What’s the first thing that pops into your head when you think of opera? You could be forgiven if you think it’s mostly heavyset individuals in horned helmets singing laboriously about somewhat muddled themes, holding notes for minutes at a time. We have countless pop culture gags to thank for those images. However, there’s certainly more to the genre than Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung cycle via Bugs Bunny.
Aside from the vast spectrum of musical diversity one finds, operas can be more thematically explicit than you’d think — Alban Berg’s lurid, Jack the Ripper-based “Lulu” (which later inspired the “divisive” collaborative album between Lou Reed and Metallica) being just one example. So, also, can operas be politically and culturally incisive, like John Adams’ “Doctor Atomic” and “The Death of Klinghoffer,” which explore, respectively, nuclear weapons and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (Incidentally, perhaps a good example of the ongoing cultural relevance of opera is the intense controversy that followed “Klinghoffer,” which counted Rudy Giuliani amongst its many vocal detractors.)
The opera “Cuatro Corridos,” which will come to UCCS’ Ent Center for the Arts Friday, March 9, subverts common expectations of opera in many ways. The work, led by Grammy-winning American soprano Susan Narucki and Mexican author and Guggenheim Fellow Jorge Volpi, is an unflinching look at a critical contemporary human rights issue, human trafficking. The four-act opera explores the stories of four women trapped into sexual slavery near the San Diego and Tijuana border — based on true events — and seeks to use art to raise awareness and usher in public conversation about a difficult and, unfortunately, pervasive issue.
As well as perhaps subverting a few matinee symphony attendees’ expectations of subject matter, the opera also subverts the usual construction of an opera by featuring the music of four different composers: Hilda Paredes, Arlene Sierra, Lei Lang and Hebert Vázquez (who was nominated for a Latin Grammy in 2017). Each bring one act of the story to aural life.
Percussionist Ayano Kataoka, pianist Aleck Karis, guitarist Pablo Gomez, and the set design of artist-activist Karen Guancione round out the production’s collaborative effort between Mexican and American creatives.
The world premiere of “Cuatro Corridos” was held at UC San Diego’s Conrad Prebys Music Center in May of 2013. The opera has since earned international critical acclaim from the Los Angeles Times, multiple press outlets in Mexico and Latin America, and even the Chinese journal Opera.
October 1, 2017
CUATRO CORRIDOS EARNS 2017 LATIN GRAMMY NOMINATION
The 2016 recording of Cuatro Corridos on the Bridge Records label has earned a 2017 Latin Grammy Nomination. Hebert Vázquez' stunning "Azucena", the first scene of the opera, has been nominated in the Best Contemporary Classical Composition category.
The Latin Grammy Awards will be announced on November 16, 2017 and broadcast on Univision.
August 1, 2017
GRAMOPHONE - U.K. JULY 2017 REVIEW AND FEATURE
Cuatro Corridos received another outstanding review in the July 2017 print edition of Gramopone (U.K.) In addition, project artistic director Susan Narucki was featured in an interview, focusing on new music in North America and recording on of the innovative opera on the Bridge Records label. To read, please click.
March 26, 2017
OPERA NEWS - CUATRO CORRIDOS "CRITICS CHOICE"
WHEN JORGE VOLPI, the librettist of Cuatro Corridos, received a commission from soprano Susan Narucki, an esteemed champion of new music who now teaches at the University of California at San Diego, he knew he wanted to write about human trafficking, a subject that had tormented him for years. Volpi’s libretto consists of one monologue for each of four characters, and he enlisted four different composers to set each. Reflecting the bi-national nature of the project, two of the composers are Mexican, and the other two are from the U.S.
In the first monologue, with music by Hebert Vázquez, we hear from Azucena, a prostitute. The piece starts as a Mexican folk ballad, a simple waltz tune on the guitar, with an overlay of creatively dissonant piano. After two stanzas, however, it turns ominous and distorted. “Off you go, daughter,” Azucena recalls her father saying. The music is still rhythmic, but syncopated, jagged and much more discordant. It’s like warped calypso music, mirroring the horrible life into which the young woman is about to be forced. There’s a return to the more comfortable rhythm and harmony of the beginning, but then it turns slow, shard-like and menacing with rapidly oscillating guitar figures, bowed marimba and insinuating upper register piano figures. After a Bartókian frenzy for piano and percussion, the cheery song accompaniment returns in E major, and it’s devastating.
In the second monologue, with music by Arlene Sierra, we hear from Dalia, a former prostitute who is now a trafficker herself. This movement doesn’t bother, like the first one does, with familiar harmonies and rhythms. Sierra makes calculatedly spare use of the instruments, emphasizing bleakness and pessimism. Dalia reacts with shame and bitterness to what her life has become. The movement dies away with quiet despair.
