By Carlos García León
As Latinx/e Heritage Month comes again this year, I feel that it is the perfect time to express this thought I’ve had whenever I question why I like opera: why don’t more Latines like opera?
Of course, the answer is opera has been inaccessible to the mass public ever since its inception: it is expensive; the audience is majorly white (as are the singers); there are seldom operas in Spanish; the leadership is primarily white; the translations are exclusively in English. These problems have continued to reduce the impact that opera has for its community into today’s world. But as the US Census has re-demonstrated again, Latines are the fastest growing demographic in years. This means that opera companies, like many other fields, have yet again missed the mark in what could be hugely cultural and economic chances for the future. Simply put, the Latine community has been largely ignored yet again.
However, the pipelines for communities of color to partake with opera programming is truly not a hard one to begin. It will take work, but the many routes possible have just not been traveled.
Let me start at the beginning of one such route.
I was born in Atlixco, Puebla, Mexico and spent my time growing up watching telenovelas as a kid. I’m not sure about other Latin American countries, but Mexico has adult telenovelas like Teresa or El juego de la vida and children’s telenovelas like Cómplices al Rescate or Amy la niña de la mochila azul. I would watch both religiously. Beg my parents for the music CDs of the children’s novelas, akin to Disney’s beloved teen pop stars in the States. Needless to say, I was captivated by the drama, enamored by the humor, the wild situations they put the characters in, the close ups of the actors, and, of course, the clichés would get me every time. Ay no! The evil twin is back…no me digas!
There is a collective beauty of knowing that across the world our families were watching these telenovelas. Waiting to find out what happened after we were departed in yet another cliffhanger, looking at the beautiful actors – there is a think piece in there about queerness, Latin identity and telenovelas, but that’s for another place – being overwhelmed with all sort of emotions and overacting the physicality, and all the while building community..
See, drama and creativity have always been art forms that my experience of the Latine diaspora have an affinity for. My mestizo ancestry is of colonizers and indigenous peoples – the colonizers run with bulls and decided to travel the vast seas (a very dramatic move, if you ask me), and our indigenous roots have amazing stories of gods and goddesses that would compare to those of the ancient Greeks and Romans. We not only live for the drama and el chisme, we are the drama.
As with anything dramatic, telenovelas need musical flair. Music was used in the background of these telenovelas and one couldn’t help to recognize what time it was by the theme of the show playing in the living room. Yet, operatic music really wasn’t alive in these shows, nor in my life in Mexico generally. Opera found me a whole country away.
THE GRAND DEBUT
Opera made its grand debut in my life in college. I was an undergrad studying bassoon performance, so of course I had heard about opera, being that it is in the world of “classical music,” but I still had never seen one before college. Adding on to that, I was one of very few students of color. This fact was something that at the time I had was not mindfully aware of; just trying to survive college as a lower-income, first-generation, maybe queer??? student in a stressful music training education.
My first opera was Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love (or for you opera fanatics L’elisir d’amore). This came to be because my boyfriend-at-the-time’s roommate was playing the role of Adina in our school’s production. If I am being honest, I don’t remember much of the music or the production. What I do remember is that she was amazing, it was a bit ridiculous, and that I still felt indifferent about opera as a whole afterwards.
I saw my first opera, but I still had so many questions. Why is everyone so volatile with their emotions? Are we not translating everything? Do people really understand anything when more than 3 people sing different words? And the most important, why is it so long?
Later in the year, I was playing in the pit for Berlioz’s Béatrice et Bénédict. An experience that I connected more with because one, I was involved in it and two, I had done musical pit gigs in the past so I had some familiarity. The difference this time is that I did enjoy hearing the music. Was it because I wasn’t looking at the stage, the acting, the ridiculousness of it all? Perhaps, but I had learned one way of liking opera. This was a step in the pipeline.
Opera, much like telenovelas, embraces its drama. It’s part of the reason people love it. Yeah the voice is good and all, and like opera, telenovelas also have their own problems to fix when it comes to its processes. But all of that in itself is DRA-MA-TIQUE! Anyway, back to me…
I joined Cincinnati Opera in late 2019. At this point in my life I had graduated from my dual master’s degree program and was looking for a job that was in the arts and paid well enough for me to make a living out of it. My current position opened up and thankfully I was offered it. I figured that maybe I should give opera another chance, especially since I was going to be raising money for it.
