By Collin Estes
What’s the first thing that pops into your head when you think of opera? You could be forgiven if you think it’s mostly heavyset individuals in horned helmets singing laboriously about somewhat muddled themes, holding notes for minutes at a time. We have countless pop culture gags to thank for those images. However, there’s certainly more to the genre than Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung cycle via Bugs Bunny.
Aside from the vast spectrum of musical diversity one finds, operas can be more thematically explicit than you’d think — Alban Berg’s lurid, Jack the Ripper-based “Lulu” (which later inspired the “divisive” collaborative album between Lou Reed and Metallica) being just one example. So, also, can operas be politically and culturally incisive, like John Adams’ “Doctor Atomic” and “The Death of Klinghoffer,” which explore, respectively, nuclear weapons and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (Incidentally, perhaps a good example of the ongoing cultural relevance of opera is the intense controversy that followed “Klinghoffer,” which counted Rudy Giuliani amongst its many vocal detractors.)
The opera “Cuatro Corridos,” which will come to UCCS’ Ent Center for the Arts Friday, March 9, subverts common expectations of opera in many ways. The work, led by Grammy-winning American soprano Susan Narucki and Mexican author and Guggenheim Fellow Jorge Volpi, is an unflinching look at a critical contemporary human rights issue, human trafficking. The four-act opera explores the stories of four women trapped into sexual slavery near the San Diego and Tijuana border — based on true events — and seeks to use art to raise awareness and usher in public conversation about a difficult and, unfortunately, pervasive issue.
As well as perhaps subverting a few matinee symphony attendees’ expectations of subject matter, the opera also subverts the usual construction of an opera by featuring the music of four different composers: Hilda Paredes, Arlene Sierra, Lei Lang and Hebert Vázquez (who was nominated for a Latin Grammy in 2017). Each bring one act of the story to aural life.
Percussionists Ayano Kataoka and Steven Schick, pianist Aleck Karis, guitarist Pablo Gomez, and the set design of artist-activist Karen Guancione round out the production’s collaborative effort between Mexican and American creatives.
The world premiere of “Cuatro Corridos” was held at UC San Diego’s Conrad Prebys Music Center in May of 2013. The opera has since earned international critical acclaim from the Los Angeles Times, multiple press outlets in Mexico and Latin America, and even the Chinese journal Opera.