Gabriela Ortiz’ U.S. premiere of Camelia la Tejana opens at Long Beach Opera


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“Welcome to the U.S. premiere of Gabriela OrtizCamelia la Tejana. If you have your cellphones, take them out, turn them on, let all your friends know where you are right now and what a fabulous thing they’re missing, and then please turn them all off and let Camelia take over for you…”

With this, Andreas Mitisek brings to life the myth that is Camelia la Tejana for the audience at the Terrace Theatre, in the Long Beach Convention Center. Based on a ballad (corrido) popularized by Los Tigres del NorteContrabandas y Traicion (Contraband and Betrayal), the story is of Camelia the iconoclast – a woman who refuses to accept the limits of a traditional role, and who rejects her lover’s expectations so violently that she kills him with seven bullets. This is not the self-effacing Camellia overpowered by the judgments of her culture that we meet in Verdi’s La Traviata, nor the fiery but fatalistic Spanish heroine of Carmen, created by Bizet. This is a woman who places no one’s authority above her own; who chooses how she will live, not meekly accepting what is handed to her; who risks everything for the one she loves, but demands everything in return.

The set for Camelia la Tejana, with a railroad
bridge spanning the center of the deck.

The stage is set with a giant, square deck covering almost the entire stage area, supported at a height of about six feet by vertical pillars spaced a foot or so apart around the perimeter of the deck. It looks like a giant cage – or a prison – topped by a wooden lid with the center cut out. There is a railroad bridge spanning the opening in the center, with a track that can be moved up or down, to connect with or disconnect from the deck on either side. The entire LBO Orchestra is located inside the cage, barely visible to the audience through its “bars”.

The orchestra begins with a grating, rhythmic percussion, then sustained low tones of no tonality, metallic-sounding, trainlike, into which merge the disembodied echos of a radio broadcast and the clanging of a bell. This mysterious cacophony provides a background for a host of dimly-lit men who climb up to the back edge of the deck and warily make their way to the front, then across the railroad bridge, ostensibly crossing into the US from Mexico under the watchful eye of a Coyote. This, the smuggling of drugs and of people from Mexico to the US, is the culture into which Camelia is born, and which makes her a cult heroine when she takes the risk of a lifetime and successfully crosses the border with her lover to sell the “herba mala” (marijuana) in LA to give them a financial start, then shoots him when she discovers he is unfaithful.

The three walls that surround the cage serve as movie screens, showing floor-to-top images which add color to the story. A few of the images: a run-down neighborhood in a poor Mexican community; seemingly infinite rows of 0’s and 1’s, evoking the computer age with its binary codes; headlines from tabloid papers, sensationalizing the current news about Camelia; heaps of worn-out tires that go as far as the eye can see; and a live broadcast of a woman who claims to be Camelia herself, being interviewed by the press. Each set of graphics corresponds to the story as it is told, offering a highly flexible “set” that takes no time at all to change.

Camelia & press
Enivia Mendoza, as Camelia, surrounded by news media,
portrayed by the LBO chorus.

Six scenes describe key events in the chronology of the myth of Camelia. Folk music, dance music, popular Mexican music of the 60’s and 70’s all contribute to the score. Every now and then the original corrida comes through, as a tinny clip from a mariachi band, or in the haunting final scene where Camelia sings it from the top of the bridge. Throughout the performance, the grittiness of the music reminds us of the harshness of the culture that produced Camelia, and which still dreams of her courage and indomitability, punctuated occasionally by the floating sound of Camelia’s melancholy soprano.

This new work by Gabriela Ortiz is very powerful in its graphic depictions of the “truth” about Camelia la Tejana, both musically and visually. Having read the synopsis of the work in the program before the performance started, I was able to follow the stories of the six individual scenes. The show hangs together well, communicating a stark but mystical picture of a heroic character who had the guts to face her own truth in a pitiless world and survive it. The audience at the opening performance loved it;  they applauded enthusiastically and a majority gave the composer a standing ovation when she came out to take a bow. This is a work well worth seeing and hearing, so don’t miss the last showing on Saturday, March 30 at 8pm.  For tickets, click here.

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Adam Meza, Nova Safo and John Atkins
each divulge their own versions of Camelia’s origins.

Although a few individuals in the cast had major roles, the lasting impression was that this had been truly an ensemble production, formed around the stories of Camelia’s mythical persona. Enivia Mendoza, singing the part of Camelia, was spectacular, with a haunting, mystical quality that shone through the strong character who simply would not be stopped.  Mendoza came with the original production from Mexico City, where the world premiere was presented in 2010. Also from the original production team, Mario Espinosa (Director), Gloria Carrasco (Set & Costume Designer) and Angel Ancona (Light Designer) traveled with the production to Long Beach for the U.S. premiere. John Atkins as El Escritor, the historian, loomed over the other characters physically and abstractly, as the academic who understood the impact of Camelia’s values; Adam Meza gave a powerhouse performance as El Compositor/El Blogger/El Senor de El Paso, a local baritone with an international presence, who also sings for POP and Santa Barbara Opera; John Matthew Myers, as El Periodista, put his gorgeous, well-supported lyrical tenor in service to his character’s obsession with the figure of Camelia; Nova Safo, who is also a journalist on NPR, portrayed the father figure, El Tigre, with great presence and a beautiful clear timbre, projecting tremendous resonance and quality. The chorus personified the community around Camelia in their well-executed staging and in the powerful and cohesive sound of their singing. Kudos to LBO for hiring our wonderful local singers for many of the principal as well as secondary roles.

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Nannette Brody Dance Theatre

The Nannette Brodie Dance Theatre, directed by Nannette Brodie, choreographer, took the parts of the supernumeraries, at different times portraying Mexican caballeros, drug smugglers or lawmen. Most of the action took place on the surface of the upper deck which appeared to be about six feet wide, making the dancers’ movements acrobatic and necessarily precise. Watching them portray the life and death decisions that their characters made on the streets of Mexico, with elegant control and passionate intensity, added dramatic color and made the stories real.

Adam Flemming as Video Designer, Bob Christian as Sound Designer, Andreas Mitisek as Conductor and the Artistic and General Director of Long Beach Opera. The orchestra was clean and precise in its performance, showing marvelous mastery of a score that seemed extremely demanding, rhythmically and harmonically, with multi-tonal harmonies and wide ranging musical styles.

Original choreography by Alicia Sánchez, original costume design by Adriana Olivera, original video edition by Jose María Serralde. Photography provided by Martin Boege and Olin Diaz.

Long Beach Opera continues its season in May with the double bill of Stewart Copeland‘s The Tell-Tale Heart and Michael Gordon‘s Van Gogh. Ernest Bloch‘s MacBeth follows in June. First-time subscribers can still subscribe to the three remaining operas at a special discount. Call 562.432.5934 for details. For more information, go to the company website: http://longbeachopera.org/

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