EL MILAGRO DEL RECUERDO is an unusual opera in at least three ways: it is a Christmas opera, of which there are some but not many; it is a mariachi opera, of which there are only two others, Cruzar la Cara de la Luna and El Pasado Nunca Se Termina; and it is a prequel opera, of which there are none.1 Why then does the world need a third mariachi opera that is both a Christmas opera and a prequel?
The mariachi aspect of this is easiest to answer, as both preceding mariachi operas were enormous successes. The idea for a mariachi opera hatched in 2009 when then HGO General Director Anthony Freud checked out a performance in the Brown Theater by the legendary Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán, known as “El Mejor Mariachi del Mundo.” Freud was blown away along with the rest of the audience, and he sensed the operatic potential in the mariachi tradition. He commissioned Vargas’s music director, Pepe Martínez, to write an opera with the director and librettist Leonard Foglia, who had lived in Mexico for years. The opera, Cruzar la Cara de la Luna, was an international hit, traveling to three continents, throughout the U.S., and with no fewer than four productions at HGO itself, twice in 2010, and again in 2013 and 2018. Following up Cruzar’s success, Martínez and Foglia reunited to write a second mariachi opera, El Pasado Nunca Se Termina, for the Lyric Opera of Chicago, which has since travelled to San Diego, HGO, and last spring to Fort Worth. The operas are rich celebrations of Mexican music, stories, and heritage that connect to all audiences regardless of background. After one rehearsal for Cruzar’s Parisian premiere, an Eastern European audience member sought out Foglia to tell him, with tears in her eyes, that this Mexican tale was her story as well.
Why then a mariachi Christmas opera? The mariachi operas have thrived as a reflection of Mexican history and culture, and the richness of Mexico’s Christmas traditions promised an inspiring vein from which to draw. In particular, El Milagro revolves around the rehearsals for a traditional Mexican pastorela. This nativity play dramatizes shepherds seeking out the infant Jesus while Satan tempts them to stray from their path. In the end, San Miguel vanquishes Satan and the shepherds reach the Christ Child. The pastorela offers sweetness and humor, while at the same time serving as a device where the characters interrogate their relationship to tradition. Some regard the pastorela as a proud cultural duty, some as something they do for their family, while others are plainly uncomfortable with the tradition, identifying more with American rock and roll.
And why a prequel? El Milagro revisits four characters from Cruzar: Laurentino, his wife, Renata, and his married friends Chucho and Lupita. In Cruzar, Chucho convinces Laurentino to join the United States’ bracero program, which provided a legal way for Mexicans to find temporary work in the U.S. The program was an economic boon for men like Laurentino and Chucho. But so many men left Mexico to work that there were whole “pueblos sin hombres,” as Renata sings in Cruzar—towns without men. Renata’s isolation becomes so agonizing that she ventures across the desert to join Laurentino in the U.S., with tragic results. El Milagro imagines the last Christmas that Laurentino and Renata spend together before her fateful journey. Laurentino and Chucho have unexpectedly returned on Christmas Eve amidst rehearsals for the pastorela. As welcome as they are, not all is well. Laurentino will only stay two days, determined to return to the U.S. to provide for his family. While Renata is crumbling under the weight of raising their son alone, she fears that Laurentino is becoming a stranger to his family.
The richness of these characters is reason enough to revisit Laurentino and Renata, but El Milagro sheds new light on their story by portraying it in a very different way. Cruzar’s storytelling slips suddenly between time and space, traversing present and past, America and Mexico, sometimes even within the same scene. Within Cruzar these sudden jumps reflect the now-elderly Laurentino’s disoriented mind on his deathbed. This fractured approach also reflects Laurentino’s fractured life. He's a man torn between two countries without being at home in either, a man torn between the past, present, and future, who spent his youthful years working towards a future with his family that he would never enjoy.
El Milagro does not reproduce Cruzar’s pervasive leaps of time and space. It remains almost entirely fixed in Christmas Eve in Michoacan in 1962. For these characters who were torn by time and geography, this focus becomes an act of grace—a Christmas miracle. We, along with Laurentino, have a brief moment where we slow down and immerse ourselves in the moment of the holiday.
Paradoxically, this concentration on the present moment intensifies our awareness of past and future. The rituals of the holiday becomes un milagro del recuerdo—a way of measuring the distance travelled in the character’s lives—whether it is Chucho’s father contemplating how he has played every role in the pastorela over his long life or Laurentino and Renata reconnecting with their childhood love for each other. As for the future, the tragedy that awaits the characters in Cruzar colors El Milagro’s story with melancholy. And yet, that same tragedy also infuses the story with an intense sweetness. We are all the more aware of how precious simple moments are in their fragility. This is true for El Milagro characters, and for us in our holiday seasons. Like the characters in El Milagro, we can never know if this Christmas is just another, or the last one before an irrevocable change, good or bad. We can only do as the characters of El Milagro do—to come together to savor this holy moment and its miracle of family, its miracle of togetherness, and the miracle of remembrance, one more time.
1: Before you say Barbiere is a prequel to Le Nozze di Figaro, I'd have to argue it doesn't count as the Beaumarchais plays on which they are based were written in chronological order.