The third section, by Lei Liang, is the only one in English. Now we hear from a policewoman announcing that the Salazar brothers, ringleaders of the real-life Tenancingo trafficking network, have been arrested (this actually happened in 2001). The first stanza is spoken to the stern rhythmic accompaniment of a drum; the character doesn’t sing until the end of the second stanza, on the phrase “a gang of criminal pimps.” This fragmented and frenzied monologue seems inspired by Chinese opera in its use of percussion and swooping vocals; it gives the policewoman a blazing characterization.
In the final monologue, with music by Hilda Paredes, a woman (Violeta) sings about her friend Iris, who did not survive the ordeal. The musical language is economical, anguished and almost anarchic; then it builds to savage pounding and thrashing, giving the impression that societal norms have disintegrated. The syllabically intoned final line (“I wither from sadness / a flower without dew”) is heartbreaking.
Narucki is a Ninja warrior in her ability to traverse this unrelentingly difficult (both musically and emotionally) hour-long work with such immersive passion and intensity. All four composers make brilliantly imaginative use of the instrumental forces, and the astoundingly virtuosic players—Pablo Gómez on guitar, Aleck Karis on piano and Ayano Kataoka on percussion—are vital to the success of the performance. This piece is bracingly fresh, continuously fascinating and deeply disturbing; somehow, though, you emerge with a sense of optimism that, in the proper hands, ghastly human tragedies can result in great art.
— Joshua Rosenblum
January 29, 2017
...Cuatro Corridos (“Four Ballads”, 2012-3) is a very different proposition, though its tragic bearing is coupled with a high seriousness of purpose in exposing a terrible wrong. The four scenes of this viscerally gripping chamber opera, scored for just four performers to Jorge Vilpi’s no-holds-barred libretto, are by four different composers—split equally between Mexico and the US, male and female—and relate stages in the exposure of an horrific human trafficking ring in northern Mexico. Each scene is in effect a monologue centred on a particular character in the sorry tale. Azucena, by Hebert Vasquez, is one of the trafficked women whose journey into abuse takes the form of the Mexican ballad form, the corrido. Vasquez’s use of the folk idiom is entirely different in technique to Holst’s use of folk idiom Dalia is the matriarchal pedlar caught in the panic of imminent arrest by British-resident Arlene Sierra’s subtle score, combining raw vocal terror with an at times euphonious accompaniment the furious pace of which emulates the criminal’s racing heartbeat. Rose (by Lei Liang) is a police officer almost imprisoned in the press conference relating the details of the ring’s breaking. Hilda Paredes’ concluding La Tierra del Miel tells the story of the murdered iris, but through the voice of another victim, Violeta. The soprano Susan Narucki, who commissioned the project for the University of California at San Diego, commands as the various women in an operatic tour-de-force, but credit must go too to her more-than-accompanists: guitarist Pablo Gomez, pianist Aleck Karis and percussionist Ayano Kataoka, whose contributions are just as individually and collectively vital as that of the four musicians in what seems, with hindsight, the progenitor work of Cuatro Corridos: Henze’s El Cimarron which also dealt with a difficult subject, the endurance of and escape from slavery. Cuatro Corridos is a remarkable achievement. The performance is superb and Bridge’s recording a triumph. "
- Guy Rickards
January 12, 2017
"...Clearly, Cuatro Corridos is not for the faint of heart. This is powerful, compelling, excruciatingly dramatic music. Although each composer has his or her own voice, the fact that they share both the subject and the instrumentation manages to give the work a strong artistic unity... Cuatro Corridos is music that demands your full attention, .... the work has a surprisingly strong overall shape.
The first, Herbert Vázquez’s Azucena, begins with music that clearly is rooted in the folk music of Mexico... Vazquez’s vocal writing is particularly effective and powerful. Dalia is next, by Arlene Sierra, and is the most starkly dramatic scene in some ways... inner torment, guilt, and pain is searingly reflected in Sierra’s music. Rose’s monologue covers a huge range..Liang’s music is unbearably searing, making wide use of the colors available to him in the percussion instruments and writing a jagged vocal line that conveys the bitterness and frustration in the text. Last is Violetta, who tells a story of both herself and a murdered friend, Iris. This is the most horrible of all the stories, the immediacy of its impact made conveyed by both the words and by Hilda Paredes’s music.
The performance seems ideal. Narucki manages the huge vocal and dramatic demands with ease, displaying an ability to sing softly and at full throttle without ever losing tonal body, and an equal ability to invest what she is singing with meaning. Her instrumental partners are completely committed and perform brilliantly.
This is a work of art that demands engagement, requires that you give it 100% of your intellectual and emotional attention. If you do, I believe you might find it as rewarding as I did—chilling, at moments horrifying, but, yes, rewarding. It is clearly not music for everyone. But for those with an adventurous soul, open to various strands of music being written today, this one is highly recommended."
- Henry Fogel, Fanfare
READ THE ENTIRE REVIEW
November 17, 2016
"If classical music and classically trained artists are relevant in the contemporary canon, it is because of projects like Cuatro Corridos (Four Songs). While opinion makers argue about the issue of relevancy, artists like American soprano Susan Narucki and her collaborators are making it happen."
Lou Fancher, SF Classical Voice