- Terelle Jerricks
By John Farrell, Theatre Columnist
Is Camelia la Tejana-Only the Truth an opera?
Well, technically, yes.
It has an innovative score by Gabriela Ortiz, which was scripted by her brother, Rubén Ortiz Torres.
So, of course it is an opera. The Long Beach Opera is presenting the United States premier of Camelia la Tejana at the Terrace Theatre of the Long Beach Performing Arts Center.
But it is also much more than an opera. Ortiz Torres is famous for his work in video, in photography and in installations, and he sees it as much more than just an opera.
“The work is an interdisciplinary art piece and the video aspect of it is an integral part of the opera’s concept” he was quoted in a released statement.
Camelia la Tejana-Only the Truth is a work torn from the daily headlines that everyone who lives within a few hundred miles of the United States-Mexican border sees daily. The drug war in Mexico has cost that country more than 60,000 lives; more than Vietnam cost the United States, more than Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined. And, it’s still not over. Camelia makes no excuses for that war. It’s not about the international ramifications of that conflict. Instead it tells a simple story of love and betrayal and revenge; something that is very operatic indeed.
The story was developed by Ortiz and her brother from one of the many ballads, called corridos, that have been a mainstay of Mexican music for more than 150 years, stories about heroes and villains, like Mexican revolutionary leader, Emiliano Zapata (you decide what category he belongs in) and lovers and liars. This particular corrido is titled “Contrabando y Traicion” and was a huge international hit for Los Tigres del Norte when it was first released in 1974. The title in English is “Smuggling and Betrayal.” The song has inspired literature, film, folklore and now an opera.
The song tells about a woman who smuggles marijuana into the United States with her lover. But when he decides to leave her, she kills him and disappears with the money. The story becomes more involved when a man commits suicide on the train tracks in Ciudad Juarez and the newspaper El Alarma, whose motto is “Only the Truth,” reports that Camelia is involved in that man’s death. The opera is dedicated in part to finding out the truth.
“A long time ago I received a commission from the Organization of American States to write a chamber opera,” Ortiz said in a written statement provided by her publicist. “When I discussed this with my brother Ruben, he suggested that we look at El Alarma as a point of departure for ideas about popular stories in the news media that had a particular social impact.
“We found a piece of news with shocking visual images about a man who committed suicide because of a woman, Camelia la Tejana. From that story, we started to conceive the entire opera. Fact and fiction get mixed up and fuel popular retelling and mythology. The opera weaves together these truths and legends, their facts and fictions, ever seeking and transforming the truth.”
That image, found in El Alarma, was of a headless corpse on a railroad track, a man reported by the newspaper as a victim of Camelia la Tejana, even though the death was years after the song was written.
Eleazar Pacheco Moreno was that man, and his death was credited to Camelia, who has also over the years been discovered as an evangelist preacher amongst other incarnations. Using techniques similar to those of Berthold Brecht, the opera explores the creation of popular myth through media and is also a painful narrative of the drug trafficking culture. Ortiz is one of the foremost composers in today’s Mexico and uses an expressive combination of Mexican folk music, jazz and the avant-garde to create her works.
Ruben Ortiz Torres has developed a large reputation in photography, video works and installations and he used these talents for the first production of Camelia in Mexico City in 2010. Under his direction, films were made of Ciudad Juarez and Tijuana. The production team he worked with, Mario Espinosa as stage director, Angel Ancona as lighting director and Gloria Carrasco as set and costume designer are performing the same work in Long Beach.
“The U.S.-Mexico border is a place where everything is a matter of life and death. This reality is shaping our future and generates the passions and myths operas are made of,” LBO’s Artistic and General Director Andreas Mitisek said recently.
Mitisek will conduct both performances “Opera has a unique way of magnifying life, of giving us an enhanced perspective of reality. If Verdi or Bizet were alive today, these are the themes they would be writing about. Camelia is happening in the present. It’s about today. It has the dramatic urgency of the now.”
Tickets are $29 to $160. Performances are at 1 p.m. March 24 and at 7 p.m. March 30. Cheech Marin will participate in a pre-performance conversation March 30.
Details: (562) 432-5934; www.longbeachopera.org
Venue: Terrace Theatre of the Long Beach Convention Center
Location: 300 E. Long Beach Blvd., Long Beach