Part II: The Story of Opera in México (1901 – 1911)

OK, the long awaited sequel to my post on 19th-Century Opera in México!

It would come as no surprise to anyone who has been following this journey of writing The Stranger from Seville musical, as an adaptation of Béa Gonzalez’s novel, The Mapmaker’s Opera, that opera in México went through some pretty drastic changes in the first decade of the 20th-Century – this coinciding with our own story setting.

After the expulsion of the eighty-one-year-old President Porfirio Díaz in 1911, new opera works created during his régime; including perhaps not unsurprisingly the opera composers who attracted Díaz’s favourable attention, were sentenced to obloquy by the succeeding generation of revolutionary composers – if only for the crime of having won Díaz’s approval.

But is this a fair indictment of the operas written during this period? Well, again, it is hard to evaluate when there is no easy access to materials for operas such as Gustavo E. Campa’s 1901 Le Roi Poète – dealing as it does with the life of a 15th-Century poet-King, ‘Nezahualcoyotl’ of Texuco – or for that matter Ricardo Castro’s La Légende de Rudel. What does make you wonder is why Castro decided a Mexican opera should concern itself with a twelfth century troubadour? Just to make the point, this is the briefest synopsis of this opera’s unlikely storyline:

Rudel (Tenor) already bound in spirit to a distant ideal of perfect womanhood, deserts the hapless Ségolaine (Soprano) and takes a ship to the East. En route, however, the Almighty invokes a terrible storm and the ship founders. Less grateful than he might otherwise be for surviving (having been thrown overboard by the crew) he blasphemes the ‘Eternal Providence’ and is picked up and carried into the presence of that paragon of beauty: the Countess of Tripoli (Contralto). In her presence, Rudel sings a golden-throated swan’s demise and, forthwith, dies at her feet. The countess then summons her attendants to apostrophize in choral song Rudel’s departing spirit.

Really? But, then to be entirely fair, much 19th-Century French Opera is equally absurd in terms of plot and story.

Given that neither Campa’s nor Castro’s work appealed en-masse to Mexican audiences, it was moreover unwise for Campa to then go and set down on paper his unkind opinion of what he was pleased to call the ‘brute Mexican herd’. When, later, the Revolution broke, he could not be forgiven for his open-mouth disdain of the Mexican people.

I wonder why!

And there you have it, a brief cavalcade through early 20th-Century Mexican opera. Next time, I am going to be less salacious and cover mid-20th-Century Opera in México: a subject that is of far more serious import.