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From The San Diego Union-Tribune, August 20, 2002:

Puccini’s tragedy may open an era of opera for Tijuana

You’d expect the pounding sound of banda music to rise from this hillside neighborhood — not this lilting, delicate medley of voices.

“Cio-Cio-San,” they sing, gently calling the name of the Japanese female protagonist in Giacomo Puccini’s tragic opera “Madame Butterfly.”

Pianist Armando Pesqueira leads the chorus in rehearsal at a church

Pianist Armando Pesqueira (cq) leads the chorus in rehearsal at a church Nuestra Senora de la Paz in Colonia Independencia last week. The Tijuana opera’s performance of Madama Butterfly will be performed on two dates in August.

(Peggy Peattie / Union-Tribune)

These are the foot soldiers of Tijuana’s new opera production, and on this Monday evening, it feels like one grand adventure.


The sweat drips from chorus director Armando Pesqueira’s face as he sits at the upright piano. Tenor Marco Antonio Labastida, who will portray Butterfly’s dashing American suitor, squeezes through the door and immediately launches into an aria.

Through the window, the setting sun casts a golden glow over the surrounding neighborhood, but everyone’s too intent on singing in Italian to pay attention. Soon, the Tijuana chorus will move from this sweltering little room borrowed from a Catholic church in Colonia Independencia to the stage at the city’s Cultural Center (called Cecut for short), where “Madame Butterfly” will be performed this Friday and Sunday.

“Tijuana needs opera,” says Jose Medina, a Tijuana bandleader’s son and opera performer who has been the driving force in bringing opera to Tijuana. “There is so much hunger for culture, to experience something different, to try different options.”

For years, a core of bel canto performers has won a small, loyal following but not widespread support. When talented Tijuana-born singers such as Medina and Labastida came home after studying abroad, they found few opportunities awaiting them.

But support for opera has been slowly building, one more sign of the expanding cultural life in Tijuana, which has long been viewed as a cultural backwater, far from the all-powerful arts institutions in Mexico City.

Three years ago, a presentation of opera selections at the city-run Casa de la Cultura drew several hundred people. Two years ago, the Cecut’s 1,100-seat theater was packed for selections from Puccini’s “La Boheme” and Donizetti’s “Elixir of Love.” Last year, people had to be turned away from a full production of Rossini’s “Barber of Seville.”

Judging from the thunderous applause that followed each performance, Tijuana is ready for opera.

In unison

This year, the producers dared for the first time to stage two performances, hoping to entice opera fans from both sides of the border.

Institutional backing has grown stronger, too. Acorde, the small, independent company that has headed past productions, this year is getting a big boost by joining forces with the Cecut.

As the opera’s co-producer, the Cecut is contributing its facilities, publicity department, technical assistance, and fund-raising efforts. Acorde director Maria Teresa Rique, who is also “Madame Butterfly’s” executive producer, said that without such support, the $155,000 production wouldn’t be possible.

Reaching out for broader community involvement, Rique and Medina, who is Acorde’s artistic director, this year formed the Tijuana Opera Company, inviting key supporters and opera lovers to work together to promote opera in the city.

“These are serious people who take their arts seriously,” said Ian Campbell, general director of the San Diego Opera, which has promoted the Tijuana productions to its members. “By saying, ‘This is the Tijuana Opera,’ they’re saying this is not a fly-by-night organization. It makes a declaration that art is going to be thriving over the next generation.”

Although opera has long been established in Mexico City, provincial efforts have often faltered, said Raul Falco, director of Mexico’s National Opera Company. “They come up like wildflowers, and put on one, perhaps two productions, then disappear. A lot depends on the people in place, what kinds of contributions they come up with.”

Falco laments that producers outside the Mexican capital tend to rely on old standards such as “Madame Butterfly” rather than take risks with lesser-known works. But Medina defends Tijuana’s reliance on familiar favorites, pointing out that many people here haven’t seen the popular classics.

“The audience that we have here needs to hear ‘Madame Butterfly.’ We’re building step by step.”

Young voices

Bringing opera to Tijuana has entailed years spent nurturing the city’s young talent, with voice lessons, master classes, participation in choruses and, this year, an opera workshop at the Baja California Conservatory.

Tijuana-born Guadalupe Paz, a 19-year-old mezzo-soprano, grew up listening to recordings played by her father, Rogelio, a public-school administrator and bel canto music enthusiast. He and his wife enrolled Guadalupe and older siblings — Aurora, 23, and Manuel, 24 — in the Pueri Cantoris children’s chorus, directed by Manuel Vega, which has spawned a number of talented young singers.

The three began private voice lessons after Medina picked up on their potential, and soon they weren’t just singing to please their parents, but to please themselves — and a growing circle of admirers.

The Paz sisters spent the summer studying opera in Italy — Aurora in Siena, Guadalupe in Milan, where “Madame Butterfly” premiered in 1904 at the city’s famed La Scala opera house. Guadalupe, whose teachers included Italian tenor Giuseppe Distefano, studied for her debut in one of “Madame Butterfly’s” four lead roles, Suzuki, Butterfly’s maid and friend.

“Over in Italy, the large part of the public was older and I saw few young people,” said Guadalupe Paz, whose slim build and quiet demeanor belie a powerful voice. “Here in Tijuana, I see a lot of young people interested.”

Although “Madame Butterfly’s” director, Wilhelm Keitel, is German, for the first time the entire cast is Mexican. Encarnacion Vasquez, a soprano from Mexico City, will play the fragile Butterfly. Tijuana native Labastida, a graduate of the Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio, portrays her heartless American suitor, Lt. Pinkerton. Baritone Salvador Padilla, from the state of Chihuahua, plays Sharpless, the U.S. consul.

In a key supporting role as Goro, a marriage broker, is Ignacio Clapes, for years one of Mexico’s leading tenors, a performer who has played lead opera roles in Europe and Mexico, and who teaches and leads vocal groups in Tijuana.

Pesqueira, with degrees from San Diego State University and the San Francisco Conservatory, directs the chorus.

“Listas, mujeres? Otra vez. Ready, women? Once again,” he instructed the five altos and six sopranos who showed up for rehearsal on this Monday evening in Colonia Independencia. “Please, make it pretty.”

The music drifted to the street below as night fell and the golden light turned shades of pink and purple. Little lights went on across the hillsides as the evening sky turned electric blue, and for a moment the city seemed pure and polished, a perfect backdrop for opera.

Source: This post first appeared on sandiegouniontribune.com

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