TheaterJones,  Dallas Texas

TheaterJones,  Dallas Texas

Gregory Sullivan Issacs picks his favorite performances and events of the year.

Chamber Music Category: Soundings (October 4) Cuatro Corridos

The Soundings concert might just as easily made honorable mention in the opera category. Cuatro Corridos is an hour-long, intense opera for one soprano (an amazing Susan Narucki), guitar, percussion, and piano, divided into four scenes, each by one of four composers: Hebert Váquez, Arlene Sierra, Lei Liang and Hilda Paredes. Each also explored a different character: all young girls (between 7 and 18 years old) victimized by the Mexican border gangs. They entice and then enslave them into prostitution to keep equally trapped agricultural workers “satisfied.” It was a shattering experience.   Read the full article.

How often do you hear about an opera written by four different composers? Cuatro Corridos, which got a blazing performance as part of the Soundings series at the Nasher Sculpture Center on Oct. 4, is one of the few examples. It is an hour-long ,very intense, opera for one soprano, guitar, percussion, and piano, and divided into four scenes, each by one of the four composers: Hebert Váquez, Arlene Sierra, Lei Liang and Hilda Paredes. Each also explored a different character.

The libretto, by Mexican author Jorge Volpi, was inspired by the horrific stories of women used as sexual slaves in the equally grim agricultural farms around San Diego.

According to the various court cases brought in the 1990's and even more recently, hundreds of Mexican girls between 7 and 18 were kidnapped or enticed with a tale about new lives as a “wife” of a rich American, by organized criminal sex trafficking gangs. They were brought to the farms and reportedly raped by hundreds of men per day (yes, that is “per day”) in agricultural camp based brothels. Your memory immediately goes back to the notorious “comfort women,” that the Japanese kidnapped for similar sexual servitude during World War II. They too were placed in brothels to keep the Japanese troops content, and to discourage mixed race children from popping up all over the world.

Soprano Susan Narucki was amazing as she portrayed the four different women and sang the very demanding music, in four different styles, that pushed the limits of both range and endurance. Before becoming the specific character, she pulled a pair of shoes out of a sand pile (beach maybe) and put them on. Each character had their own shoes and the “walk a mile in my shoes” metaphor was never more appropriate. While she didn't change her vocal quality to change characters, her individual portrayals were remarkably distinct from each other. It was a tour de force.

There was an equally impressive and concurrent visual performance showing on a large rear projection screen. Three of the texts were in Spanish and the translation appeared on the screen in a video (maybe film) production. The text appeared, letter by letter or word by word, as the words were sung. The typeface was also a work of art. In one scene, in which the character was writing in a diary (maybe a letter) and the text was in cursive, and we saw it appear as she wrote it. In another, the text was in the familiar “x” patterns of needlepoint. When the text was in English, for a press briefing on the arrest of the Salazar brothers, the projection was in Spanish. Never has the problem of supertitles been so creatively solved and turned into an artistic achievement in its own right.

All of the musical styles of the composers was quite different, but only in their degrees of modernism. The first scene, by Váquez, utilized some folk elements (even a hint of Mariachi). The second, by Sierra, showed the influence of minimalism. The third one (the press conference), by Liang, caught the matter of fact tone of the words but there was a chilling undercurrent that made it effective. The last, by Paredes, was the most dissonant and pointillist. The piano used all kinds of accoutrements to change the sounds and to create new ones. For example, a string drawn back and forth around a string had an eerie wail.

The ensemble, which offered the complex accompaniment, did a superb job of realizing the complex score. Without being able to see the printed score, it would only be a guess as to how much was aleatoric (improvised with a given set of notes) and how much notated, or a combination (notated to show rhythm and melodic shape without specific note heads). However, all of these are established musical forms were surely present and can create great results. Most of the four scores were effective, the best compliment you can pay to a dramatic score, and only occasionally appeared to use an effect for its own sake   Read more...

By Gregory Sullivan Isaacs

October 7, 2013

The Classical Note: An Opera by Four Different Composers Shouldn’t Work, but Cuatro Corridos Does

Wayne Lee Gay    D Magazine   Dallas Texas

Cuatro Corridos is about the experiences of women involved in a horrifying and notorious human trafficking operation in San Diego during the late twentieth century. That ongoing narration provides a foundation that supported, and was, indeed, enhanced by four different musical styles. In shaping these stories into a poetic libretto, Mexican author Jorge Volpi employed a steady meter and stanza form inspired by north Mexican popular ballads (corridos) to provide another subtly unifying element.

Musically, the first and fourth acts were the most striking. Vásquez’s interweaving of folk-like melodies in the opening scene, “Azucena,” was both impressively complex and immediately appealing, while, in the fourth scene (“Vileta”), composer Paredes made convincing use of non-traditional timbres and instrumental techniques.  Soprano Susan Narucki took on the monstrous challenge of the vocal part and portrayed four very different women beautifully. Guitarist Pablo Gomez, pianist Aleck Karis, and percussionist Ayano Kataoka likewise winningly navigated through the four different, demanding musical styles packed into one hour. The staging, featuring a mound of dirt-filled ladies’ shoes (likely a reference to Freud’s dream analysis of the shoe as a symbol of the vagina), was simple and effective. The lively, creatively designed projection of the English translation neatly solved the problem of integrating translation into the production.

Volpi’s libretto failed in one key point, however. The blame for the situation was placed almost entirely on Mexican men, without deeper exploration of the role U.S. policy and cultural attitudes played in creating a situation of human enslavement. The rape camps described in the opera existed and flourished in the U.S. By focusing on the role of a few Mexican male criminals in the operation, Volpi lets the North American audience off the hook, when he should have pointed a finger at us for the part we play in the oppression of the impoverished in our own country and around the world. In spite of some striking verbal imagery, the audience at the Nasher was allowed to remain guiltless and comfortable.

By Wayne Lee Gay