Camelia La Tejana: Only the Truth: Opera Review

Camelia La Tejana: Only The Truth - H 2013
Keith Ian Polakoff

Camelia La Tejana: Only The Truth - H 2013

Galvanizing U.S. professional premiere of opera inspired by the larger-than-life legend of a woman caught in the Mexican drug war. 

Long Beach Opera wrestles with Mexico's bloody drug war.

The folkloric ballads corridos have functioned as political broadsides since colonial days through the various Mexican revolutions, an expression of popular culture that persists until today, telling stories, both factual and invented, of heroes and anti-heroes, most recently chronicling the activities of the drug trafficking warlords and their minions. But perhaps the first narcocorrido, “Contrabando y Traición" (Smuggling and Betrayal), was composed by Angel Gonzalez around 1970, and achieved international popularity through the 1974 recording of the multi-Grammy-winning norteño group Los Tigres del Norte. Camelia la Tejana and her lover Emilio Varela transport a cache of marijuana to a dark alley in Hollywood, where he tells her she can have her share of the money for a new life while he joins his mistress in San Francisco. She shoots him seven times. The song produced two sequels, and the inevitable movie two sequels more.

Camelia La Tejana explores how, as an object of mass fascination, the concept of Camelia accumulates mythic status, and with it, a shape-shifting identity with wildly varying meanings. She is fictional, says her creator, a U.S. professor and the lead singer of the band. Fantasists publish their theories on blogs. Women claim to be the real Camelia, though they deny the story in the song is true. According to a tabloid in ravaged Ciudad Juarez, she is somehow behind a suicide by a drunk decapitated by a train.

While the L.A. Opera has struggled over its existence to be accepted as part of the world circuit of star talents, Long Beach Opera has created its own niche of innovative work far outside the standard repertory. If opera is to remain a living art, not a performing museum, new work relevant to our times, sounds pertinent to our ears, and themes of contemporary significance must continue to be presented. Composer Gabriela Ortiz (formerly a student of Mario Lavista and Robert Saxton, a Guggenheim and Fulbright fellow who has been championed by Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Kronos Quartet and Dawn Upshaw) mixes idioms as opera has always done and grapples with archetypal motifs and outsized emotions. So love, jealousy and betrayal are conveyed through classical voice, regional rhythms, traditional atonality, theatrical flourish, dance, video, documentary (both faux and authentic), while the libretto explores well-worn themes of the interplay of collective fantasy and national identity.

Among the most malignantly misinterpreted of masterworks, John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is invariably quoted as endorsing the bromide “when fact becomes legend, print the legend,” although the words are actually spoken by an unambiguously phony blowhard as the entire movie has ironically just devoted itself to telling us the true story behind the legend. Yet the sentiment has become a touchstone for a consumerist society in which mythmaking is invariably justified by the rationalizing relativist notion that perception is the only reality. Camelia la Tejana traffics in the churn of such ideas, and not in invariably enlightening or necessarily interesting ways. It can be more preoccupied with propounding a variety of representations, and less concerned with realizing them as more than types, or committing to evaluating the utility of which perceptions may be more valid (or true) than others.

This premiere is a major cultural coup that helps cement Southern California role as one of the genuine centers of international culture, not merely from Asia and Latin America, but as a vital part of the global conversation in art. Camelia la Tejana is not likely to be a work for the ages, but it certainly speaks to this age, in this moment, and that process is essential to the ongoing progress of an art form too readily relegated to a narrow canon.  

Venue: Terrace Theater, Long Beach (through March 30)
Cast: Enivia Mendoza, Teresa Rios, John Atkins, John Matthew Myers, Adam Meza, Nova Safo, Maria Cristina Navarro, Susan Kotses, David A. Blair, members of Nannette Brodie Dance Theater
Composer: Gabriela Ortiz, libretto in Spanish and English compiled by Ruben Ortiz Torres from various sources
Director: Mario Espinosa
Conductor: Andreas Mitisek
Set and Costume Designer: Gloria Carrasco, original costume design by Adriana Olivera
Lighting Designer: Angel Ancona
Video Designer: Adam Flemming, original video edition by Jose Maria Serralde
Sound Designer: Bob Christian
Choreographer: Nannette Brodie, original choreography by Alicia Sanchez