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Alberto Pérez-Amador: “Currently, the greatest operatic creation movement in Latin American history is being lived”


Interview with the Doctor and philologist Alberto Pérez-Amador Adam


About Alberto Pérez-Amador Adam

He studied at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) and a PhD from the Humboldt Universität zu Berlin, he has been recognized as one of the most important researchers in the work of Sister Juana Inés de la Cruz, highlighting her book The Precipice of Phaeton. also published an anthology of Sor Juana in Germany, entitled Es höre mich dein Auge: Lyrik, Theater, Prosa / Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (Frankfurt am Main: Neue Kritik, 1996) and has written essays on José Gorostiza, Jorge Cuesta and Lezama Lima 


Being a philologist, how was this interest born to rescue data on Mexican opera? Are you related to gender? Why not painting or poetry?

As a literary researcher I have taken care of of studying and writing about Latin American poetry of the 20th century. I have written books and articles about José Gorostiza, Xavier Villaurrutia, César Vallejo, Jorge Cuesta, José Lezama Lima. But, in addition, at the moment, I am in charge of rescuing forgotten works of the viceroyalty period of Novohispano, making editions of important works, such as the First Dream of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, or works of enormous importance, but forgotten for several centuries, as it is the surprising and very long Guadalupe poem The eighth wonder, by Jesuit Francisco de Castro, contemporary of Sor Juana. But, in addition to my professional interest in Mexican literature, especially, as I said, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, all my life I have been busy studying opera. When I speak of studying opera, I am not only referring to listening to works from very different geographical latitudes, but really studying the phenomenon from the theoretical point of view as an aesthetic and cultural phenomenon. A fundamental point is my interest in the script. 

The libretto is something that is neglected with enormous frequency by an evolution of the history of the genre during the nineteenth century as a result of technical changes: in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries it became common the custom of obscuring the auditorium with the intention to focus public attention on stage action. Before the lights did not go out in the performance hall and the public could read the script during the performance. This technical change, darkening the performance hall, meant that the public could not follow the script during the performance and, consequently, interest in the script was lost. 

The consequence was that, in a great majority of cases, 19th-century composers neglected the quality of the librettos. The vast majority of nineteenth-century operas used lousy texts as a libretto. It was not until the revolution of Wagner and Mussorsky, followed by many composers of the twentieth century, such as Debussy, Szymanovsky, Dukas, Strauss, Britten, Ginastera or Henze (to name a few), that the quality of the libretto was returned to attention. 

But the general public continued to view the script as a complementary issue during an opera performance because they could not read the text at the time of the performance. Since the final years of the twentieth century this has changed with the custom of overtitling functions. This practice has recovered the place that the libretto had during the first 200 years of its history. Today the libretto is once again given a very important space in the experience of watching an opera. 

I would like to note that I have been writing a book about the opera libretto in Spanish as a literary genre for several years now. With great frequency we forget that the opera in Spanish began with librettists like Lope de Vega and Calderón de la Barca in the 17th century and that in the 20th century important authors such as Federico García Lorca or Camilo José Cela, or, in Latin America, Alejo Carpentier, Xavier Villaurrutia, Manuel Mujica Lainez, Carlos Fuentes or Miguel Ángel Asturias wrote opera librettos. To this are added plays used as a libretto from feathers of Octavio Paz and Sr. Juana Inés de la Cruz. In addition, we currently see the fruitful collaboration of composers with theatrical authors, such as José Ramón Enríquez, Verónica Musalem or Jorge Volpi, to mention only three cases of writers within the Mexican opera, but that the list could be increased with many authors Latin American theatricals that are writing opera librettos. And, I would like to underline: it is not about plays that are adapted as an opera libretto, but they are written texts with the intention of being put on the underground musician. That is, they are conceived since its creation to be an opera. 


What differentiates a play from an opera libretto or what allows some plays to be used as a libretto? 

