There are only a few towns in Central California with their own opera companies and even fewer creating new art forms. In Visalia, a director has brought mariachi and opera together to form an original mariachi opera called “El Bracero.” In this story FM89’s Ezra David Romero meets the opera’s creator and discovers a new art form that weaves together elements of love and struggle.
Mariachi is very important to the Latino community. The Mexican folk music is played at quinceaneras, weddings and celebrations of all sorts. But rarely is it heard in the world of opera, until now.
Rosalinda Verde runs the Visalia Opera House and is a classically trained opera singer.
“When I hear mariachis I feel very connect and rooted all of a sudden,” Verdes says.
She decided to fuse the two art forms together this summer to create a mariachi opera called “El Bracero,” which is thought to be the second of its kind in the world.
“Opera is to tell a story through song and that’s what we’re doing,” Verdes says. “We’re using traditional mariachi songs that people will know and recognize and that will bring them into the story.”
The Visalia native witnessed the first mariachi opera earlier this year by Mariachi Vargas titled “Cruzar La Cara de la Luna.”
“I saw it in San Diego,” Verdes says. “It was also an immigrant story and at the end of it you could hear people balling, crying so I thought wow. I wanted to do that actual opera but they are still performing it so I can’t get the rights to that. We had to write our own.”
“El Bracero” is set in the 40’s and is about life in the bracero program, which made a way for Mexican nationals to work temporarily in the U.S.
Rosalinda’s father Francisco Verde narrates the mariachi opera.
“How many times have you heard opera being shared in the Mexican Heritage? Never,” says Francisco Verde. “The ballet folklorico has always been in existence but it’s going to come in with the mariachis and opera and acting.”
The opera is inspired by the story of Verde’s parents and that of Noe Prado who came to the states during World War II as part of the bracero program as a legal farm laborer. In the story he falls in love and travels to the United States to make a living so he can support the love of his life.
“They needed someone to bring in that harvest and so they reached out to Mexico and they said hey, lend us a helping hand,” says Francisco Verde. “That’s what bracero means, lend us a hand.”
Noe Prado’s daughter Noelvia plays herself in the opera. She was pulled in last minute when the actor playing her got sick.
“Growing up my dad always made it a very important part of our life to know our roots and what he came from,” says Prado.
When Verde learned about the story of Prado’s father, she was inspired to create an opera based on his life.
“This is their story, including just the true hard labor of working in the field,” Verde says. “All the promises that the U.S. had made did not turn out to be in a lot of the instances.”
The marriage of mariachi and opera is important to a region with a population that’s predominantly Latino. Donald Henriques is an ethnomusicology professor at Fresno State.
“The style of singing of mariachi has been very much tied to the sound of opera,” Henriques says. “It has a history even though the sound of that trained vocal sound with rural instruments is kind of a contradiction I guess you might say."
Henriques says Central California is a perfect place for the creation of new Hispanic themed art forms like mariachi opera.
“In the Valley of course you have the long history of bracero program and a lot of music in the Valley,” Henriques says. “There’s so much connection, history tied to the music. Those feelings of home they’re not going to go away.”
Back in Visalia, Rosalinda Verde’s first mariachi opera was performed Saturday in the city’s historic Oval Park.
“I feel like it’s a very good marriage, simply because we can,” Verde says. “We live in the Valley and we are open to creating new things here.”
Over 400 people attended the outdoor opera and Verde says she’ll have one more performance this year.