Zarzuela and Beyond
"How can opera survive and be relevant?" This is the question Hector Armienta is set on answering, and his answer is ambitious. As artistic director of the Latino opera company Opera Cultura, Armienta has set a schedule that reaches back to the roots of Spanish opera, while remaining rooted in contemporary Latino culture.
Spanish opera, or zarzuela, saw its golden age in the late 19th and early 20th century, dying out as a form around the onset of the Spanish Civil War. Though similar in musical style to Italian opera, zarzuela differs by interspersing spoken lines along with the songs. "This is beautiful music that is rarely presented," Armienta said, "It's an opportunity for people to explore Latino culture beyond what they're accustomed to. We are so very multifaceted; we draw from many cultural wells."
Armienta is an explorer himself. As a person of both Mexican and European ancestry, he views his work on the upcoming shows as a chance to explore his father's European heritage. First, Opera Cultura is presenting "Zarzuela and Beyond," Sept. 28 at the Mexican Heritage Theater, an evening of classic zarzuela arias sung by soprano Alexandra Sessler, accompanied by Armienta on piano. They have also brought on board flamenco and Spanish dancer La Tania to close out the show with two dance pieces, one newly composed by Armienta.
However, exploring the neglected past only goes so far in keeping opera alive. "Opera needs to connect to a broader audience. They need to feel their stories are being told," Armienta explains. This is why Opera Cultura's next production in March, Tales of Pilgrimage, will draw on the experiences of residents of San Jose's Eastside neighborhoods. Already the company is recording interviews with community members which will provide the material for a new song cycle composed by Armienta and directed by Kinan Valdez, son of famed Chicano playwright and director Luis Valdez.
If all goes well, Armienta is planning on producing a festival of zarzuela scenes in 2015, and a full zarzuela performance for the 2015-2016 season. On top of that, he's working on bringing a singer to town from Mexico, which is undergoing a kind of operatic resurgence at the moment, and he's acquired the rights to create a new opera based on Rudolpho Anaya's novel Bless Me, Ultima, considered canonical in contemporary Chicano literature.
The way to keep opera alive then? Hard work in the here and now. Looking back to popular opera in the past "they all were drawing on contemporary stories," Armienta says, "This needs to continue."
Sep 28, 7:30pm
800.838.3006 or operacultura.org