That is, the opera libretto has, at each time, particular characteristics that They differ from the play. The review of such characteristics of the libretto that take it away from a play and make it a literary genre of its own, with its unique history and development, is what occupies me for some years. This, as far as I can see, has not been considered in Hispanic literary studies. It is at that point that one my private interest in opera and my work as a literary researcher.


You are currently working on a database of Mexican opera. Can you tell us about this ambitious project?

From my adolescence I gathered data about Mexican and Latin American opera. It is a lot of data collected. All in disorder and without system. At some point I talked about it with a colleague, Dr. Enid Negrete, who proposed that we make a Database as a project between the National Center for Musical Research, Documentation and Information (CENIDIM) and the Metropolitan Autonomous University (UAM), institution where I work as a researcher. 

Now, the situation of Mexican opera, or, to be more precise, studies about it, are a disaster. Few jobs and almost all that exist so far lack scientific rigor. The situation regarding production is very different: there has been a constant production for 200 years, which in the last 50 years has increased considerably. Currently, Mexico has a significant number of composers who are writing and releasing their new operas regularly. Of course this can improve, but we cannot deny that there are significant efforts in this regard. In addition, as far as I have been able to investigate, Mexico is the Latin American country that has made the most professional recordings of its operas, in addition to having a certain amount of pirate recordings. Of course, they are still few in relation to the assets they have, but there is no doubt that the situation in this regard has changed significantly in the last 20 years.
How is the research team established and how is it funded?

Everyone who works on the project is practically for idealism. The basic nucleus is the Mtra. Gabriela Rivera Loza (CENIDIM), Mtra. Paulina Isabel Molina Díaz (UAM / CENIDIM), Mr. José Antonio Robles Cahero (CENIDIM), and I by the UAM. In addition, we have had temporary collaborators. The institutions that host the project are the National Center for Musical Research, Documentation and Information (CENIDIM) and the Metropolitan Autonomous University (UAM) that work together for this project in an agreement whose legal framework is given by the National Institute of Fine Arts ( INBA). I must clarify that all of us who collaborate in this project have our own projects and, consequently, to make the Mexican Opera Database we steal time from day to day and sleep. That’s why the project is going slow. Slow but safe.
Once you have established a solid base of data on Mexican lyric, would you like to expand it to the rest of Latin America?

We have thought, from the beginning, that this is a first step to then expand the database to one dedicated to the entire Latin American opera, considering the enormous amount of data that I have gathered for 30 years. But this is, as Adorno would say, “Zukunftsmusik” (music of the future), that is, something we are not going to do yet, but we have considered and will be the continuation of this first project.

We have already worked on this for several years and we calculate that from 2021 we will be able to open a part of the base to the public, while completing the following. And if all goes well, it could be that, a very significant part is ready for 2022-2023. 

I think that all this work can be the livelihood for other nations to join. Argentina and Brazil will be the most problematic because they have a collection of operas as large as Mexico. Other nations will be easier because operatic production has been much smaller. But adding everything, I estimate that we would be talking about a Latin American operatic heritage of approximately 2,000 Latin American operas (reserved calculation). The problem in all cases will be the same that we have faced when making the database of Mexican opera: there is very little that has been worked with scientific rigor and the vast majority of the data is dispersed. We hope that, after the project has been completed, this huge collection of forgotten assets will become aware.
During the process of your investigation, have there been cases or data that have caught your attention? For example, the number of written operas or number of audiences attending their functions.

Yes. There are many surprising facts that I cannot list all. But I will mention some. For a long time it was said that Manuel de Sumaya composed the first Mexican opera, La Partenope (1711) and a melodrama, El Rodrigo (1708). We have not located the music of either of them and only the libretto of La Parténope. Personally, I think that El Rodrigo must be an opera. At that time, in addition to calling the musical theater as an opera, other classifications were also used: favola in music or drama per music, to mention two cases. I think that “melodrama” should be another generic category for what we call opera and, consequently, it would not be La Parténope, but El Rodrigo the first Mexican opera. But, in addition, the libretto of a third opera composed by Manuel de Sumaya, El Zeleucolocated, has been, which, by different data, has been dated to 1710. The data is also important considering that among the many Mexican composers since the Renaissance Until Neoclassicism, Manuel de Sumaya is, with certainty, the greatest of Mexican baroque. 

