When I recently held a Zoom conversation with Mexican tenor Arturo Chacón-Cruz, he was in Moscow, where he was appearing at the fabled Bolshoi Theater in Verdi’s opera La Traviata. The previous week he had appeared as a featured singer on the stage of the Vienna State Opera in a concert titled Noche Española.With some trepidation I asked him if perhaps his upcoming recital in Escondido for San Diego Opera might seem anticlimactic after Vienna and Moscow, but he quickly brushed aside the suggestion.
“Not at all. I love coming to Southern California. My grandfather was from Cerritos, and I remember when I was growing up in Sonora, Mexico, our family would come up to California on vacation.”
Chacón-Cruz will perform his recital at Escondido’s California Center for the Arts, Friday, December 3, at 7:30 p.m., accompanied by pianist Jeremy Frank and Mariachi Continental de México. This concert will be the final offering of San Diego Opera’s fall recital series before the company returns to San Diego Civic Theatre in February, 2022, to resume full opera productions.
While Chacón-Cruz’s early opera career was flourishing in Mexico and the U. S., when the young tenor won both the Zarzuela Prize and the Audience Prize at Plácido Domingo’s 2005 Operalia Competition in Madrid, everything changed overnight for him.
“The world opened up to me—I was suddenly getting contracts to sing in Italy, France, Spain, and Japan,” he explained. “Winning the Operalia opened the gate for me. Yes, doors had been opened to me before Operalia, but this win caused by career to blossom.”
Even before Chacón-Cruz’s success at the 2005 Operalia, Domingo had encouraged Chacón-Cruz when the young tenor performed with other students at Mexico City’s famed Bellas Artes concert hall. Domingo urged him to continue his studies in the U.S., which resulted in him acquiring his degree from Boston University and then winning a place where he could prove his potential in the young artist programs of San Francisco Opera and then Houston Grand Opera.
Los Angeles Opera’s groundbreaking 2019 production of Manuel Panella’s Spanish-language El Gato Montés found Chacón-Cruz singing the role of the dashing young toreador against his mentor Domingo–now a baritone–as the villain of the opera’s plot. The duo reunited in the recent Bolshoi production of La Traviata, with Chacón-Cruz singing the romantic tenor lead and Domingo taking the baritone role of the domineering father.
At first, Chacón-Cruz admitted he was nervous about performing at the Bolshoi, arguably Russia’s most prestigious opera company.
“Just thinking about the famous singers who have sung on that stage can make you sweat,” he acknowledged. “But I found the audience so appreciative, that I quickly forgot about those concerns. At this stage of my career, I realize that the only thing to do is give it my all—that I engage myself and the other artists on the stage. And when I do, I know I will sleep comfortably at night.”
Chacón-Cruz explained that because his upcoming San Diego Opera concert includes the ensemble Mariachi Continental de México, his program will range from Italian songs, opera arias, zarzuela romanzas and mariachi songs.
Although the Spanish-language zarzuela is not well-known in the U.S., Chacón is happy to champion this unique style of operetta—a popular genre in which all the dialogue is spoken—that flourished in Spain between 1850 and 1950, as well as in former Spanish colonies such as Cuba and Mexico.
“I enjoy singing the music of zarzuelas because it is a kind of time travel in which we visit the customs and relationships of another era,” he explained.
“I sing the mariachi songs because they represent what we are as a culture; the songs speak of the values of love, honor, and respect that I want to make certain the next generation hears.” San Francisco Opera has made a charming YouTube video of the tenor singing traditional mariachi tunes backed by a large Mexican student orchestra titled “In Song: Arturo Chacón-Cruz.” It is easy to find online, and in the video the tenor narrates more of his story as a singer.
San Diego Opera presents Arturo Chacón-Cruz in Concert on Friday, December 3, at 7:30 p.m. at the California Center for the Arts, Escondido, CA.