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UW Opera: "Esperanza" (Opera News)

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


The University of Wisconsin's Music Hall was packed August 25 for the world premiere of Esperanza, based on the script for the 1954 film Salt of the Earth. It is the story of a successful strike by immigrant Mexican mine workers seeking safer working conditions, better living conditions and relief from racist discrimination. A subplot involves recognition by the male mine workers of the creative energies of the women in their community.

Billed as an opera, Esperanza is more nearly a labor-union manifesto dramatized with music and singing. The two-act work makes a clear case for unions and certainly succeeds on that level. As opera, however, it doesn't really work, despite good production values and excellent singing by principles.

The libretto, adapted from Michael Wilson's screenplay by Carlos Morton, straightforwardly depicts the conflict of good and evil. But whereas in opera the characters occupy the foreground, framed by the historical context, here ideology overwhelms the human content, circumscribing the dramatic potential of the characters.

David Bishop's score is part cabaret sound, part show tunes and part operatic music, supported by a small chamber ensemble ably conducted by Karlos Moser. Stylistically, the music is eclectic, with echoes of Bernstein here, Weill there, and Bishop interwoven, but the score remains an out-of-focus pastiche.

Nevertheless, the strength of the two principal characters, Esperanza and Ramón Quintero, was touchingly portrayed by soprano Theresa Santiago and bass-baritone William Alvarado. Santiago has a large, beautiful, clear voice. She brought to life the dilemmas of poverty and family life quite affectingly. Alvarado's voice is also big, a little rough around the edges, but also poignant as he tries to make sense of his conditions.

Joseph Varga's setting had a very finished, professional look. Norma Saldivar's direction worked smoothly until the very last number: Esperanza and Ramón are downstage singing a long duet and the rest of the cast stands inert for three or four minutes before coming to life for the rousing chorus that ends the work.

The creation of Esperanza was a highly publicized project of the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO and Wisconsin Labor History Society. The high proportion of union people in the audience would explain 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.

Opera News, August, 2000
Copyright 2000 Jess Anderson

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