Divas Divinas: Spanish Language Operas Flourish

Under crystal chandeliers, two sopranos in long black gowns merged their voices with a tenor and a baritone. It was opera, but in a less-often-heard language: Spanish.

The recital, called "Sonetos de amor y muerte" ("Sonnets of Love and Death"), marked the debut of New York City’s Opera Hispánica.

"Other opera companies, the traditional ones in New York, introduce everything in Italian, in French and in German, but Opera Hispánica is going to predominantly perform in Spanish," said Daniel Frost Hernández, founding executive director of the company.

Hernández, a native of San Antonio who sang with regional opera companies and currently works at a marketing firm, said he launched Opera Hispánica because he noticed more Hispanic composers and opera singers, as well as productions in Spanish.

"Il Postino," with Placido Domingo as Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, is probably the most talked about opera in Spanish this season. Composed by Mexican Daniel Catán, the LA Opera is presenting it through Saturday.

Likewise, Houston Grand Opera is announcing the "the first mariachi opera," titled "To Cross the Face of the Moon," for a single performance on Nov. 13. A few days later, the New York Opera Society will perform "Las horas vacias" ("The Empty Hours"), by Ricardo Llorca, at Lincoln Center.

Operas in Spanish are not only being showcased in cities with established Hispanic populations such as New York, Los Angeles and Houston. In Milwaukee, the Florentine Company chose "Río de sangre" ("River of Blood") by Don Davis, who composed the score for "The Matrix" trilogy, for its first world premiere. It's also the first time the 77-year-old company will present an opera in Spanish.

"We do have a sizable Spanish speaking population in Milwaukee, which a lot of people aren't aware of," William Florescu, general director of the Florentine Opera, said. "That was also a demographic within Milwaukee that I wanted to draw to the opera."

Hernández began working on Opera Hispánica more than a year ago. He got in touch with Mexican pianist Juan Pablo Horcasitas, who recently debuted at Carnegie Hall, and hired him as musical director. Later, he had coffee with Puerto Rican soprano Camille Ortíz and persuaded her to serve as Opera Hispánica's artistic director. Ortíz and Horcasitas both graduated from the Manhattan School of Music.

"It was the answer to my prayers," Ortíz said. She explained she had been trying for years to promote works in Spanish, adding that the repertoire is not often taught at American music schools.

Singers from Brazil and Cyprus as well as the U.S. will take part in the company's first shows.
Still, said former opera star Martina Arroyo, the company needs "financial support plus the people coming and, when I say people, I don't mean only Hispanic people." Arroyo is a member of the organization's Artistic Advisory Board.

"It's beautiful music that is absolutely a part of our musical worldwide library and it should be heard," she said.

Based on reporting by The Associated Press.