San Diego Union Tribune's Jim Chute Talks with Project Leader and Soprano Susan Narucki


For more than three decades, Susan Narucki has been devoted to contemporary music.

She’s sung more than 100 premieres of new works with collaborators that include nearly every significant conductor, orchestra, music festival and new-music ensemble.

But for the Grammy-winning soprano, who has been a professor at UC San Diego since 2008, something is missing.

“It’s frustrating to me as a performer of the music of our time not to see that music as central to bringing people together, to creating community, to speaking to issues that are of concern to us in society,” Narucki said.

So she is conducting an experiment.

In collaboration with Mexican author Jorge Volpi and guitarist Pablo Gomez, she commissioned four composers to each write a segment of a one-woman chamber opera that will bring attention to the issue of human trafficking.

“Cuatro Corridos” will have its first performances Wednesday, May 10 and May 11 at the Conrad Prebys Music Center’s Experimental Theater with Narucki, Gomez, pianist Aleck Karis and percussionist Steven Schick.

Narucki and Volpi point to numerous news reports (including an investigative report in The New York Times Magazine) that have identified the village of Tenancingo, in the Mexican state of Tlaxcala, as the undisputed center of Mexico’s sex trade. From there, kidnapped and coerced women are exported across the border, many to the “fields of love” outside San Diego’s strawberry fields.

Volpi’s libretto, written in the verse of the Mexican corrido, concerns four women: a female member of the Salazar Juárez brothers kidnapping ring (Dalia); a Chicano policewoman in San Diego (Rose), and two young victims from Tlaxcala (Azucena and Violeta).

Each of the four composers, working independently, tells one of the women’s stories: for Hebert Vázquez, Azucena; Arlene Sierra, Dalia; Lei Liang, Rose; and Hilda Paredes, Violeta.

“The pieces that we now have by these composers are so strong,” Narucki said. “They each speak to the other in a way that I hadn’t expected. When you hear them, they combine to form this narrative arc that’s pretty extraordinary.”

The completed chamber opera, which was workshopped at the Yellow Barn in Vermont in March, is designed to be “portable,” and Narucki is committed to giving it a life beyond its premiere. Already a performance is scheduled at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas for October.

“Part of doing this project has to do with getting older and realizing that I’m not going to be doing this forever,” Narucki said. “I’d like to see if there’s a way to do something a little bit different, to break the mold and go in a different direction and start a trend that could be good for the art form — and good for life in general.”