That season, Cincinnati Opera was set to be doing it’s 100th anniversary, with Barber of Seville, Rusalka, Aida, and two world-premieres. As such, I saw a recording of one of the Met’s productions of Barber of Seville and somewhere in the ridiculousness that was happening on stage…it clicked. This is ridiculously good. First, Figaro is bisexual. I will not hear any arguments to the contrary. Secondly, all of the music just felt so unnecessary. How telenovela actors have to face away from the person they are speaking with for dramatic effect, or how they do three spins and fall to the floor from being slapped once. I was giddy with joy and nostalgia and I became obsessed with the production.
As I continued diving into the world of opera, the connection between opera and telenovelas just kept increasing. I have found that, for me, grand opera tends to have more distinct similarities to telenovelas. Leads having five minutes of an aria to express their internal monologue, choruses coming in seemingly randomly and then no one acknowledging them when they enter or leave, the music foretelling us the plot and keeping the audience in suspense are all things you can see in telenovelas.
I want to clarify that by no means am I diminishing the artistry and value that opera has. I understand the work, time, and money it takes to have an opera produced, performed, and deliver musical excellence. However, one has to admit that it is odd that companies have never put two and two together, operas and telenovelas. Now, whenever I see these similarities, I chuckle even when it is a very serious moment on stage. It’s hard not to.
THE VERY SERIOUS SUSPENSEFUL MOMENT WHERE THE EVIL TWIN COMES BACK
Any good telenovela has a great villain. It is what makes our main protagonist, well, a protagonist. Opera’s villain has been its evil twin who we know as (white) elitism. Many people can’t separate the beauty of opera without seeing the inherent elitism that it has portrayed.
The Latinx/e community has and will spend money when they feel they have been heard and represented. This might be a shock to our white colleagues because the racial wealth gap that their ancestors created has made it seem that BIPOC individuals are poor, but if other medias like Black Panther, Shang-Chi, and the price of a Bad Bunny concert seat have taught us anything it's that the BIPOC community will pay the price tag to attend these moments.
I won’t list for you the many ways opera companies can engage with the Latine/x communities, or any of the other BIPOC communities, because it is not a one-size-fits-all model. What I do want to offer is that there are many ways to engage, just as there are many ways to love opera. I certainly don’t love it because of the voices, as great as they are, but because operas remind me of my time with my family watching telenovelas and basking in the ridiculousness that ensues and living for every moment of it.
This simple connection to telenovelas is a part of that pipeline, this one pathway of many, to gradually expanding the audience, expanding the reasons people can go to the opera, expanding the ways we demonstrate opera, and serving as true representatives of the demographics and the society we are living in today.
During this month I take moments to listen to the music my parents, grandparents, and those before them were and would have listened to. Currently I have been reminiscing about the voices that former singers had that feel operatic in a way. The first artists that come to mind are Pimpinela, a brother sister duo who’s most famous tracks are truly just arias in my opinion. It would be so easy to create a karaoke opera akin to ABBA and Mamma Mia, with the songs they had.
As we continue celebrating the accomplishments of Latine/x Heritage Month, let us remember that there are still many accomplishments that can be done. We still don’t have many operas in Spanish, or many about the Latine experience. The few operas that are in Spanish only take place in a Spanish-speaking country or setting as if Spanish speakers or Latine folks didn’t exist outside of those created boundaries. Still not offering translations in English and Spanish. Having enough Latine and/or Hispanic opera singers, administrators, board members. This is just the start, but isn’t the thought of what’s possible hopeful enough to want to make it accomplishable?
Who knows, maybe one day we will have a telenovela opera.
Carlos García León
Carlos García León (he/they ; el/elle) is a queer, non-binary, Latine, Mexican-Statesian, and fundraiser. They were born in Atlixco, Puebla, Mexico, but currently reside in the stolen lands of the Shawnee and Miami tribes, also known as Cincinnati, Ohio and work as the individual giving manager of Cincinnati Opera. Their work, both in the arts and through writing, is driven by a fight for cultural equity, decolonizing the arts, and social justice. Outside of working and writing, Carlos likes to stream TV and movies, read a good book, learn German, take naps under their weighted blanket, drink milkshakes, and look for the next poncho to add to their collection.