MEXICO CITY — In high times and low, Mexicans turn to their music. To love, to lament, there’s Mexican music for every occasion: poetic ballads, bouncy polkas, rodeo rancheras, plus goth rock, marimba, metal, you name it.
And then there’s opera.
“The warmth, the emotion conveyed by the Latin voice, that you hear in popular music like the mariachi, you hear the same thing — romance, tragedy — at the opera,” said Charles Oppenheim, editor of a magazine published by ProOpera, a private nonprofit group promoting the sublime art in the Americas, and himself a singer.
Mexico boasts a dozen resident opera companies, but lately the art form has also taken hold in cities more associated with mayhem than mezzo-sopranos, like Ciudad Juarez, which hosts four major productions a year, rivaling Mexico City’s schedule.
The residents of Juarez, a.k.a. Murder City, don’t need to speak French to understand Georges Bizet’s “Carmen” — an opera complete with lawless smugglers, occupying soldiers and factory workers — which has been staged twice in the city. Change the costumes and stage sets from 1820 Seville to Juarez in 2010, the peak of the drug war there, and “Carmen” works as a contemporary morality play, the original narco-opera.
Even during the worst years of spectacular public violence, the Tijuana Opera bravely continued to showcase its free “Opera in the Streets” festival. This summer, the company staged the comic opera “Cinderella” in the historic Colonia Libertad barrio a short walk from the San Ysidro border crossing. More than 10,000 people attended.
Trying to dispel the aura of elitism, Maria Teresa Rique, director of the Tijuana Opera, told reporters in her city: “Opera won’t bite you. You just have to feel it.”
In Tijuana lately, as part of a program to take back public space lost to fear and insecurity, opera singers have begun to pop up in ordinary clothes at unexpected venues: the bus station, busy markets, street corners, the airport, cantinas and a low-wage assembly factory. Then they burst into song.
“When people hear this, they have been confused, then moved. Some have cried,” said Virgilio Muñoz, director of the Tijuana Cultural Center. “They have been amazed that someone who looks just like us, this ordinary person, is suddenly singing in a voice that is so beautiful.”
The cultural center’s Opera Ambulante, or Itinerant Opera, has staged 30 flash performances over the past year.
In the colonial town of San Miguel de Allende in central Mexico, a couple of retired American opera professionals have been hosting a week-long course and contest for aspiring young Mexican opera singers for five years.
“I was determined not to have anything to do with opera, but when I heard these incredible voices, I couldn’t resist,” said Joseph McClain, a former general and artistic director of the Austin Lyric Opera who teaches at the annual San Miguel event.
“The Mexican voice has fire, a brilliance, a light, but it also has this darkness,” McClain said. “The singers have this connection, this access to their feelings. It’s very intense, very immediate, no apologies. And, of course, that is the world of opera, that volcano of emotion.”
The singers receive a week of coaching from the professionals, in diction, language, dramatic acting — training that is expensive or hard to find in Mexico for young talent. At the end of the course, a dozen singers perform in front of a packed house at the Angela Peralta Theater. This year, the winner received a scholarship and a chance to debut with the Acapulco Philharmonic Orchestra.
“The audience in San Miguel think they’re at a soccer game,” McClain said. “They’re yelling and clapping and cheering. It’s just wonderful.”
Gabriela Martinez contributed to this report.