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Opera from the underground

In Tijuana, a grass-roots movement is building a fan base and giving rise to productions. All without government funding.

January 19, 2003|Sam Quinones | Special to The Times

Tijuana — Stuck on a hill east of this city's border crossing is the Libertad neighborhood, a rough crush of concrete-block homes built by poor people and years of hard work.

La Libertad is famous for its junkies and for the artisans who make the plaster Mickey Mouse and Spider-Man figures sold at the border. Few neighborhoods better typify what the city has been. But hidden on 5th Street near Aquiles Serdan Avenue is a vision of what Tijuana is becoming.

It is a cafe dedicated to -- opera.

Posters of the world's great opera houses and scenes from "Tosca" and "Turandot" cover one wall. Album covers from "Aida," "Carmen" and "La Traviata" grace another. The bathroom is lined with photos of opera stars from the 1930s.

This is Tijuana's Cafe de la Opera, announced with Christmas lights strung in the shape of a theater marquee and owned by Enrique Fuentes, a San Diego teacher, Tijuana resident and opera lover. He presents monthly recitals, Thursday-night opera discussions, and lessons in singing, piano and guitar. And every Saturday, after tying back the crimson curtains covering a 36-inch television that sits in a corner within an ornate gold frame, Fuentes screens an opera video. "People asked me why I didn't put it in a more upscale neighborhood," he says. "But I thought, well, I live here. My mother lives here. So I said, 'Why not here?' People who like opera will come."

And they have. For one of the most unexpected regional art developments is that grungy Tijuana now has a flourishing opera scene.

Several nights a month somewhere in the city, it is possible to hear a bel canto recital or a lecture on opera. Classes on opera history are offered around town. An opera radio program airs Thursday mornings. (The city also has two music conservatories, two children's choirs and a youth orchestra.)

Fuentes' cafe has become the crucial forum where fans and artists mingle, and Tijuana's growing number of aspiring Sutherlands and Domingos can hone their skills like jazz musicians at a late-night New York dive. Four promising performers who left Tijuana to study in New York and Mexico City have returned to make careers here. And two generations of young singers -- one in their mid-20s and the other in their late teens -- are emerging as promising talent.

Above all, the city's first opera company formed this summer. It grew from Accorde, a theater and music company that put on operas for the past two years to standing-room-only crowds. In August, presentations of its second full-length opera -- "Madama Butterfly" -- were packed, and that success encouraged tenor Jose Medina and Maria Teresa Rique, a local teacher, to split and form La Opera de Tijuana. They plan 10 chamber performances this year, capped by a production of "I Pagliacci" in August.

Opera in Tijuana is a small thing, and most residents would be surprised to hear it exists. Still, says Rique, "what we've seen has really been a phenomenon. We see people from all classes come to the performances. It's been a snowball."

The underground alternative

In the Tijuana context, opera is an underground alternative. The city's surface is a riot of rumpled shantytowns, television factories and graffiti. Narco-corridos, techno and heavy metal music blast from strip bars as barkers attack each passing tourist with promises of "no cover" and "lots of girls." Bombarded by this cacophony, some residents have searched for harmony, exactitude and discipline -- and have found it in opera.

"Tijuana has an immense hunger for art and cultural alternatives," says Medina, the artistic director of the new opera company. "Tijuana was the city of prostitution, drugs and Mickey Mouse dolls. It's no longer like that. The idea of Tijuana is changing."

Indeed, the discos are often empty. Thousands of well-to-do Mexico City residents moved to Tijuana after the 1985 earthquake. Since then, too, the city's industrial base has boomed. Visiting businessmen far outnumber tourists. Tijuana's middle class has ballooned.

All that, as well as the proximity to the United States, has attracted more cultural activities and the money to support them.

"When we were young, there were no choirs or vocal education," says Marco Antonio Labastida, a tenor who studied in the United States in the 1980s and returned to Tijuana to make his career as director of the Sinfonica Juvenil de Tijuana. "We acquired it away from Tijuana, but now you can get it here. This doesn't just have to do with opera. It has to do with literature, theater, painting. There's more space for all these arts."

But none of them shows so clearly as opera that the quintessential border town has been losing one skin and acquiring another.

The seeds, planted

The seeds of opera's development were planted in 1982, with the construction of CECUT, the Tijuana Cultural Center. CECUT gave the city a nationally recognized theater for the performing arts, and recently, it has also offered classes on opera composers and history.

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