The Powerful Appeal of Opera To Ethnic Communities (VIDEOS)

In 1964, when a new musical based on the tales of Sholem Aleichem began its pre-Broadway tryout in Detroit, the producers feared the show might be "too Jewish" to find a large enough audience. Fiddler on the Roof went on to become a classic of the American musical theatre (to everyone's surprise, the oppression of shtetl life was a condition understood by every other minority which saw the show).

Not only did Fiddler get made into a feature film, the show has been staged all over the world. During that tryout in Detroit, I doubt anyone involved in the original production could have imagined seeing a Fiddler in which Zero Mostel's hit song, If I Were A Rich Man, was sung in Japanese!

Seventeen years later, David DiChiera (the General Director of Michigan Opera Theatre who is one of 2010's recipients of the National Endowment for the Arts Opera Honors) broke ground with an experiment in ethnic outreach as a means of broadening his opera company's audience. Certain cultures are famous for their devotion to opera. The Italians and Germans have a long tradition of attending the opera. So, for that matter, do Jews and Gays. But in November 1981, when I attended MOT's production of Armen Tigranian's Anoush, I was astonished to hear the entire audience conversing in Armenian during intermission.

With the auto industry in a state of catatonia and one of the highest rates of unemployment in the nation at the time, DiChiera had hit on a new formula for selling tickets. By presenting the first performances outside of the Soviet Union of what was often referred to as "the Armenian national folk opera," he struck a cultural nerve. Spearheaded by the efforts of Alice Haidostian, Detroit's Armenians came together with a common cause: "We must do this for our people!" The following clip shows the finale from a 1983 Yereven Studio film version of Anoush.

In 1982, DiChiera presented Polish composer Stanislaw Moniuszko's The Haunted Manor in Detroit. The following clip shows the mazurka (as performed on May 3, 2008 at the University of Maria Curie-Sklodowska University in Lublin, Poland).

Several other companies have since followed in DiChiera's footsteps. In January of 1988, the Long Beach Opera presented the U.S. premiere of Polish composer Karol Syzmanowki's King Roger. The following clip is from a production of Krol Roger at Barcelona's famed Teatro Liceu.

Headed by Placido Domingo (whose parents ran a zarzuela company in Mexico), the Los Angeles Opera staged Federico Moreno Torroba's Luisa Fernande in June of 2007. The following two video clips clearly demonstrate the appeal of Torroba's music.

Students at the Jarvis Conservatory of Music perform the
Mazurka of the Umbrellas from Torroba's Luisa Fernande

Placido Domingo and Monsterrat Caballé sing a duet from Torroba's
Luisa Fernande at the Auditorio Nacional Madrid on January 6, 1993

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In 1976, when Stephen Sondheim's musical Pacific Overtures premiered on Broadway, audiences were surprised by Sondheim's use of the pentatonic scale (in addition to the original Broadway cast album, the score was recorded in 1987 by the English National Opera). Since 1981, the Opera Theatre of St. Louis has offered three collaborations between stage director Colin Graham and Japanese composer Minoru Miki:

  • In 1981, the company presented the American premiere of An Actor's Revenge
  • In 1985, OTSL staged the world premiere of Joruri.
  • In 2000, the company presented the world premiere of The Tale of Genji.

Although I was unable to see The Tale of Genji, what I found fascinating about An Actor's Revenge and Joruri was Miki's combination of Western instruments with traditional Japanese instruments. The following clip from his 1993 opera Shizuka and Yoshitsune gives a sense of how his orchestrations sound.

Shizuka's dance from Minoru Miki's "Shizuka and Yoshitsune"

Although Minoru Miki's operas were not programmed to bring large numbers of Japanese Americans into OTSL's audience (the company performs in a 760-seat theatre during its June festival season), what is new and exciting is that the operatic composers who are now being sought out for commissions do not necessarily represent traditional Western culture. In 2006, the Metropolitan Opera presented the world premiere of Tan Dun's The First Emperor starring Placido Domingo.