Regarding the public and its relationship with opera there is an anecdote that I like very much. When Melesio Morales returned from Italy, where he had premiered his Romeo and Juliet, he announced that he was bringing a new opera: Ildegonda. The director of the National Theater declared that he would not release it because he was not interested and did not have the financial resources. That same night, before the curtain was raised in the National Theater, a general protest began in the public: papers were thrown and the public shouted that they wanted to hear the Mexican opera Ildegonda. The protest was such that the function planned for that day could not begin and the director had to go out to explain. Literally the Director of the National Theater was armed “that of San Quintín.” People shouted non-stop until the Director announced that he would do everything possible to represent Ildegonda. It was then that Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico intervened, who announced that from his private estate he paid for all production, as he considered it necessary to promote the arts in his Empire. The premiere was performed and the character of Ildegonda sang it no less than Angela Peralta. The success was overwhelming and the audience pulled Melesio Morales from the theater on his shoulders and in torchlight they walked him between cheers throughout the city to his home. Even there, the public did not withdraw and Peralta had to repeat an aria from the balcony. From there until his death, all the operas by Melesio Morales always had great success. He was seen as a national hero. The story is incredible and surprising considering the ignorance and contempt that exists today for Mexican opera among the great operatic audience that only wants to see the vertigo La traviata

Regarding the number of operas written in Mexico, we have also been surprised. The meritorious work of Octavio Sosa (Dictionary of Mexican Opera) revealed to us a number of operas well above that historiography usually handled, but the research we have done has almost doubled that number. And, for the results we have obtained, I am sure that the number will still rise. Of course not all are significant works. We have to be very clear that a large part of these works are important for the history of Mexican opera, some others must be considered to be part of a history of Latin American opera (yet to be written) and a few, such as The visitors of Carlos Chavez or Daniel Catán’s operas are of international importance.
What are the characteristics in the composition of Mexican opera that distinguish it?

This is a difficult question. In the first place, the question would lead to falling into questions of nationalism. If nationalism has been an idea with tragic consequences throughout the world, for Mexico and Latin America the situation is no different. I have always defended the idea of ​​seeing Latin America as a cultural unit. 

Now, if we do not know the detailed development of the tricentennial history of opera in Mexico or of any of the regions of Latin America due to the lack of a scientific systematization of the phenomenon and, above all, due to a huge lack of diffusion of production, so, at least now, we cannot establish what are the particular characteristics of opera in our region if there are such particular characteristics. But, in reality, can we talk about a particular difference in the opera of a region? What common elements do Monteverdi and Cavalli have with Luigi Nono, Lorenzo Ferrero, Salvatore Schiarrino and Luciano Berio beyond the fact that everyone was born in Italy? The idea of ​​a national art history is an artificial construction that always carries political intentions. 

The case of the history of opera is particularly extreme: it is a very international artistic expression and, although it was tried during the 19th century to do “national opera”, in the end, the experiments are the product of an international idea of ​​what should be Be the national opera. That is to say: of national it does not have more than the costumes, some folkloric tones and plots, but from the theoretical point of view it is not it. The same happens in Mexico as in the rest of Latin America and Europe: opera is a phenomenon that follows international aesthetic trends. Even attempts such as those currently being made in Mexico to write operas with text in indigenous languages, I think Xochicuicatl Cucuechtli of Gabriel Pareyón’s, as an example, of several others in the same line of inquiry, are experiments that are part of the international aesthetic search to find new operatic forms. 

Knowing the trajectory of your country and Latin America in the composition of classical repertoire, what do you think is the potential of opera in Spanish in the world lyrical market?

This is also a difficult question. The potential of opera in Spanish, like that of any cultural product, depends on many factors. Such range from economic and political issues to the idea of ​​canon, a theoretical question that has not been addressed and that, just for Latin America, is central. Latin America has always had a problem with its inferiority traumas. Don Alfonso Reyes talked about the fact that Mexico / Latin America was late for the banquet of culture. 

