Sunday, July 30, 2023

The Mozart of Mariachi at West Edge Opera

West Edge Opera opened its annual summer festival at the fabulous old Scottish Rite Temple on Oakland's Lake Merritt.
Sunday afternoon saw the opening performance of Cruzar la Cara de la Luna, which was billed as a Spanish-language "mariachi opera."
On the elevator to the upper floor theater, we rode with a member of Mariachi Azteca, a group from San Jose who were the orchestra for the show.
Onstage for a short mariachi concert and throughout the entire 80-minute opera, they were absolutely superb and a joy to hear.
The opening concert featured singers from the band itself along with soloists from the opera. Baritone Efraín Solís was raised in Santa Ana, California before making his way through the Merola-to-Adler training program at the San Francisco Opera. For the last six years, his performances around the Bay Area have been highlights of every production where he appeared. In Cruzar la Cara de la Luna, he plays the multi-generational lead character of Laurentino with a musical and Spanish language authenticity that adds immeasurably to the opera's impact.
The tenor Moisés Salazar was also raised in Santa Ana in a mariachi family, attending a rival high school from Solis. Salazar is currently an Adler Fellow at the San Francisco Opera, successfully stepping in this summer for Michael Fabiano in Madama Butterfly, and he has one of the most gorgeous young tenor voices I have ever heard. He has the makings of a superstar if all goes well. Salazar sang a few songs solo, a duet with Solis, and finally a duet with his own father who still leads a mariachi ensemble in Santa Ana. Unfortunately, an amplified sound system marred that sentimental moment with stretches of loud feedback.
The amplification was unnecessary with the powerful voices assembled, and it almost ruined the opera for me, but the extraordinary, heartfelt performances, the graceful direction from Kristina Gutiérrez, and above all the mariachi musical score by José "Pepe" Martínez had me dissolved into tears by the end.
Martínez was born in 1941 in the southern Jalisco village of Tecalitlán, Mexico to a poor household with a father who repaired musical instruments and played the harp with mariachi bands. After moving to Guadalajara, the freakishly precocious Pepe formed his first mariachi group with fellow elementary school students at the age of 12, studied on a scholarship at the University of Guadalajara School of Music as a teenager, and eventually became the most prolific composer and arranger of mariachi music in all of Mexico.
In the late 1960s, with his group Mariachi Nuevo Tecalitlán, he was commissioned to arrange a series of 50 bargain-basement LPs for Discos Sono-Mex in Monterrey of every genre of music imaginable. In a detailed historical post at, Jonathan Clark writes: His speed and prowess at composing and arranging caused Mark Fogelquist to dub him “the Mozart of mariachi.”
In 2008, Houston Grand Opera produced a major mariachi concert and was so impressed by the response that they commissioned a libretto by operatic director Leonard Foglia and a score by Pepe Martínez for Cruzar la Cara de la Luna, six years before the composer's death in 2016. The story is simple and effective, about a dying Mexican-American man in Texas longing for his late Mexican wife Renata and his estranged son Rafael, which his American family knew nothing about. (Pictured above are Bernardo Bermudez as his American son Mark, Aléxa Anderson as his American granddaughter Diana, Kelly Guerra as his Mexican wife Renata, and Sergio González as Mexican son Rafael.)
The work could be labeled a musical, with its short stretches of dialogue and stand-alone musical numbers. However, the arias, duets, and ensembles backed by the mariachi band have an operatic sweep to them, and the combination of simplicity and sophistication of the musical score is a rare achievement. (Pictured above are violinist Monique Valenzuela, Alissa Aguilar as Lupita, wife to Moisés Salazar as Chucho, who starts the male migration from their village in Michoacán to Los Estados Unidos.)
The entire production team, cast, and orchestra led by conductor Sixto Montesino Jr. all deserve the highest praise.There is only one more performance of this production on Saturday, August 5th at the Scottish Rite Temple. You can order tickets online for as little as $10 for decent balcony seats (click here).

Thursday, July 13, 2023

San Francisco Silent Film Festival

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival opened last night at the Castro Theater for the next five days.
The festival is one of the cultural treasures of this city, with musicians specializing in live music to accompany silent films arriving from all over the globe.
The opening night film was The Iron Mask, a conglomeration of Alexander Dumas's Three Musketeers novels that ends with all our heroes dying while rescuing King Louis XIV from treachery. (They are rewarded with an arm-in-arm walk to heaven together at the end.) It was also the 45-year-old Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.'s swan song to silent films as a producer and swashbuckling actor. The production was lavish, with legions of extras on hand, and beautifully shot. Plus, the restored print was exquisite.
The theater was almost full with an attentive, appreciative crowd who gave a huge ovation to the Gunter Buchwald Ensemble. Their propulsive score for piano, percussion, and one musician on various wind instruments fit the movie well.
One of the great joys of seeing a silent film at the Castro Theater is being transported directly back in time. The theater was built for silent films (it opened with The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse starring Valentino) and now the great old cinema palace is about to be turned into a concert venue for Another Planet Entertainment. The situation is a civic disgrace, and everyone involved in making that happen should be ashamed of themselves, but time and change are inexorable. You might want to check out a film this weekend before the festival is forced to go elsewhere. Click here for a schedule.