An Interview with Susan Narucki

The Reason for Cuatro Corridos by Jon Potter


"What would your life be like to be in a place where you’re held against your will physically, but even if you get out of it, you’re still a slave not just because of physical restrictions, but also because you’re also invisible in society?"

That was the question Susan Narucki posed, as she discussed her new venture, a chamber opera about human trafficking across the U.S.-Mexico border. She added, "I can’t even put into words how outrageous this is."

So she and some collaborators are putting it into words...and music.

Soprano Narucki, writer Jorge Volpi, four composers and three other musicians are in Putney this week working on the music for "Cuatro Corridos," a new chamber opera based on real events from the frontlines of the immigration issue. They are here as part of Yellow Barn’s Artist Residency Program, sweating the musical details in preparation for a May 8 premiere in San Diego, Calif.

Local audiences have two chances for a sneak preview of this very relevant new work. On Thursday at 7 p.m., at the Putney Public Library, the artists will discuss their work. Admission is free. On Saturday at 8 p.m., at Next Stage on Kimball Hill, they will perform "Cuatro Corridos." Admission is $12, and a discussion with the ensemble will follow the performance.

Narucki should be familiar to local audiences as a long-time Yellow Barn faculty member. A Grammy Award-winner and champion of new work, Narucki first encountered issues around immigration in 2008 when she was appointed professor of music at the University of California, San Diego.

Narucki connected with a friend of a friend who was interested in writing a libretto about this. From there, the idea of a chamber opera grew.

"We didn’t think it would blossom into something as large as this," she said.

From those initial conversations, "Cuatro Corridos (Four Ballads)" developed into a collaboration that involved writer Jorge Volpi, who based the libretto on true events. "Cuatro Corridos" tells the story of four women -- two who are trafficked, one who aids in their trafficking and a police officer bent on stopping them -- whose lives are intertwined and changed forever. Mexican composers Hilda Paredes and Hebert Sandrin and American composers Arlene Sierra and Lei Liang each write one episode of this hour-long work, which is performed by guitarist Pablo Gómez, pianist Aleck Karis, percussionist Ayano Kataoka and Narucki, who gives voice to all four women.

Narucki said the four women’s intertwining stories lend themselves well to opera.

"One of the things that opera does best is it can tell us about emotionally complex feelings and situations and not always in words," she said. "So much of this is charged with emotion. I can’t imagine that it could be a play because it is too charged."

Narucki is not sure what effect "Cuatro Corridos" will have, but she’s happy to do her part.

"I’m an artist not a politician, so what can I do? I don’t know if it’s actually going to raise awareness of the problem, but it’s just what I can do," she said. "For some time, I have been interested in performance projects that take the music of our time and put it in the context of community."

She is grateful to Yellow Barn for having the Residency Program so that the many artists involved with the project can converge from San Diego, Mexico, London and other points and work together.

"It’s a wonderful chance for us to just spend time on the musical preparation of the piece," she said. "It’s a very rare and wonderful thing to just be able to take a week and say to the composer ‘What are you dreaming of?’ ...This is extraordinary. It just doesn’t happen."

Jon Potter writes for The Brattleboro Reformer: