The Story of Opera in México: An Amazing History

One of the reasons I am especially interested in the history of Opera in México, is that there are two deliberate ‘opera-style’ numbers in The Mapmaker’s Opera. Well it makes sense, since the word ‘opera’ is in the title, even though our adaptation of Béa Gonzalez’s novel is a Broadway Musical!

The first of these is ‘Madness Rules‘ for the character of Edward Nelson in Act I. The other is a song for the character of Carlos (Don Victor Blanco’s son) in Act II (sorry we’re not planning to make an audio demo of this – but I’d like to!)

But before, we have a short journey around the history of opera in México from the late 19th-Century through to the mid-20th-Century, it strikes me for those of you who are not sure of the answer, why is Béa Gonzalez’s novel so titled? I think the most eloquent answer to this was written by Kayla West in her Review (‘Wondrous Story’, Dec. 2012) of Béa’s novel at Amazon .com (yes, click on the link, buy the book, and read it!)

…This has to be one of the most exquisite stories I have ever read in my life. It also has to be one of the most unique tellings of a story that I have ever read. You see, the reason for this is because it is an opera. The main characters that are mentioned by name in the story are, ultimately, the singers in this written production. They are mentioned beforehand in a list of their respective titles and roles, along with the tone of voice they sing. We have our lead soprano, Sofia Duarte, and our lead tenor, Diego Clemente, along with other mixed, but just as prominent, voices scattered about the pages of this book. But the characters are only one part of the whole that is The Mapmaker’s Opera.
The interesting point about operas, is that they are commonly written in 3 or 4 (and occasionally) 5 Act structures. As an aside, did you know that television and films are often created in 5 sections (or Acts)? But Musicals, are almost always written in 2 Act structures (i.e. one INTERVAL). Very generally speaking operas run about 2.5 – 3 hours duration (except Wagner!) and Musicals about 2.5 hours (although Les Miserables does go a bit looooonger!) So, although the timings are not dissimilar, musicals and operas (even novels like Béa’s, which is structured like an opera) function dramatically differently. So an opera might work like this:

Act I – Exposition of the storyline and the establishment of characters and their relationships to each other

Act II – The real drama unfolds and the Act finishes in a ‘cliffhanger’ moment, or a situation where a major obstacle is put in the path of the main protaganists

Act III – The conflict reaches an apex and is resolved, often with the death of one or more of the characters (heros, heroines and/or villains) unless of course it is a comedic opera, in which case it is almost always the case that the villain (almost invariably male) gets his comeuppance (i.e., the Count in Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro).

But in Musicals we have to accomplish the same storylines with only two Acts. This often means that the we have to establish the main problem of the Musical before the end of Act I, carry it over into the beginning of Act 2, and then spend the remainder of the show resolving the challenges that have been placed in the path of our hero/heroine.

In many respects, I think this is why bringing Musicals to a satisfactory conclusion is very difficult.


But back to the main point of this post looking at a concise history of Opera in México. I learned everything about this topic from reading Robert Stevenson’s rather interesting 1952 book, Music in Mexico. The latter section of this tome provides a really interesting overview of how opera pervaded Mexican culture from the mid 19th-Century through to the earlier part of the 20th-Century. So, briefly, this is the story…

The 19th-Century: Before anything else, one needs to know that in 19th-Century México, OPERA meant ‘Italian’ opera. Italian troupes of opera singers were deliberately imported into the country to emulate a cultural renaissance and to demonstrate to the USA, in particular, that the country had significant European aspirations in respect to culural identity. [Ed. So this is why in The Mapmaker’s Opera, Carlos sings an Italian-style opera-buffa aria.]

Luis Baca (1826-55) was the first native composer of operas after Independence. After a a brief period of study at the newly founded concervatory in Mexico City, he ended up in Europe where he met Donizetti, who encouraged him to continue in music. Upon returning to Mexico, before turning 30, he died leaving little likelihood that the entrenched Italian troupe of opera singers in Mexico City would ever perform either of his two operas: Leonori or Giovanna di Castiglia.

Cenobio Paniagua (1821-82) was the more fortunate Mexican who finally succeeded in having an opera of his, Catalina di Guisa, given a Mexican hearing – but not in Spanish as one might expect, but in…yes, you guessed correctly, Italian!

Paniagua’s most important pupil was Melesio Morales (1838-1908). His Ildegonda, was produced in Mexico City in 1866 and again three years later in Florence, Italy. But after this single triumph, his career took a nose-dive, and upon his death at age 70, he was a musical nonentity. Melesio’s one ‘Mexican’ opera, Anita, had not been produced at the time of Stevenson’s book published in 1952. I have no idea whether it has since been performed anywhere? Perhaps someone knows and can let me know? Certainly Ildegona was recorded for CD in 2007 by Orchesta Sinfónica Carlos Chávez (Fernando Lozano) but it is difficult to find a copy.

Here’s the interesting fact: in 19th-Century México, there were 10 opera composers from which 15 operas were actually produced. I don’t think there have been 15 Australian operas professionally produced in the last 100 years. I think that says something profound, don’t you? Go México!

I’ll continue with 20th-Century Mexican opera next time.

Take care,