To Cross the Face of the Moon Goes Straight to the Heart

A Mariachi Opera?  I was very curious, so I took myself over to the small and beautifully renovated theatre space at Talento Bilingüe de Houston on Jensen Drive on Saturday night. Houston Grand Opera (HGO) commissioned the truly bilingual opera called To Cross the Face of the Moon / Cruzar la Cara de la Luna.

Let me come clean right now, I am a middle aged white lady whose experience of mariachi music is limited to the wandering musicians at Mexican restaurants.  So what we had that night was a revelation to me: beautiful songs full of heart that told a story with vibrant, complex, and extremely melodic music throughout the opera, played by a 16-piece mariachi ensemble, Mariachi Aztlán from the University of Texas Pan American in Edinburg, Texas. The group also sang the choral parts of the opera. They were fabulous!

When the music started I could not stop the big smile that appeared on my face – it is such upbeat, happy music.  The opera began with a wedding in the state of Michoacán in Mexico. The newlyweds Renata and Laurentino are in love and they talk about how happy they will be and the children they will have.

Laurentino (Octavio Moreno) and Renata (Cecilia Duarte) on their wedding day. Photos by Felix Sanchez

As time goes by there are many complications in their lives. Laurentino goes north into Texas to make a better life for his family, and that decision has a huge impact not only on his small family, but on generations to come.  This story is about three generations of the family, some in Texas, some in Michoacán, and how they got pulled apart and how they made their way back together.

Laurentino tells a story of his youth when he would watch the migrating monarch butterflies that would fill the sky – even flying by at night. As he looked up to see them, they would “cross the face of the moon.”  He was full of wonder at how they knew where and when to go.  The butterflies and their migration becomes a symbol of the people who go north to get work, then return south to be with their families.

It’s a very emotional and heart-rending story, and one taken from our own time and place.  One reason it is so moving is that we know the story is based on reality as we know it today. Another reason is that the singers embodied the characters so beautifully, and the ambiance and culture of Mexico was always there – with the mariachi music. And the characters took this portable piece of Mexico with them wherever they went.

Laurentino was sung by Octavio Moreno, former HGO Studio artist, who sang with power and nuance, and was completely convincing as both a young man and an old man.  Cecilia Duarte sang the role of his wife Renata, a character full of life and courage, with a bright and clear soprano voice.  Brian Shircliffe and David Guzmán played Laurentino’s two sons, Mark and Rafael. Brian’s lovely baritone voice and David’s effective tenor combined very nicely in duets.

Another standout was Vanessa Cerda-Alonzo, who has been a featured mariachi performer for over 20 years. She sang the role of Lupita with a gorgeous earthy mezzo voice that delivers a punch.

Brittany Wheeler and Saúl Avalos were excellent in their supporting roles.

The composer of this remarkable musical evening is José “Pepe” Martínez, musical director of Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán, considered a very top-tier mariachi ensemble. He co-wrote the book  lyrics with Leonard Foglia, who was also the director. Mr. Foglia is a longtime opera and theatre director, librettist, and novelist.

The performance was a complete triumph!  Who could resist its true-to-life story and its life-affirming music?  I walked out humming and drying my cheeks.  Although the run at Talento Bilingüe is over, I feel sure this gem will reappear soon.  It is just too good to neglect. If you see it advertised in the future, my advice is – buy a ticket right away.

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