Following last fall’s successful premiere of San Diego Opera’s commissioned grand opera El último sueño de Frida y Diego by composer Gabriela Lena Frank and librettist Nilo Cruz, the company is preparing its second premiere of the current season. Ghosts, composed by Nicolas Reveles, is a trilogy of horror-inspired one-act operas opening on Friday, April 14, at the Balboa Theatre in downtown San Diego. On January 16, 2023, I was fortunate to speak with Reveles about his upcoming opera in a lively Zoom interview. Sadly, late stage pancreatic cancer ended his life on March 1, 2023.“I’ve always been drawn to dark subjects,” Reveles explained in the interview held in January. “I guess I love being scared and creeped out! From the stories of Edgar Allen Poe to Stephen King, film anthologies from Dead of Night to Creepshow, and television series from The Twilight Zone to American Horror Stories—all have all captured my imagination.”
Eden, the first of Reveles’ trilogy, explores the boundaries of madness and obsession—a tribute to Edgar Allen Poe—set to a libretto by John de los Santos, who also directs the three one-acts in this opening production. Dormir, an imaginative exploration of what might happen when Old World spiritual practices meet the Christian belief system, is set to a libretto by Michael Vegas Mussman, and House, with a libretto by the composer, explores the idea that trauma haunts many people, a trauma that remains in individuals like a ghost.
When I asked Reveles if he had ever actually experienced a ghostly encounter, he responded quickly in the affirmative.
“Oh, yes, I saw one in 1991 when we were doing the music to a play version of The Marriage of Figaro for the Arizona Repertory Company in Tucson. I saw la llorona at night, fully dressed as a bride and illuminated from the back as if she were expecting someone. It was the one and only time I saw a ghost, but I will never forget the feeling!”
Reveles explained that the Mexican mythical character la llorona, which is Spanish for “the weeping woman,” is a traditional vengeful ghost.
“She is sort of like the bogeyman. She is believed to have been the lover of a conquistador who left her destitute. She drowned her two small children and herself in a river, and she is known to scream in agony at night.”
As a music critic in San Diego since the late 1970s, I initially knew Nicolas Reveles as a member of the University of San Diego music faculty who sometimes gave impressive piano recitals, and later as the San Diego Opera’s well-spoken Director of Education. Several years ago I had seen his chamber opera Sextet at Diversionary Theatre, a humorous and rather raunchy work that was a hit at San Diego’s LGBT theater in University Heights, but I wrongly assumed that Reveles’ interest in composition was a secondary or perhaps a recent preoccupation. He quickly corrected my assumption.
“I have been composing since I was eight years old!” he asserted. “My first real composition was a piano piece titled ‘Arabian Dance,’ and it won third prize in a contest at my school. And I have written ever since, although I always needed a reason to write something. When I was at the University of San Diego I wrote organ compositions and pieces for church choir.
“When I was Director of Education at San Diego Opera I composed an hour-long opera Sleeping Beauty for the company’s ensembles that did outreach in the schools. Jack Montgomery wrote the libretto, and we toured with our Sleeping Beauty for two years giving some 50 to 60 performances.”
Reveles reminded me that his Sextet for Diversionary Theatre also had a horror scene in a bathhouse, although I did not tell him that I could not remember that portion of the work. But I certainly took his word for it!
When I asked Reveles how he would characterize his musical style, he answered, “I am afraid that I am stuck in the mid-to-late 20th century. I write direct, accessible melody and counter melody that creates an easily identifiable emotional state—I don’t want people to have to guess what they should be feeling.”
He looked forward to seeing his Ghosts in the Balboa Theatre. “It will be interesting to see an opera about ghosts in an old theater that has many of its own!”
San Diego Opera opens ‘Ghosts’ on April 14, 2023, at the Balboa Theatre in downtown San Diego and continues with performances on April 15 and 16 in the same venue.