One of the major reasons I devote so much of my performance life to new music is my fascination with the process: the evolution of a libretto or a piece of music; the learning process, and consequent evolutions of the piece necessitated by the first hearing; the formulation of opinions and reactions; the way that the music exists because several brains went to work to bring it into existence. While it’s almost always the vision and execution of one composer, music can’t come to life without its interpreters, and I believe it achieves much more of its potential when it is subject to review – by audiences, colleagues, its performers, and so on.
This is why I found the open workshop of La Reina at ALT such a positive experience. The work in question on the evening I attended was Jorge Sosa’s full-length opera, on a libretto by Laura Sosa Pedroza, and commissioned by ALT. The audience heard an unstaged, complete reading of the score, and Lawrence Edelson, ALT’s founder and director, then led a “talkback” session – a part of the process the company uses in all their workshops. The session has four steps: affirmation, in which the audience provides their positive reactions, constructively framed; Artist as Questioner, in which the composer and librettist were invited to ask specific questions for feedback; Audience as Questioner, in which the questioning was reversed; and opinions, in which the audience was permitted to voice opinions about specific aspects of the work, which the composer and librettist could consent or decline to hear.
La Reina has been in process since Sosa began talking about it with Edelson in 2009. It is a story woven by Sosa Pedroza from the real stories of the Mexican drug cartels, although it is not specifically any one story. It traces the rise and fall of a Mexican drug lord known as La Reina and explores some of the intricacies of the cartel world, sparing us none of the grim realities of violence, corruption, and political machinations. Though some of the characters have echoes in reality, Sosa stressed that the who and what wasn’t as important as the overarching, sobering truth that “no matter how wild [their] imaginations would run, reality is far crueler”.
It’s not all pain and sorrow, though; Sosa Pedroza uses a bit of magic realism to bring about some philosophical musings on death and the afterlife, and the repercussions of our actions on earth. I won’t spoil it; suffice it to say that perhaps a story of such shocking evil would otherwise be difficult to universalize. But exactly that is deftly done through the Boethian device of the otherworldly conscience in the form of La Santa Muerte (“Saint Death”).
At this point in the process, Sosa says, the piece is nearing its final version. The libretto, which is undergoing final revisions, has also been given a reading, and the piece itself (or excerpts of it) has been heard by at least two audiences. Thus, on that evening, we heard a “pretty good representation” of what we can expect when the opera is orchestrated and staged – Sosa estimates by 2015.
And a “pretty good” representation it was. The Spanish/English libretto was rendered crisply and idiomatically by the cast, which is absolutely stacked with the cream of the crop of rising stars. Pianist Mila Henry masterfully played the devilishly difficult score, creating a sound world, along with the occasional electronics, that heralded an orchestral score of incredible range and colour. Sosa’s choices in the use of electronics (while still under review, as he noted in the feedback session) sparked the imagination where stage dressing did not (the screeching of iron bars in the prison scenes, and the distortion and reverb that accompanied the appearances of La Santa Muerte come to mind). More than that, however, I think the element of electronic sound will lend a sense of realism and three-dimensionality to the staged version; a story like this is almost filmic, and lends itself well to multimedia concepts.
Sosa hopes to keep this cast for the projected 2015 staged production and it’s obvious why. Audrey Babcock’s Reina was a thrilling, dynamic, impeccably voiced characterization. She brought aspects of her acclaimed Carmen to the character which made it hard to look away and impossible to tune out, and the writing fits her voice like a glove. Javier Abreu as the malevolent Pozolero so fully inhabited his character that I’m not sure I’d believe anyone else in the role (incidentally, I found the vocal writing for this character among the best, and Abreu carried it off with such naturalism I believed he was making it up on the spot). Audrey Luna was a stately and, as I mentioned, dazzling Santa Muerte, and Rosa Betancourt an excellent complement, in vocal colour, and in a nice coincidence, in physical appearance to the older incarnation of her character. Christopher Burchett as El Gringo reminded me of everything I love about Colin Ainsworth except in baritone form; his timbre is clear and silken and lends itself to operatic heroism with ease. The male singers who often sang in ensemble — John Matthew Myers, Dominic Armstrong, Tom McNichols, Joseph Beutel, and Michael Zegarski – made for an exceptional company. The basses Beutel and McNichols stood out particularly in the rumbling depths of the vocal score.
It was fascinating to hear the questions and reactions put forth by the audience following the reading; reactions and opinions were diverse, and almost all had potential to help the piece become stronger. I would have loved to see the progression of the piece over time, in its various incarnations; nothing is more interesting to me than how feedback shapes the product.
Sosa’s open and generous nature lends itself well to this type of process, and it is heartening to know there are so many in the opera world like him – composers, librettists, directors, performers, and so on – people who recognize that meaningful music-making is the contribution of your creativity to something bigger than yourself.