Photo: Jim Carmody

Photo: Jim Carmody

August 7, 2014

Critic's Pick- Unflinching 'Cuatro Corridos' opera comes to Zipper Concert Hall

Last year's most unsettling opera, 'Cuatro Corridos,' about sex trafficking in San Diego, comes to L.A.

Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times Music Critic

What may have been last year’s most unsettling new opera(s) may also have been the most modest. “Cuatro Corridos” -- which had its premiere in a small black box at UC San Diego and will reach Colburn School’s Zipper Concert Hall on Friday night -- consists of four 15-minute operas for a solo singer and instrumental trio of guitar, piano and percussion.

The subject matter is an unflinching look, from four cultural and musical points of view, at a sex trafficking scandal uncovered 13 years ago in the San Diego strawberry fields. 

In the librettos by Jorge Volpi, each opera -- by composers Hilda Paredes, Arlene Sierra, Lei Liang and Hebert Vázquez -- tells the story of a different girl kidnapped in Mexico to serve as a prostitute for migrant farmworkers. The scores are modern and meaningful. Soprano Susan Narucki’s performances of the four women is shockingly true to the material. The production, which includes a video “border wall,” sets the scenes but is careful not to overpower powerful material. 

The Los Angeles premiere comes courtesy of the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, which is presenting “Cuatro Corridos” as a gala benefit. The review from San Diego in 2013 is here.  

August 8, 2014

Stop what you're doing and go see an opera about human trafficking

The subject may be heavy (human trafficking), but "Cuatro Corridos" is an opera not to miss

Culture High & Low-  Carolina A. Miranda, Los Angeles Times

It's not every day that someone tells you, "Drop whatever you're doing and go see an opera about human trafficking." But today is one of those days: So drop whatever you're doing this evening and go see an opera about human trafficking. I'm totally serious.

An unusual piece of performance that involves a collaboration between four contemporary composers — two Mexican, one American, and one Chinese-born — as well as an American soprano and a Mexican novelist, "Cuatro Corridos" tells the story of four women, who, in some way or another, have ties to the human trafficking that occurs across the U.S.-Mexico border. 

This mini-opera (it is only 60 minutes long) is told over four corridos or ballads, each sung by one of the key women in the story: cruel Dalia (once a victim of trafficking herself), who lures young women into prostitution; a pair of trafficking victims, Azucena and Violeta; and the Chicana police officer Rose, who helps bust the whole operation.

"This whole issue of trafficking and why women find themselves in these positions, it's not just a sad story," says Susan Narucki, the San Diego-based soprano who sings all four roles. "It's a complicated and tragic series of choices that society makes, that we all make, and that we all have to figure out how to turn around."

The issue is indeed important, but it's the artistry of this project that makes it worthwhile (even if you're not into opera). The first scene, alone, is riveting for both its music and its content. In it, Azucena relates the horrors of being forced to service men in the agricultural fields near San Diego. The music that accompanies her is a traditional Mexican corrido that has been deconstructed and reassembled into modern music. Upbeat tempos dissolve into dissonance. Here and there emerge the snare drum beats that evoke the military bands that play the plazas of Latin American cities on Sundays.

It is like no opera I've ever heard.

And it is on view Friday evening, for one night only, at Zipper Hall at the Colburn School in downtown L.A. The performance is a benefit for the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles (LAFLA), a not-for-profit foundation that works on trafficking-related cases in Southern California. 

"Trafficking is a huge problem here," says LAFLA Executive Director Silvia Argueta. "One of the top three destinations for trafficking victims is California. And within California, Los Angeles is one of the top three points of entry for victims. In L.A. and Orange County there have been some really big cases. Recently, we worked on a case that involved a huge ring of women that were being trafficked as prostitutes in MacArthur Park. They are brought here very young — as young as 14." 

Narucki, who also serves as artistic director on "Cuatro Corridos," says she came to this difficult subject matter because she was interested in doing something that involved the border.

"Moving here from the East Coast, and living in San Diego, I've just become really aware of the cross-border issues that exist," she explains. "Pablo Gómez, who serves as the guitarist on the project, he introduced me to [novelist] Jorge Volpi and Jorge basically said, 'If you're looking to do something on border issues, here's one of the most important."

Volpi got on board to write the libretto. Narucki then roped in the composers: U.S.-born/London-based Arlene Sierra, Hilda Paredes and Hebert Vázquez (both from Mexico) and Lei Liang, who was born in China, but now lives in San Diego.

Certainly, a meal with this many cooks in the kitchen shouldn't work. But it does. Each composer scored the music for a single character, yet it all comes off as a unified whole. (Read classical music critic Mark Swed's take on the opera, when it first debuted in San Diego last year. He has also made the show this week's critic's pick.)

"When I started thinking about this project," says Narucki, "it was natural for me to think about who I like working with. The other musicians on the team are people I've known for years. And there's this kind of magic that happens when friends and friends-of-friends get together and collaborate. For having so many people on the team, we rarely had disagreements, which is unbelievable."

Liang, who composed the piece of the opera sung by police woman Rose, says that for him the content struck close to home.

