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UW Opera: "Esperanza" (Isthmus)

David Bishop: Esperanza

Mrs. Salazar: Kathleen Otterson, soprano
Jesuita: Wendy Rowe, soprano
Teresa Vidal: Catherine Brand, mezzo-soprano
Lola Álvarez: Elizabeth Rosenbaum
Estela: Catherine Schweitzer
Barton: David Cesarini
Mr. Alexander: Kenneth Church, bass
Esperanza Quintero: Theresa Santiago, soprano
Frank Barnes: Daniel Plummer, baritone
Ramón Quintero: William Alvarado, baritone
Vicente Vidal: Jeffrey Picón
Salvador Ruíz: Joe Dahl
Karlos Moser, conductor


Music Hall was completely sold out for the world premiere of Esperanza, based on the script for the film Salt of the Earth. Set in New Mexico, it is the story of a successful strike by immigrant Mexican mine workers seeking safer working conditions in the mine, better living conditions in the company town and relief from racist Anglo discrimination. A central subplot involves recognition by tradition-bound mine workers, all male, of the creative energies of the women in their community.

Billed as an opera, Esperanza is more nearly a classical labor-union manifesto dramatized with music and singing. As a vehicle for portraying the struggles of oppressed and marginalized workers exploited by an uncaring corporate overculture, the two-act work makes a clear case for labor and was certainly a success on that level. As theater, as music and as opera, however, it really didn't work, despite good production values and some excellent singing by principles.

The libretto, adapted from Michael Wilson's screenplay by Carlos Morton, is straightforward in depicting the conflict of good and evil. Its heart is in the right place, attuned to the emotional consequences of exploitation and sensitive to the mining community's internal gender-related issues. But as in life, the need to score ideological points becomes a didactic oversimplification that subordinates human content and limits the dramatic potential of the characters. I think it's this, above all, which prevents Esperanza from being an opera, for in opera it's the other way around: the characters must be the foreground, framed by their social and political contexts.

The score, by David Bishop, is part cabaret music, part show tunes and part operatic music, supported by a small chamber ensemble ably conducted by Karlos Moser, Esperanza's artistic director. Stylistically, the music is highly eclectic, a musical embodiment of the cut-up poem, in which a text is literally sliced checkerboard style and the shuffled pieces are reassembled in some more or less arbitrary order. So there are little echoes of Leonard Bernstein here, Kurt Weill over there, and Bishop here and there. In the end, nothing emerges clearly; it remains a kind of out-of-focus pastiche.

Nevertheless, the dramatic strength of the two principal characters, Esperanza and Ramón Quintero, was effectively carried by soprano Theresa Santiago and bass-baritone William Alvarado, both of whom get some fine music to sing. Santiago has a beautiful, clear, large voice -- too large for this small house at times. She brought to life the dilemmas of poverty and family life quite affectingly. Alvarado's voice is also big, a little rougher around the edges, but also touchingly poignant as he tries to make sense of his conditions.

Also singing well were Kathleen Otterson, Wendy Rowe and Catherine Brand as miners' wives and Daniel Plummer as the Anglo union representative. As Ramón's compadre Vicente, tenor Jeffrey Picón's voice was somewhat covered but he brought out the character's fiery passion convincingly. As the mine superintendent, Kenneth Church was appropriately evil, though he had a tendency to oversing in louder passages.

The setting, by Joseph Varga, had a very finished, professional look, but sometimes getting people on and off was a bit cumbersome. This may have presented some insuperable problems for the director, Norma Saldivar. I didn't notice any major problem with the direction until the very last tableau, when Esperanza and Ramón are downstage singing a long duet and the entire rest of the cast is onstage, just standing inertly at the back, doing nothing for three or four minutes before coming to life for the rousing chorus that ends the work.

The creation of Esperanza was supported by the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO and Wisconsin Labor History Society and there were lots of union people in the audience. This probably explains ecsatic applause for the good characters and outright boos for the bad guys. Whatever its flaws as operatic theater, it was plain that everyone associated with the production was deeply committed to its ideals.

Isthmus, August, 2000
Copyright 2000 Jess Anderson

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