This program note was written by the librettist of the opera, Rubén Ortiz Torres:
I’ve had the opportunity of working with my sister, a composer, on several projects. I’ve asked her to write music for videos, films, and mechanical ballets with machines equipped with hydraulic systems, such as a lawn mower that opens up and dances to sounds produced by garden machines, which at one time or another were banned in Los Angeles because they were too noisy.
More than ten years ago and just after she composed the music for my film Fronterilandia (which I did in collaboration with Jesse Lerner), she suggested that we do an opera together. In this case, my ideas and images would be servicing the music. We embraced this unique opportunity for vindicating the Gesamtkunstwerk in an attempt to both produce and analyze culture. In the end, culture is a social phenomenon that is about extending the idea of family, which in this particular case originated between siblings.
In Mexico, the worst tragedies are exploited and published in explicit and graphical form by the sensationalist tabloid Alarma!. This publication has its own peculiar graphic design and its subtitle boasts of telling “nothing but the truth”. By truth they mean the violence that other magazines, out of decorum or ethics, prefer not to publish. I felt that one of the passionate dramas featured in the tabloid might work as an opera. I found a story that caught my interest in an issue from 1986. It dealt with an undocumented worker, Eleazar Pacheco Moreno, who was attacked, abused, and deported in Ciudad Juárez; he then resolved to commit suicide by placing his neck on the track so that an approaching train would behead him.
The article was inside the magazine and not the major feature. As expected, it was heavily illustrated with photos of the severed and bleeding head, and with another image in which we see a woman in a cowboy’s hat, weeping next to the corpse. According to the magazine, she is none other than Camelia la Texana. Could she possibly be the protagonist of the ballad “Contrabando y traición”, made famous by the celebrated group Los Tigres del Norte? Could this be the first narcocorrido?
While researching the character and the song, I came across a series of interviews published in sources a bit more serious than Alarma!, such as the left-wing Mexico City newspaper La Jornada and the Televisión Azteca network. However, these Camelias who claim to be la Texana are most definitely not her. The one on TV is in fact Agustina Ramírez, who gave up drug trafficking to become an evangelist and serve Jesus Christ. The other woman, Camelia María, interviewed by César Güemes for La Jornada, says she was involved in trafficking but not with drugs and refuses to discuss her relationship with guns. I was told in Ciudad Juárez that a woman who claimed she was Camelia was a prostitute and a drug addict.
Ángel González, composer of “Contrabando y traición”, maintains that she is a totally fictitious character. He knew a Camelia when he was in Los Angeles, but she was not from Texas and he says the whole story is untrue. In his book on narco songs, Elijah Wald, the American musicologist, writes that these ballads usually tell true stories with real names and dates, but that “Contrabando y traición” is clearly made up, spectacular, and more in line with a Hollywood movie. The collage and jigsaw puzzle nature of the libretto is the result of using quotes drawn from different sources. They contradict each other as evidence and show that the truth is nothing but a construct. In this sense, the opera functions as a documentary or a corrido that unveils a true myth or, conversely, shows how truth is myth. It employs a kind of Brechtian verismo to deconstruct the way in which truth and reality are represented through art, but also by the media. As Jorge Hernández, lead singer of Los Tigres del Norte, says: “It’s truthful, that’s all. Things are what they are, you don’t need to add or take anything away; it’s the way it is.”
Initially I envisioned the mise-en-scène with the singers in front of a green screen, so that they could be filmed, projected on another closed-circuit screen, and juxtaposed by a VJ (video jockey) with previously recorded images of the actual locations where the events took place. Such a procedure would allow the audience to simultaneously see them live and in the recorded locations, thus showing how the illusion of cinematographic reality is constructed and organized. So far, I have not been able to use this system completely, having instead to negotiate with more traditional formats. Nevertheless, the video has fulfilled an essential role and we have experimented with live mixes which follow the rhythm of the music, as well as with panoramic views employing multiple screens and projectors.
As of this writing the opera has been staged at the University of Indiana in Bloomington, conducted by Carmen Helena Téllez, and in Mexico City in a co-production between the Festival de México and the Bellas Artes National Opera Company, conducted by José Areán. As usual, reality surpasses fiction—or in this case its representation. Sergio Gómez, lead singer of the group K-Paz de la Sierra, was murdered just before the opera opened in Indiana, possibly by drug dealers. The wake was held in the Santa María church in Indianapolis , where he lived. All of a sudden, the exotic and distant theme of the opera and the border was brought home within the largest music school in the U.S. and people wanted to know exactly what was happening. When we started to work on the opera, not for a moment did we imagine that a song from the 70s and an incident from 1986 would have the significance they now do, in the midst of a war against drugs that has claimed over 50,000 victims as of 2012 (150,000 according to some sources), with Ciudad Juárez as one the major epicenters of the conflict.
Mario Espinosa’s production in Mexico set out to incorporate this latest tragedy into the mise-en-scène and attracted a lot of media attention. London’s BBC, Canada’s CBC, and some local newspapers, in a sudden bout of supposed interest in Mexican opera, accused us of exploiting the violence which they considered, even before the premiere, as the work’s central theme. They failed to understand that the opera’s actual theme has more to do with journalists turning this woman into a real figure and capitalizing on the myth of a person who apparently never existed. The press conferences and perhaps even reality itself turned into scenes from an opera that, as far as I can see, continues.... “Nothing else was ever known about Camelia and the money.”
To the memory of Kevin Power (1944-2013)
— Rubén Ortiz Torres