Opera tends to be thought of as rich man’s music – with men and women decked out in gala-like attire going to hear tenors belt out songs in a show they shelled out big bucks to see.
Mariachi, in contrast, has always been music for the masses. In Mexico, it's the song of the street.
Now the two genres will be united for just the second time in the U.S. in a blend that many are calling "mariachi opera."
The first such performance ever assembled on either side of the border was “Cruzar la Cara de la Luna/To Cross the Face of the Moon,” which in 2013 received standing ovations in Houston, San Diego, Phoenix and even Paris.
Now the same production team, headed by mariachi giant José "Pepe" Martínez and Leonard Foglia, a noted playwright and director, is mounting another 90-minute stage production called “El Pasado Nunca Se Termina/The Past Is Never Finished.”
“The music is so emotional, so character-driven, I don’t know why anybody used it before,” Foglia recalls the director of the Houston Grand Opera saying when he first pitched the idea "To Cross the Face of the Moon" back in 2010.
As in that musical, “The Past Is Never Finished,” will be sung in Spanish and English with projected translations. So far it has scheduled dates in Chicago (late March), San Diego (April) and Houston (May).
The cast includes Mexican top-billers Casandra Zoe Velasco and Luis Ledesma, both with extensive resumés that include New York’s Metropolitan Opera and Madison Square Garden. Joining them will be little Sebastien de la Cruz, who in 2013 made headlines for singing the U.S. anthem while wearing a mariachi outfit at an NBA Finals game in San Antonio.
“The Past” story is set on a hacienda in 1910, just prior to the Mexican Revolution, and traces how the country's cultural conflicts and nationalistic struggles shape one family across the generations.
Foglia said he was interested in the moment in history when Mexicans said “Ya basta!’ (“enough’) and decided to take matters into their own hands. “I am always interested in the beginning of things, the spark of things,” Foglia told Fox News Latino.
“I am fascinated by the notion of the mestizo – What is Mexican?” added Foglia, who spent nine years coming and going to his vacation home in of Queétaro.
Foglia, the son of an Italian immigrant, said he grew up seeing in his father what it is to long for home and to put down roots in a foreign country – an issue that was widely covered in "To Cross the Face of the Moon.”
Now, he said, he wanted to explore what happens to the identity of migrants once they decide to settle beyond their borders.
“When you look into the mirror, what do you see? What does your face tell you about your past – How much did people who came before you affect who you are now?”
Foglia’s story will be sung with rancheras, boleros, jarabes and sones created by Martínez, who at 73 is one of the major mariachi figures in Mexico. He has been the head of the legendary Mariachi Vargas ensemble for 38 years.
His son Pepe Martínez Jr. has followed on his steps and is at the helm of the latest Mariachi Vargas project after his father fell ill last year. He is one of the 14 musicians (three violins, three trumpets, four guitars) who will play the accompaniment to “The Past Is Never Finished.”
“In ‘Cruzar’ people left the theater crying. People got up, crazy,” he said. “We hope this second production does the same.”
Mariachi music, both Foglia and Martínez say, is perfectly suited to the drama and overheated emotions often seen in the opera format.
“To be a good mariachi you have to sing to with the heart,” Martínez, who plays the violin and sings, told FNL.
Foglia, with experience in Broadway musicals both as a playwright and director, said the mariachi experience has been “wonderful.”
“Mariachi feels organically out of the earth and out of the people,” he said. “It covers great joy and great longing — the full range.”