"When I came here from China I was 17," he recalls. "I was studying in Boston at the New England Conservatory of Music. And I worked in a restaurant as a waiter where I met many Chinese illegal immigrants They told me about how they made it to the U.S. and how they had witnessed so many terrible things. They left China overland through Vietnam. All the women were raped. Some of them were almost abandoned on a ship that was smuggling them in from South America. These were the invisible Chinese people that are everywhere making our food."

"When Susan called me about this project," he adds, "I felt that I could work on a project that, in a way, tells my own story."

Argueta of LAFLA says that the opera provides a way of giving voice to the pain and suffering that trafficked people go through. "It's an incredible combination of art coming together with the immigration work that we do."

A beguiling work of art, all based on true stories, all for a good cause. I can't think of a better reason to go.

"Cuatro Corridos" will be staged Friday at 7:30 p.m. at Zipper Hall at the Colburn School, 200 S. Grand Ave., Downtown Los Angeles, Tickets can be purchased at the door or through Eventbrite. Proceeds benefit LAFLA.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times

May 9, 2013

'Cuatro Corridos' is a disturbing look at sex trafficking

The opera, making its world premiere at UC San Diego, is based on a true story from around the strawberry farms of San Diego.  Soprano Susan Narucki stars.

Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times Music Critic

LA JOLLA — It turns out that even those ripe, red, fragrant local strawberries that help make May farmers' markets so seductive can have, as beauty sometimes does, sad tales to tell. A new opera's undercover job is to taste the flavor of that sadness.

And after seeing the world premiere Wednesday night at UC San Diego of "Cuatro Corridos," an intensely disturbing operatic investigation into sex trafficking around the strawberry farms of San Diego, I was more tempted by bananas than strawberries for breakfast the next morning, even though they may have their own hidden tragedies.

In "Cuatro Corridos" ("Four Corridos"), four composers (two Mexican, one Chinese, one American) imagine the inner lives of four women intertwined in a case here several years ago, when those farms became known as the "Fields of Love." For years, three brothers kidnapped Mexican women and forced them to serve as prostitutes for the illegal migrant workers.

The roots of this startling incident run as deep as those in Greek tragedy. A village in pre-Columbian Mexico, as librettist Jorge Volpi writes in his introduction to "Cuatro Corridos," once had a tradition of raising girls from early childhood to be prostitutes who would be sold to enemy tribes. The Salazar Juárez brothers managed to bring that tradition up to date until the police finally dismantled their notorious network in 2001.

"Cuatro Corridos" is a one-woman chamber opera initiated by the new music soprano Susan Narucki. Its instrumental component is but a trio of guitar, piano and percussion. Its four parts last but an hour total. The staging in the Experimental Theater of the Conrad Prebys Music Center is against a simple setting — a chair and table, a couple of mounds of sand with piles of discarded women's clothes. But the opera is not vocally, instrumentally or emotionally modest.

photo: Jim Carmody

photo: Jim Carmody

The libretto's style is written in the verse structure of the narrative Mexican corrido song form. Coincidentally, Long Beach Opera recently presented the Mexican composer Gabriela Ortiz's "Camelia la Tejana," which takes its subject matter from kidnapping and drug trafficking across the border and is inspired by a popular corrido. But Volpi's verse is more experimentally poetic and as alarmingly ripe in its imagery as, well, May strawberries.

The first woman, Azucena, learns of men's cruelty when she is dragged to California, tied up, pricked, punctured and left reeking "of spittle, of semen, of disenchantment." Herbert Vázquez's score fractures Mexican folk styles of their enchantment.

Dalia, whose skin was once "soft as satin" but has grown wrinkled and ugly, begins by declaring: "I will go to hell." Arlene Sierra's multilayered music sends her there with violent percussion attacks and anguished vocal lines. A collaborator with the Salazar Juárez brothers, Dalia is as tragically disenchanted a figure as her victims. She serves her husband, survives, and understands damnation.

Rose is a cop. She announces in unadorned language the San Diego police arrest of the brothers. "Do you ask yourselves, gentlemen," she asks the press, "what will happen to these señoritas, illegal, without their papers, who were freed today?"

Lei Liang underscores this with unexpectedly subtle and colorful instrumental textures and focused drumbeats that use powerful eloquence to reveal, astonishingly and brilliantly, an unrelenting tragedy with no resolution.

Finally, Violetta, another prostitute, tells of her friend Iris, slender and not yet 20, sent by her father to "a land of milk and honey … where dollars grow on trees." Iris' first rape was in the car even before she reached the border. The opera's last line: "I wither from sadness / a flower without dew."

Hilda Paredes provides sorrowful music here that is almost too much. She, like the other composers, is a substantial Modernist; her style is complex and difficult. But she knows how to drain substance away too, leaving meaningful emptiness. Narucki, commandingly theatrical throughout, succumbed in the end to the full weight of tragedy.

The production had a lot of parts, including a "border wall" with projections and graphics, but mostly stayed out of the way of the terrible tales told. But the instrumentalists (guitarist Pablo Gómez, pianist Aleck Karis and percussionist Steven Schick) were alive to every nuance.

UCSD has taken "Cuatro Corridos" seriously with panel discussions on sex trafficking the day after the premiere and repeat performances Friday and Saturday nights.