In September 2008, the San Francisco Opera presented the world premiere of The Bonesetter's Daughter with music by Stewart Wallace (Kaballah, Hopper's Wife, Harvey Milk, Where's Dick?) and a libretto by Amy Tan based on her novel. The opera's plot focuses on a suicide in the maternal side of Tan's family. David Petersen's yet-to-be-released documentary, The Journey of The Bonesetter's Daughter, describes how Amy Tan was able to came to terms with her family history through the redemptive power of mounting her story on the operatic stage.

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All of the above-described operas -- whether or not they have a genuine ethnic appeal to Asian, Hispanic, Polish, or Armenian communities -- are helping to accomplish the following:

  • Familiarize the opera-going public with music by new and long-neglected composers.
  • Position opera companies as a relevant artistic force in their local communities.
  • Bring new audiences into the opera house.
  • Develop new alliances for fundraising and educational outreach activities in the schools, churches, and businesses that serve local ethnic communities.

New works by contemporary composers are bringing the musical flavors of Central America and Asia to modern opera audiences. In doing so, they are helping to broaden the repertoire and public's perception of opera. In some instances, new operas are changing the demographics of the opera-going audience.

On November 13, the Houston Grand Opera will present its 41st world premiere, with music by
José "Pepe" Martinez (music director of Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán) and a libretto by acclaimed Broadway director and author Leonard Foglia. Commissioned by HGO through its Song of Houston project, the opera will be performed in concert by a cast that includes mezzo-soprano Cecilia Duarte, Octavio Moreno, and Martinez, together with Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán. The 13-piece ensemble includes violins, trumpets, guitarrón, guitar, vihuela and harp.

Song of Houston's first commission was for The Refuge, which premiered in November of 2007. The Refuge told stories collected from local African, Central American, Indian, Mexican, Pakistani, Soviet-era Jewish and Vietnamese communities. As Sandra Bernhard, the Director of HGOco explains:

"At its heart, Song of Houston is an extraordinary series of projects that celebrate the people
who define the unique character of our city, We wanted to focus our efforts on the Mexican community in Houston because of the multi-generational nature of their experience here. This project gave us the opportunity to explore a universal theme of home and belonging and to collaborate in a way that honors a unique musical tradition."

To Cross the Face of the Moon /Cruzar la Cara de la Luna addresses a topic close to the hearts of Houston's large Hispanic population. Martinez's opera chronicles three generations of a family, divided by countries and cultures. As a Mexican-American man deals with the approaching death of his father, he is forced to face these questions about his own place in the world (straddling two cultures) as well as that of his immigrant father and his American daughter. As long buried secrets are revealed, he finds himself dramatically re-evaluating his own understanding of what makes a family.

In essence, the opera asks:

  • Is home where we are born?
  • Or is home where we live most of our lives?
  • Is our home with the family we leave behind?
  • Or is our home with the new families we create?
  • Where is home?

Like migrating Monarch butterflies, members of the Velasquez family must travel to the birthplace of their father (both physically and spiritually) on a regular basis. As each trip takes the family to Michoacán and Texas, they must look deep into their hearts before they can understand where they truly belong. This new opera was the brainchild of Houston Grand Opera's General Director and CEO, Anthony Freud. After attending a performance by Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán, Freud was struck by the resonances between mariachi and operatic traditions:

"Opera arias and mariachi songs tell human stories of love and loss, family and country. Through music they aim their narratives straight at the heart. It seemed to me that the two traditions were a natural fit. I wanted to be certain that we respected the integrity of both traditions in the piece we created, so it was natural to turn to Pepe Martinez to compose it (given how strongly he has influenced contemporary mariachi repertoire) and to Leonard Foglia, whose truly operatic style of storytelling and theatricality is his signature, to write the lyrics."

In all my years of attending opera, I've heard lots of new works by European and American composers. But never, in my wildest dreams, could I have imagined a mariachi opera!

To read more of George Heymont go to My Cultural Landscape