The famous quote from Don Alfonso Reyes seems to me to ignore that Latin America has given a very remarkable cultural production. Latin America has a clear inferiority complex that seeks to compensate by obtaining recognition from Europe. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Mexico and Latin America they were desperate because they had no saints and put all the nuns to write their biography in the hope of finding features that could take them to the altars. It was a real obsession and they thought that having saints would be on par with Europe. 

Then, in the 19th century, operas were written imitating the Italians thinking that they were on par with Europe. Then, in the twentieth century there was the obsession of opera singers. They thought that having opera singers who sang European operas in Europe Latin America would have an operatic culture. Today Latin America does not seek to match Europe with saints, composers or opera singers, but with soccer players. 

First of all, we have to rescue and know our own culture. Regarding opera, it would seem fundamental to me that of all the titles presented throughout Latin America, half were Latin American operas. It is essential that Latin American operatic production be disseminated throughout Latin America. 

If you remember that according to my reserved calculation there must be more than 2000 Latin American operas, and we propose that only 1% of these operas deserve to be played throughout Latin America, we are already talking about approximately 20 significant operas. That is much more than the number of European operas that in most Latin American theaters are represented regularly. If we add only the operas of Melesio Morales, Ricardo Castro, Julián Carrillo, José Pablo Moncayo, Salvador Moreno, José F. Vazquez, Carlos Chávez, Daniel Catán, Federico Ibarra and Gabriela Ortíz it turns out that only Mexico offers more than 30 operas that they should be played throughout Latin America and belong to a Latin American opera canon. 

If we add to that the significant operas composed in the rest of Latin America, from Cuba, with a work as unique as Manita on the floor of Alejo Carpentier / Alejandro Caturla, the operas of Gómez and Villalobos, to mention only two composers of many important Brazil has given, in addition to the many significant operas composed in Argentina, starting with those of Héctor Panizza, Felipe Boero, Juan José Castro, Alberto Ginastera, Mario Perusso and Gerardo Gandini we obtain a considerable number of operas that should constantly be represented in Latin America and belong to our common cultural heritage.

Ideal for this dissemination would be to use modern instruments. I can think of the creation of a platform, in the manner of Operavisión, which focuses on uploading the production and recording of Latin American operas to the network. That would allow the dissemination of our operas in a way that would not be achieved by other means. It would be very important that, for example, an organization like OLA Opera Latin America made agreements with the governments of all the countries of the region and UNESCO to organize a great project for editing and recording Latin American operas. This could serve as an example of the formidable literary project “Ediciones Archivo” that managed to get almost 100 volumes of masterpieces of Latin American literature in editions of extraordinary quality. It seems to me that an organization like OLA Opera Latin America should also promote opera composition competitions. At present,throughout Latin America, the greatest operatic creation movement in the history of the region is lived. It would be regrettable that this remarkable creative movement was not taken advantage of and supported. 

To conclude and answer your question in a very concrete way: it seems to me that there is an extraordinary potential, but that it has not been used because, on the one hand, “La traviata” is mounted again and again and, on the other hand, it is thought achieve an operatic culture if Latin American singers sing in European theaters European operas. That is the wrong way. The answer lies in the development of an own operatic canon, a repertoire of Latin American operas and a history of its own without seeking recognition from Europe. The answer to the problem is in us.

Prior to your research, are there records of other people who have collected information about opera in Mexico? 

There are practically only three attempts to systematize the history and production of Mexican opera: there is a booklet of 1909 that was published in the framework of the celebrations of the Centenary of Independence in 1910. Such booklet contains valuable information especially of Mexican opera from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that we do not find in subsequent works. In addition, we have an unpublished manuscript of Dr. Romero that is dated in 1950. Such is found in the CENIDIM file. The interesting thing about such unpublished work is that it collects information from the operatic production of the first half of the 20th century. And, again, we find references to works that were released, but not mentioned in subsequent records. Finally, the most ambitious work is the Dictionary of the Mexican Opera of Octavio Sosa published at the end of the last century and that was done with very good intentions, with a lot of work, but without scientific rigor. To all this are added various articles and essays by musicologists dedicated to particular works. These are investigations, in most cases, very recent. 

