If you are thinking of looking up the topic mariachi opera in your handy music dictionary—don’t bother. It won’t be there. Mariachi opera is a new musical genre that emerged full-blown in Houston, Texas, in the first decade of the 21st century.In 2007, Anthony Freud, General Director of Houston Grand Opera, attended a performance of Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitán and was captivated by music of this accomplished ensemble. He was also a bit jealous of the audience’s exuberant vocal response to the performance, a far cry from the sedate applause of his opera audiences. He wondered if the two worlds of opera and mariachi could be merged, so he contacted José “Pepe” Martinez, at that time the Music Director of Mariachi Vargas, and proposed that Martinez compose a mariachi opera. Freud also contacted the experienced dramatist and librettist Leonard Foglia to supply the story and libretto for the project, and the two men created the first mariachi opera Cruzar la Cara de la Luna, which was given its world premiere at Houston Grand Opera in 2010.
San Diego Opera produced Cruzar la Cara de la Luna in 2013 at the San Diego Civic Theatre, the first mariachi opera heard in Southern California. San Diego Opera was only one of many opera companies, however, that presented well-received productions of the mariachi opera, prompting Lyric Opera of Chicago to commission Martinez and Foglia to create a second mariachi opera El pasado nunca se termina. Lyric Opera Chicago premiered this second mariachi opera in 2015, and San Diego Opera followed its lead with its own production later in the same year.
José “Pepe” Martinez died in 2017, and the mantle of mariachi opera has fallen upon his son Javier Martinez. Since Houston Grand Opera had enjoyed success with both of José Martinez’s mariachi operas, in 2017 they commissioned his son Javier Martinez and Leonard Foglia to create a third mariachi opera El milagro del requerdo, which premiered in December, 2019.
Having grown up in a family of mariachi musicians and having studied violin and composition at the conservatory in Mexico City, Javier Martinez was ready to take on the commission. “I also had helped my father write his second opera, El pasado nunca se termina,” he explained in a recent Zoom interview.
The commission proved a good investment for Houston.
“The new mariachi opera had great acceptance in Houston,” Javier Martinez said. “There were nine performances, and every one was a sold-out house!
“Texas is on the Mexican border, and the opera company wanted to appeal to a wider audience. So the combination of traditional mariachi music and the structure of opera proved a great success for them, and once the traditional opera lovers saw mariachi opera, they enjoyed it!”
Javier explained that the plot of this third mariachi opera is actually a prequel to the first mariachi opera, Cruzar la Cara de la Luna, involving the same families. The plot includes preparations for the presentation of a traditional Christmas pastorela, a popular dramatic form that began in 16th-century Spain and Italy. There is historical record of a pastorela produced in Tlateloco, Mexico, as early as 1530.
So December is clearly the right month for San Diego Opera to stage its production of this latest mariachi opera, El milagro del recuerdo, on December 1 and 3, 2023, in the San Diego Civic Theatre.