Alejandra Tejeda grew up singing mariachi and opera.
“My dad would put me up on a chair and give me mini voice lessons with the songs that were playing,” said Tejeda, a graduate voice student from Porterville. “He didn’t know much, but he would tell me ‘Sing from your pancilla, chiquita.'”
Now Tejeda gets to share her love of opera with a new generation of music fans, playing the lead role of Lucinda in an original children’s opera that captures the magic of a Mexican folk tale.
“This character that I’m portraying … she’s me. I am Lucinda. I see a lot of elements of myself in her, and I’m really excited to play that out in this opera,” Tejeda said, in a video filmed earlier this year.
Fresno State Opera Theatre cast members are rehearsing for an originally composed children’s opera featuring Mexican folk melodies with traditional Christmas carols that will be performed this fall for the first time.
Several free public performances are set beginning with the world premiere in Fresno on Nov. 19 at the Woodward Park Library. A second public showing will be Dec. 17 at Campus Pointe at Fresno State.
The production will also travel to various Fresno County schools during the Christmas season, beginning with a performance for school children Nov. 16 at the Selma Arts Center. And two special-event performances on campus are set for this fall also.
The production and the free performances are the result of a $10,000 grant awarded to the Fresno State Opera Theatre by the Central Valley Community Foundation to commission and produce the new children’s opera with part of the goal to reach communities that would benefit from seeing original live opera theatre. Fourteen performances are scheduled this fall.
Dr. Anthony Radford, associate professor of voice and opera in Fresno State’s Music Department where he is artistic director of Fresno State Opera Theatre and the Fresno State’s Children’s Opera. In 2015 he commissioned composer Evan Mack and librettist Joshua McGuire to write an original opera for Fresno State so the opera students could perform for the children of the Central Valley.
Mack and McGuire have collaborated on two previous full-length operas, one of which premiered at Fresno State in 2014 – “The Secret of Luca,” an adaptation of a novel by Ignazio Silone.
Mack said working on “Lucinda y las Flores de la Nochebuena” was a “dream come true”:
“Being a father of two sons who are in grade school, I have never felt more connected to a work. Fresno State created such a wonderful atmosphere from the start. This gave Joshua and I the ability to write an opera that has meaning for both children and parents.”
Radford said folk tales are a common operatic theme and are often based on European stories performed in foreign languages. Mack and McGuire chose to break ground with a Mexican folk tale about poinsettias at Christmastime and the true meaning of giving. It’s presented mostly in English with music inspired by mariachi songs in Spanish.
In this story, Lucinda and her ailing mother are making a blanket as a gift for the nativity scene at the Christmas Eve service. Lucinda’s mother is too sick to help Lucinda finish the blanket. Lucinda leaves to celebrate Christmas Eve without her mother and without a gift. On her way to church she picks a few weeds from the side of the road as a gift and worries this might not be good enough for the nativity scene. When she offers the gift at the altar, the weeds bloom into beautiful poinsettias. Lucinda learns that it doesn’t matter what you give at Christmas, as long as you give from the heart.
“If you present the audience with a story in a language they understand and with a story that means something to them, they come and they consume the entertainment and enjoy it,” Radford said. “The fun thing has been to create something new and to create something that will have meaning for them. Everybody can like opera, and even a 6-year-old kid can appreciate a story about love and loss. We don’t have to go into schools and be silly. We can give them real stories.”
While the opera combines Mexican folk melodies with traditional Christmas carols sung by bilingual Fresno State students, the production is mostly sung in English with some Spanish.
Mack and McGuire came back to Fresno State in February to workshop the piece with the cast members. Working so closely with the cast and developing the piece with them was Mack’s favorite part of the experience:
“It was so great to dive in deep with the characters and use the experiences of the cast to help with revisions, creating the best product possible.”
Tejeda said working with Mack and McGuire was also her favorite part of the preparing for this brand new opera creation.
“I actually got to work with them and talk with them,” said Tejeda, who also performs for the Fresno State Mariachi in the Music Department. “It made it easier for me to know what they wanted and what they were thinking when they wrote this.”
Senior voice student Chrysanthe Pappas, of Fresno, appears as Lucinda’s mother. Graduate voice student Ed Olivarez, of Visalia, will appear as optimist “Nobody” and junior voice student Christopher Rodriguez, of Bakersfield, will appear as the pessimist “Everybody.” Jordan Williams, a graduate student from Selma, is the pianist. The opera will be directed by Radford.
“Dr. Radford’s brilliant fusion of opera with a traditional children’s Mexican story regarding the birth of the poinsettia flowers is both timely and exciting,” said Dr. Saúl Jiménez-Sandoval, dean of Fresno State’s College of Arts and Humanities, adding that this will be the first opera that many San Joaquin Valley children experience. “This beautiful opera will educate our children, touch our hearts and illuminate our understanding of the meaning and power of gift giving.”
The four free, public performances of the opera in Fresno are:
- Nov. 19: 1 and 2:30 p.m. at the Woodward Park Regional Library (944 E. Perrin Ave.)
- Dec. 17: 12:15 and 1:15 p.m. at the outdoor Square at Campus Pointe (weather permitting, bring chairs or blankets to sit on — 3050 E. Campus Drive).
The opera will also be performed on Oct. 22 at the Feria de Educación, a college fair in Spanish on the Fresno State campus, and on Dec. 3 at the Christmas in Mexico concert (featuring the Los Danzantes de Aztlan dance troupe) at the Satellite Student Union.