All this material is where we start to systematize the data. Initially we thought that everything was reduced to emptying data in a Database, but we realized several problems. Some of the questions that arose were: what can be considered by Mexican opera? What position does the baroque zarzuela, the twentieth century zarzuela or musical comedy have? Should works by composers who were not born in Mexico but who created all their work here be considered in the Mexican Opera Database? Are the operas of composers born in Mexico, but who created their work in other countries? These are questions that should have been resolved. In this regard, the theoretical contribution of Mtro. José Antonio Robles Cahero, who illuminated the problems with his training as a historian and musicologist. But, in addition, we face the problem that the data we had in the various sources, especially the three mentioned, are contradictory and, in many cases, unreliable. To continue with an issue like the one we were doing, the result would not have had the necessary rigor.

This forced us to consider the whole project again and decide to change the structure of the Mexican Opera Database from a technical point of view and review each of the data and support them with sources. In this regard, I must indicate, the intellectual rigor of Mtra. Paulina Isabel Molina was decisive. If we did not have other sources than those mentioned, we are registering the known sources for each data until we find reliable data. The matter sounds easy, but from a single entry (a title) you can derive up to 50 complementary data (composer, librettist, fonts, language, release date, premiere location, endowment, characters and scores, singers, orchestra, stage director and musical of the premiere, location of the score).

It was not unusual for us to find opposite data in the three sources indicated. An example: a character was registered as tenor, soprano and baritone simultaneously. While this was an extreme case, it is not unusual to find that the character is assigned the tenor or baritone, soprano or mezzosoprano tessellation indistinctly.

That is, the situation from which we start forces us to review each data. This means that each data has a call to footnote in the Mexican Opera Database and specifies what source we are citing. In many cases, the aforementioned sources are cited at least until the score or hand programs are found to confirm such data with reliable or irrefutable sources.

Another major problem has been that the premiere singers are registered with different names, pseudonyms or incomplete names. It has been a problem locating reliable sources to amend this and provide accurate and reliable information. 

Most likely, many of these data will be amended even after bringing the Mexican Opera Database online as new sources and documents are found. This is a “work in progress”.

At first we captured the data of approximately 350 Mexican operas, but we had to stop such work. In such a way that they have not been captured anymore. Only exceptionally were operas captured after 1980, that is to say, the last 40 years that are precisely those of greatest production. We estimate that we are missing approximately 120 operas written in recent years. We have these data, but they have not been captured until we have cleared all that has already been done.

On the other hand, as we have progressed, we have found at least two dozen operas not registered in any of the three incipient works mentioned (in addition to the operas of the last decades, it is understood).

So, it has been a work full of surprises. Some very unpleasant to realize that many works are lost. But at least we already know that they were written and those works can be searched. We have received help from people from very different parts and, in several cases, really surprising: the grandson who had a collection of hand programs he inherited from his grandmother who was a fan of opera; the woman who gave us material from her mother who was a singer, and, on several occasions, people who told us that they are children / grandchildren / great-grandchildren of composers and that they keep the archive. A very spectacular case was the Archive of Cenobio Paniagua: several operas were discovered that it was not known that he had composed (because he could no longer premiere them), several zarzuelas and 70 masses that he wrote after he emigrated to the province after the emperor’s murder Maximiliano I of Mexico (which promoted opera).

A major problem has been the technical configuration of the Database. Fortunately, within the team we have an extraordinary collaborator, Mtra Gabriela Rivera Loza, who is in charge of the question of technical and computer design of the Database. The great luck we have is that he is not only a computer specialist, but also a musicologist. In this way, he understands our questions and can solve them from the point of view of computer science. I must clarify that one thing is the way in which we are capturing and ordering the data and another is how it will be presented to the public. These are complex problems that have taken us a long time, but whose solution is very advanced.