Twenty-five musicians from the Tucson-based Southern Arizona Symphony Orchestra returned recently from Oaxaca, Mexico, where they performed in the Oaxaca Opera Festival for the third consecutive year.
The full orchestra will perform highlights of the festival on Sept. 15 in a special Mexican Independence Day concert featuring vocalists from the festival and Mariachi Sol Azteca. Sponsored by the Mexican Consulate in Tucson and the Instituto Cultural Mexicano de Tucson, the concert is free at the Fox Tucson Theatre, 17 W Congress St.
The SASO musicians, together with several players from Oaxaca and one from Brazil, made up the Festival Orchestra. They were joined by about 100 singers in four performances of operas and operatic arias.
SASO Music Director Linus Lerner is artistic director of the festival and its co-founder with Maribel Sanchez of Oaxaca, general director. An internationally known vocal coach, Lerner auditioned and coached the singers who came from many parts of Mexico, plus Brazil and Italy. They were attracted by the opportunity of expert training and to perform opera with a live orchestra in the historic Teatro Macedonia Alcala, which opened in 1909. Lerner said. “The Teatro Alcala resembles a mix of Carnegie Hall of New York and Teatro La Scala of Milan.” Oaxaca is about 300 miles southeast of Mexico City.
The first two editions of the festival, in 2013 and 2014, featured concert performances of arias from many composers including Mozart, Donizetti, Verdi, Bizet and Puccini.
This year, the format of the festival was expanded to include fully staged performances of two operas—Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi and Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro)—plus two concerts featuring a diverse range of opera arias. Both operas were sung in the original Italian, with surtitles in Spanish projected above the stage. In The Marriage of Figaro, an actor gave humorous commentary in Spanish at several points during the opera, making sure the audience followed the many twists and turns of the plot.
All four concerts were presented at no charge. This was possible because of generous contributions from Tucson supporters Dorothy Vanek, Irving Olson and Tim Secomb, as well as contributors in Oaxaca. The SASO musicians donated their services and the singers paid a small fee to participate.
Secomb, principal viola and personnel manager of SASO who has played in all three opera festivals in Oaxaca, said, “Before every event, crowds of concertgoers stretched down the street from the theater. The performances were given to capacity crowds and some people had to be turned away. Some farmers from surrounding villages were in the audience. Many had never experienced a classical opera performance before. Every performance received a warm and enthusiastic reception from the audience.”
Oaxaca has been officially designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is an important cultural center in Mexico. Speaking to the audiences, Lerner proposed that Oaxaca should also become a center for opera in Mexico, a suggestion that obviously pleased the concertgoers.
Secomb said, “Both operas that we performed are masterpieces in their own ways. Gianni Schicchi has a single act and lasts just over an hour. It tells the story of a group of conniving relatives who pretend to grieve after an old man’s death—but who are really just after a piece of his wealth. It is full of dark humor. Puccini’s music is rich and colorful, vividly painting the moods and actions of the opera. Mozart was a genius as a composer, and that genius is particularly evident in his operas. The Marriage of Figaro is a wonderful piece of entertainment, as fresh and original as when it was written. The plot could be a modern soap opera, loaded with comedy and innuendo, yet with sensitive depictions of the main characters.”
Secomb added, “I think that the Oaxaca Opera Festival has a great future. It has so much going for it. There are many wonderful young singers in Mexico who are looking for opportunities to perform. We were constantly amazed by the strength and richness of their voices. This festival gives them a great opportunity to develop and to show off their talents. And Lerner is a natural opera conductor, with his deep understanding of the technique and art of singing, as well as orchestral conducting.
“In addition, Oaxaca is delightful and historic Spanish colonial city, famous for its historic central district, its outstanding cuisine, exceptional artisans and surrounding archeological sites such as Monte Albán. The people are relaxed and friendly. Oaxaca will be a wonderful destination for opera enthusiasts from anywhere in the world.
“Before we convened for rehearsals, I really wondered whether we were stretching too far with this year’s ambitious festival. Preparing four evenings worth of music is a very challenging task—and our rehearsal time was quite limited.
“An opera festival has a lot of moving parts. The musicians worked hard to get to Oaxaca and prepare our parts for all the performances. But many others worked equally hard, including the singers, vocal coaches, accompanists, stage directors and action coaches, surtitle presenters, lighting and scenery designers,” he said.
“Lerner provided amazing vision and leadership to make it all happen, and worked even harder than all the rest of us. With the foundation we’ve laid and the donors and audiences we’ve attracted, this festival really does have a great future.”