Nov. 23, 2022

Out Of Character Trio Chapultepec


Together, Vincent Pequeño, William Carlton Galvez, and Israel Alcala are Trio Chapultepec, the mariachi group that performed with Houston Grand Opera during the 2019 world premiere of El Milagro del Recuerdo and now makes its anticipated return to the HGO stage.

All three musicians are incredible multi-instrumentalists who share the art of mariachi through teaching and performing. They’ve known each other for a decade and played together in a host of different mariachi groups. But they didn’t form their own trio until they auditioned for El Milagro together in 2019, joined the cast, and went on to wow audiences with their beautiful, soulful music.

Since then, they have performed El Milagro with opera houses including our co-producer Arizona Opera, the Fort Worth Opera, and Austin Opera. Split between San Antonio and Austin, they play weddings, quinceañeras, and other events throughout Texas. They also recently recorded a new album of romantic ballads recorded with mezzo-soprano Cecilia Duarte, an HGO favorite who originated the role of Renata and reprises it with this production.

One recent afternoon, we caught up with two of the trio’s members, Pequeño and Galvez, to ask them about their love for mariachi and the joys and challenges of combining the art form with opera.

Opera Cues: When did you fall in love with mariachi music?

Vincent Pequeño:
 In eighth grade, I wanted to join band, but they didn’t let me. They kind of threw me in mariachi. That’s where I met my first official teacher, Gino Rivera. He was the one who taught me the history of mariachi and how to play mariachi. And I fell in love with it. In high school I started playing downtown, here at the Riverwalk. And ever since then, I’ve just been playing all day, every day.

William Carlton Galvez: In fourth grade, my music teacher, Carlos Maldonado, showed us a video of a PBS special from Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán, and it was Steeven Sandoval singing “Por Amor,” collaborating with the Jalisco Symphonic Orchestra. So the first time I ever heard of mariachi was in combination with an orchestra. I remember getting goosebumps as a kid. I didn’t understand what the music was, but the emotion just played through so clearly. In eighth grade, I started playing vihuela, and I saw Mariachi Vargas live for the very first time. There’s a vihuela player—his name is Victor Cardenas, “El Pato”—and I just fell in love with his playing. 

You already know what’s going to happen, but the finale—it gets me a little teary-eyed sometimes. The whole opera itself really focuses on family values, the want and need to give one’s family a better life, but the difficulty of leaving one’s home—you know, that’s the hardest thing to do.

OC: What was it like joining the HGO Orchestra for Milagro?

 It was a unique experience. Having us on stage and then having the orchestra in the pit, it feels natural to me, in a sense—both these genres of music, classical and mariachi, just seamlessly integrate. My mariachi teacher would always say that you can turn any orchestra into a mariachi just by adding a guitarrón, a vihuela, and a guitar, because really, the heart of the mariachi is that—the armonia section, specifically. It was fun when we were rehearsing with the orchestra, because we were feeding off each other, you know, with their styling and our styling, trying to meet in the middle to create a unified sound.

VP: All of us, we were kind of craving it—you know, doing something bigger. And being able to be around other good musicians made it so easy and smooth for us. We just had fun the whole time.


OC: Tell us about rehearsals.

 To be honest, we didn’t know what was going to be expected of us. The first day, they told us, “Yeah, you have to have it memorized, because we want you all to play on stage.” It was like 20 songs, and so we did it in chunks. They were very patient with us. And we got the music memorized in like two to three weeks, you know, along with learning the stage setup and, at the same time, trying to figure out the positioning for seeing the conductor, because there would be times when there’d be a pillar in front of me. I would have to rely on Vince or Israel, or the monitors that they have on the sides. But those can be delayed, so we often had to rely just on the feel.


OC: What other challenges did you guys face?

 We knew the songs going in, but we never got to hear them, hear them. It was just the bones. So then, when we met the singers, we said, “Oh my god. Now it sounds completely different.” We were trying to find the right groove. One of the songs kept changing, even when we only had like two weeks until show time. So we said, “Okay, we memorized it,” and they said, “Oh, no, a different song.” And then we memorized that one. And they said, “No, again, we’re going to change it.”

There were a lot of obstacles, and it didn’t go unnoticed. When I would talk to the singers and the orchestra, they would say, “Man, y’all are on stage and singing and playing by memory.” They had sheet music, and the singers have all these breaks, whereas we had to be there from curtain up to curtain down.

WCG: But we were very well-rehearsed. It’s kind of funny. When we’d go back to our Airbnb, we would still have the songs stuck in our heads. And it really became a part of us. It still is. I can still replay the opera in my head from start to finish. So it’s a very personal project for us, too, because we were there, when they were still figuring it out.

Trio Chapultepec at the Wortham for the opera's world premiere.

OC: Do the opera’s themes speak to you personally?

You already know what’s going to happen, but the finale—it gets me a little teary-eyed sometimes. The whole opera itself really focuses on family values, the want and need to give one’s family a better life, but the difficulty of leaving one’s home—you know, that’s the hardest thing to do. It helps us to better understand what people are going through, and also helps remind us what our families and ancestors went through for us to be able to even be here today—you know, the sacrifices, and the difficulty in trying to preserve our roots.

In “Chica Americana,” when Chucho puts on his jacket and he’s acting like Elvis—he’s trying to show his wife all these things: “Over here in America, we have all this, and this is the living that we can have, and security.” But his wife, she says, “I want to stay here. This is my home. This is where I want to raise my family.”

VP: My family is based out of San Antonio, and I never really got to know any of my family from Mexico. But I have friends from Colombia, Venezuela, Mexico, and they’re out here—usually, they live together in a house. It’s like four or five guys. And they work, and they keep sending money back home for their families. If they’re lucky, they can go back and visit, but a lot of them can’t. So it’s a way for them to provide. And I’ve seen how hard it can be.


OC: What was it like working with HGO?

 I like seeing things grow. By the time the show opened, everything was already in our heads. It was scary to say, “Okay, this is it—people are paying to see you.” (laughs) I liked seeing how we kind of made the opera our own. Because they did have an idea—we want y’all to stand here, and we want y’all to play these chords, and play this, like this—but maybe Carlton wanted to change one note, and they would do it. It was like they gave us a recipe, and we asked, “Can we just put a dash of this in there?” So it became this melting pot of ideas.

And I remember one of the last shows that we did—Javier Martínez came backstage, and he was crying. And he said, “Y’all were the ones that helped make this a reality.” And now, every time someone says, “Let’s do a show,” we’re like, “Yeah, let’s do it. Let’s go!” Working with the Austin Opera and San Antonio Opera and the Fort Worth Opera and then even Arizona—this thing that HGO created for us grew, and it’s continuing to grow. And it was such a great thing to be able to work with HGO, that I’m super glad we’re going to be able to do it again!

WCG: It feels like family at HGO. They really make sure that we feel at home. It was a great first experience with an opera company. I remember when we finally put it all together for that first show. It felt like a space launch, in a sense. Right before the curtain call, when Israel goes out there to start off the vihuela solo, it’s like, three, two, one, liftoff. And then the stagehand gives the thumbs up, and boom, that’s it. We’ll see you in an hour and 20 minutes.

about the author
Catherine Matusow
Catherine Matusow is Director of Communications at Houston Grand Opera.