This isn’t the first time the source inspiration for a work has been a song or collection of songs. “Puff the Magic Dragon,” “Yellow Submarine” and Harry Nilsson’s “ThePoint” inspired beloved feature length cartoons in the acid-driven late 60s and early 70s.
In Mexico songs provided inspiration for feature films in the Golden Age of Mexican cinema with titles including, “Allá en el Rancho Grande,” “Ay Jalisco, No Te Rajes,” “Cielito Lindo,” “Adiós Mariquita Linda,” “¡Como México no hay dos!” and “¡Qué lindo es Michoacán!” with their singing charros, and “La Cucaracha” starring María Félix and Dolores Del Río.
In this case “Contabanda y Traición (Camelia La Tejana)” by Mexican band Los Tigres Del Norte inspired an opera by Gabriela Ortiz with songs ripped right from the headlines. But what could have been compelling just isn’t as “Camelia la Tejana (Only the Truth!).” Check out the original song in the video and check out a preview of the opera.
Instead of presenting “Camelia La Tejana” as an opera in which the role of Camelia is the main protagonist, the tale delves into postmodern analysis of the myth of Camelia from various perspectives sans protagonist, creating an even greater emotional distance through the plot (or lackthereof) than the contemporary music holds in and of itself. One of the great rewards of opera is the emotional experience. The soprano bringing the house to tears or hitting the money notes is what keeps people coming back for more. There was none of that and it was lacking, especially for the nose bleed seats. It felt more like watching the “making of” a movie with the DVD commentary sung in disgruntled and dissonant recitative rather than watching the main film that tells a compelling story.
There was quite a bit of time spent on the postmodernist bliss of expressionistic video projected behind the action (or lackthereof) while the chorus struck a pose and sang some stuff that could be interesting in a choral performance as the headlines are deconstructed into choral soundbites, but this is supposed to be an opera. While some of the footage worked well as a backdrop of railroad scenes, the decapitated head of Camelia’s scorned lover floating across the screen in slow motion was comical and ridiculous rather than shocking like the original tabloid story. The chorus whipping out their phones to text just didn’t make much sense. If one seeks to be absurd, by contrast, Luis Bunuel’s “Exterminating Angel” took a very small premise and made it fascinating.
The hall sonically dwarfed the production as if the audience weren’t alienated enough; thrice removed from material. Though the production was supposedly in Spanish, it was hard to understand the singers from a native speaker’s perspective. Part of this appeared to be the fault of mix issues. The singers had head mics and yet the orchestra drowned them out about half of the time. Classical singing requires a more distant mic placement or usually the end result is fuzz.
It seems like this production would work better in the musical theater format. The music in this opera hardly needs operatic beauty when the original song certainly didn’t use it. In fact the opera would benefit from belted voices, trained actors, and a chorus filled with triple threats who can dance to fill the minimalist stage.
The most clearly staged scenes involved Nanette Brodie Dance Theater featuring Teresa Rios as the “Pantomime Camelia” who transitioned from a young girl into a vicious murderer and leader of a gang. Dancers know they must project their movements to the distant balcony, meanwhile the opera singers moved far less confidently for fear of creating some miniscule, inconsequential and often fictitious vocal imperfection. Teresa Rios deserved her own bow for her acting since the production was relatively light on serious dancing.
That being said, the singers did a marvelous job with difficult repertoire. The chorus sang their parts well and effectively as led by Danielle Bond who was the uncredited lead chorister. The only recognizable tune in the evening was a creepy rendition of the original melody, sung by Camelia, which closed the opera. Another good moment was Nova Safo as “El Tigre” who played his role as a singer, enticing the chorus as his audience, garnering a few laughs in the process.
But overall, people left saying, “Well, that was interesting,” in a tone of voice which expressed disappointment. Others asked, “What did I just sit through?” Meanwhile others will pretend it was brilliant because they have a tin ear or don’t understand spoken Spanish, or don’t know anything about Mexican culture. Yes, Mexico City is known for opera, but this opera isn’t one of the greats. It’s certainly OK to say so and wish Ortiz better luck connecting with an audience next time around, as hard as it is to be harsh about someone’s “baby” while the composer herself sat in the audience.
Long Beach Opera’s fame comes from the irreverent choices of seldom or never performed material and “Camelia” was no exception. “Camelia La Tejana” was perhaps not a great starting point for lovers of popular music, of which there were several who dressed like they were going to a Tigres Del Norte concert rather than an opera. While this event might have been a miss for many, it is hoped that the upcoming staging of Stewart Copeland’s “Tell-Tale Heart” will be more rewarding and tell an actual story. Copeland’s work is on a double bill with another opera titled “Van Gogh” about the artist’s life.
Rock music lovers might remember Copeland as the drummer of 1980s British Invasion leaders The Police before he became Stewart Copeland the composer. In the 80s he scored the film “Rumblefish” and was the star and composer of “The Rythmatist” in which he appeared to play drums while surrounded by lions among other things.