A REFLECTION OF ALL OF US
BY JIM TOWNSEND
Development Communications Manager
SINCE ITS FOUNDING IN 1955, HGO has strived to be different from other major American opera companies. We’ve never shied away from trying something new or creating our own traditions. To make its mark on the world, HGO, like Houston, needed to find its own voice.
Now, after 64 seasons and 66 world premieres, HGO has become an international leader in innovation—and that’s because Houston audiences and supporters have given us a voice that has been heard and celebrated throughout the world. What you experience onstage at the Wortham is not just informed by centuries of operatic tradition—it is shaped by the spirits of the incredibly diverse, optimistic, and hardworking people of Houston. It’s a reflection of all of us.
Just take a look at our mariachi opera series. When HGO’s first mariachi opera, José “Pepe” Martínez and Leonard Foglia’s Cruzar la Cara de la Luna, premiered in 2010, an incredible 64 percent of the people in the audience were new to HGO. The story of a family of migrant workers separated by the border is so resonant and relevant that newcomers and lifelong opera lovers alike have found it profoundly moving. Add to that the intoxicating and potent combination of mariachi and opera music and you can easily see why Cruzar has become one of HGO’s most popular commissions in the company’s history.
This season, excitement is mounting for HGO’s second commission in the series, El Milagro del Recuerdo/The Miracle of Remembering. Composed by José Martínez’s son Javier Martínez, with libretto by Leonard Foglia, the opera is a “prequel” that provides us with the origin stories of the characters we’ve so grown to love. Like the other opera in the series, HGO wanted El Milagro to tell an authentic story that reflects the experiences of real Houstonians, and the holiday-centric opera, fittingly premiering in the Cullen Theater this December, does just that.
This past March, a group of HGO supporters joined the creative team for El Milagro in Mexico City for an exclusive peek at the new opera while it was being developed during an intensive, weeklong workshop. We asked their thoughts on how well El Milagro captures the stories of our city.
“The workshop was rewarding and very touching. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house,” says HGO Trustee Yolanda Knull.
“I’m the daughter and granddaughter of undocumented workers in the United States, and Cruzar was very personal to me,” Yolanda says. “In many ways, it’s the history of my family. And it’s a story that is globally applicable. A lot of us are immigrants, not just those of us from Mexico and Latin America. People leave families behind, and go on to new lives and new challenges. That’s what makes Cruzar and El Milagro very emotional and beautiful.”
Yolanda was thrilled to be part of the adventure, especially since she had been a part of the mariachi series from the beginning. When Cruzar was still just an idea, Yolanda invited then HGO General Director Anthony Freud to Mexico City. She introduced him to the Mexican Minister of Culture, showed him the sights, and took him to the Plaza Garibaldi—Mexico City’s home of mariachi music, where musicians have been found playing for visitors day and night since the 1920s. Freud was more determined than ever to facilitate the birth of the series that began with Cruzar.
Also present at the El Milagro workshop was Novum Energy Founder and President Alfredo Vilas, who serves on HGO’s Board of Directors. Alfredo and his wife, Marcia, were major supporters of the return of Cruzar to the HGO Resilience Theater in 2018.
“I’m a big proponent of HGO’s Latin works,” Alfredo says. “Houston has a majority Latin population, and this is a story that nearly everyone can identify with. The word ‘opera’ has a connotation with the elite, but when you see Cruzar and El Milagro, it has nothing to do with elitism. It’s popular music with an interesting, relatable storyline, and that’s what makes it so emotional.”
As an immigrant himself, Alfredo also relates personally to the story of Cruzar and El Milagro. He found that the mariachi operas give voice to unique challenges for immigrants in a way that invites understanding from everyone in the audience, no matter their background.
“I was raised in Mexico City, so mariachi music has had a big impact on me. What strikes me about this immigration story is the fact that when you become a success in a new place, you change completely. You’re not the same person. Life takes you a different way. You make sacrifices. Sometimes I feel like my Mexican friends don’t fully understand me, and neither do my Houston friends. You’re always in the middle of two cultures. The operas capture that feeling so well through the story and music.”
David Ruiz represents Bank of America, the Grand Underwriter of the 2019 premiere of El Milagro del Recuerdo and a longtime supporter of HGO’s new works and community collaboration efforts.
“Bank of America supports arts and culture in Houston, and HGO specifically because the work that they’re creating is beautiful, relevant to different cultures, and accessible to different audiences,” he says.
The themes of the opera also struck a personal chord with David.
“It was a very personal story to me, because my own parents crossed the border illegally at times. My father was a bracero, like the characters in this story. Seeing that story put onstage and shared with people made me think about what our parents went through. It was very powerful from that perspective. But this isn’t just a story about Mexicans or Mexican Americans. This is a country of immigrants, and everyone has a story about leaving their homeland…whether they crossed an ocean or a desert. It really resonates and makes you think about the sacrifices that people make to come to a place of opportunity.”
David found being a part of the workshop to be a rare treat. “The workshop presentation was powerful. As an audience member, having this insight into the process is so valuable…they were still creating music as the week went on, and they were going to continue to make tweaks. It’s such a privilege to see the transformation of the story and the music.
Who would have thought that the son of a bracero would be taking a vacation from Houston to Mexico to see a production by HGO about braceros?”
Like all of our new works, it is our hope that El Milagro serves as a reflection of everyone in our community and that audiences can celebrate their own stories and experiences through its music.
Photo by Sarah Shatz