Joseph Martin Waters’ Vivid Contemporary Rock Opera Debuts at Tijuana’s Centro Estatal de las Artes

Joseph Matin Waters’ opera El colibrí mágico (The Magic Hummingbird) made its impressive staged premiere this weekend at Tijuana’s Centro Estatal de las Artes Foro Experimental. For an opera with a story that takes place on the border, crossing the International Border to experience this work seemed an appropriate prelude.

César Aguilar as Francisco [photo (c.) Amy Hecht]

This opera’s arrival on the stage has been an uncertain six-year journey. In the spring of 2017 in San Diego State University’s Smith Recital Hall, I saw a few semi-staged scenes from the opera’s first incarnation, St. Francis de los Barrios. By the spring of 2019, Waters had changed the opera’s title to El colibrí mágico, but he kept shards of its original plot as well as its central character Francisco, Waters’ 21st-century version of the visionary St. Francis. In the fall of 2019 Waters gave a semi-staged production of the first act of this new version of the opera at the Smith Recital Hall.

We heard more songs and ensembles from El colibrí mágico presented in a club near the San Diego State campus in May of 2022, and the following month the entire opera was premiered in concert in New York City, a performance I was not able to experience.

Although Waters calls his opera a fairy tale for adults, his story is grounded in the harsh political reality of refugees seeking asylum at the border of the United States and Mexico. When Francisco, Carla, and Franklin, exuberant young California rock musicians, travel to Tijuana to perform in a punk club, they encounter refugees stranded at the border. But when they attempt to help them cross, they are attacked by American skinheads commanded by a xenophobic elder call The Preacher. While this sounds like a story line from a noisy television adventure series, Francisco’s ecstatic visions of the beneficent Apollonia, the mystical goddess of music, and the ministrations of Elias, Francisco’s angelic spirit-guide, lift the opera to a more spiritual level.

Over the years, Waters’ score has morphed from an edgy contemporary chamber opera to a full-blown rock opera. Although his score has retained the more compatible timbres of piano, flute and saxophone, the hard edge of drum kit, electric bass and two additional guitars now dominates and drives the score. His ever malleable vocal style still serves the drama well, with arched, soaring lines for Francisco, Apollonia, and Elias, contrasted by more conversational, pop-influenced vocal tunes for Carla and Franklin, not to mention the strident declamations of The Preacher.

Standing from left: Miguel Zarzueta & Charles Coleman; kneeling: Giovanni Delgado Ferreira; crow chorus behind chairs [photo (c.) Amy Hecht]

The dramatic command and gleaming vocal quality of Mexican-Canadian countertenor César Aguilar delivered a winning Francisco, and Aguilar persuasively embodied his character’s impassioned mystical awareness. In the role of Elias, which in an earlier version of the opera functioned as Francisco’s love interest, Miguel Zarzueta’s supple, rich tenor provided the perfect complement as Francisco’s angelic mentor.

Because Karen Garcia has nurtured the role of Apollonia from the earliest stages of Waters’ opera, her magnetic stage presence and her creamy yet resonant soprano made her every apparition riveting. Tenor Justin Brill and mezzo-soprano Julia Waters as Franklin and Clara brought palpable teen angst and energy to their roles as Francisco’s aspiring musical accomplices, with the bright edge of Julia’s mezzo and her savvy take on popular vocal style successfully anchoring her character.

From left: Justin Brill, César Aguilar & Julia Waters [photo (c.) Amy Hecht]

No convincing opera plot is complete without a villain, and Charles Coleman, who appeared in one of Waters’ 2019 previews of the opera, gave the Preacher formidable menace, although more vocal allure from this gruff baritone would not have lessened his dramatic impact. I would have welcomed greater vocal contribution from the promising lyric baritone Giovanni Delgado Ferreira as the shaman Maggot, the undeserving object of the Preacher’s abuse. Philip Gomez, who has performed with San Diego’s Opera Neo and sang the role of Elias in a 2019 preview of Waters’ opera, skillfully employed his assertive countertenor as Flash in this production.

César Aguilar & Karen Garcia [photo (c.) Amy Hecht]

Seven singers from the Opera de Tijuana, well trained by David Gardea, formed the effective vocal ensemble that served as a kind of Greek chorus that encouraged Francisco and added a touch of magic to his visionary experiences. A quartet of dancers appeared alternately as a flock of menacing crows and a cadre of gentle nymphs of the Plant Spirit realm. Like the obligatory ballet scenes from 19th-century grand opera, these dances directed by Matthew Armstrong added to the excitement of the presentation, even if they did not appear to be crucial to the dramatic narrative.

Laura González designed costumes in casual contemporary styles that accented bright colors. Notable was her 1950s era flashy prom dress for Apollonia, although the Preacher’s robe made him appear incongruously like a low budget Methodist Choir Director. The clever crows’ black outfits and masks, however, proved both amusing and convincing. Minverva Jossif’s constantly changing multi-hued lighting design may have been too much of a good thing, but kudos to David Smith’s large and easily perceived supertitles–primarily in Spanish since most of the text was in English, but the supertitles switched to English when the dialogue turned to Spanish.

Musical Director Richard Dueñez Morrison led his disparate musical resources with a steady hand, and, combined with Wilfred Paloma’s taut stage direction, the duo kept the opera’s dramatic pace vigorous. Paloma wisely used the theater’s generous space—essentially a high-ceilinged black box with bleacher seating at one end—by designing performance areas on different levels surrounding the two instrumental pods.

This opera was staged by the Centro Estatal de las Artes (CEART), Opera de Tijuana, and the New West Evolving Arts and Music Organism  at Tijuana’s CEART  Foro Experimental on June 2 & 3, 2023. The performance of June 3 was experienced for this review.


  1. Renee Dueñez on June 8, 2023 at 8:36 am

    I watched this marvelous production and enjoyed every minute of it.

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