing with the opera has allowed the group to learn about how different groups practice and train.

A Mariachi Aztlán musician is pictured working with aspiring mariachi musicians from the Chicago neighborhood of Pilsen and the nearby community of Waukegan as part of the Lyric Opera's community engagement efforts. Photo courtesy of Todd Rosenberg Photography.
"We have been able to work with top tier groups. On the performer level and as a skilled musician it opens a lot of opportunities to expand our arsenal or tool kit per se for rehearsal techniques and getting exposure to how other genres of music rehearse," he said.

Members of the Mariachi Aztlán and the group's directors, Guerra and Francisco Loera, participated in community engagement and educational activities last year and again this year organized by Lyric Unlimited, an initiative of the Lyric Opera of Chicago to expand their community engagement and educational programs throughout the Chicago area, particularly those areas where opera is a lesser known genre.

Harris said the engagement activities included lecture demonstrations for students in the nearby community of Waukegan and the largely Hispanic Chicago neighborhood of Pilsen, workshops for both instructors and students of the Chicago Mariachi Project and Q&A sessions with students following dress rehearsals and performances. Additionally, Mariachi Aztlán played side by side with student performers at planned and impromptu sessions.

"We were incredibly impressed by their dedication, musicianship, work ethic and interest and ability to connect with students and community audiences," Harris said. "The work they have done with mariachi students has had a lasting impact on what is still a new program here in Chicago. They are without a doubt an inspiration to young aspiring mariachis and have brought great joy to audiences of all ages through their dynamic performances."

The UTPA Mariachi Aztlán will perform another mariachi opera - El Pasado Nunca Se Termina - with the Lyric Opera of Chicago in March 2015. Photo courtesy of Todd Rosenberg Photography.
Estrada said engaging with the community was one of the most positive aspects of the experience. He said not only were the young musicians excited but also their parents.

"It was exciting to see people's take on it, maybe people who have never been to the opera but were familiar with mariachi," he said.

Estrada said the program at UTPA is now attracting students from across the state, nation and internationally.

"Our mariachi program is the banner for any other mariachi program at the University level. No other University can even come close. I say that most humbly because it is an honor to be a part of that ensemble," he said. "We are ambassadors not only for the University but for those people who have never seen a mariachi in their lives before."

The Mariachi Aztlán has a growing record of accolades. For several years in a row, they defeated six professional groups to win the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo's Mariachi Invitational. In 2010, 2012 and 2013, the Mariachi Aztlán won Grand Champions at the Mariachi Spectacular de Albuquerque national mariachi competition. In 2011, they were invited to perform at the Hollywood Bowl, selected from professional groups across the nation. In 2012, the mariachi performed at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival and at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. The group has also performed for President Barack Obama at the White House and their official portrait hung at the White House for several months.

In March 2015, the group will perform again with the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Because of the response to the first mariachi opera, the Lyric Opera has commissioned another one - El Pasado Nunca Se Termina (The Past is Never Finished) - from the same team that created Cruzar la Cara de la Luna. The Mariachi Aztlán will perform for preview audiences of the opera, which begins on the eve of the Mexican revolution and will tell the story of two families - one indigenous and one European - whose lives become deeply entwined. The opera will expand multiple generations with the audience meeting the modern day ancestors of the two families who are now reconciling their pasts in the context of modern life in the United States and Mexico.