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‘El Milagro del Recuerdo’ (The Miracle of Remembering): A Christmas Mariachi Opera

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‘El Milagro del Recuerdo’ (The Miracle of Remembering): A Christmas Mariachi Opera

San Diego Opera performs the mariachi opera called “El Milagro del Recuerdo,” which means “The Miracle of Remembering.” (Courtesy of Karli Cadel)

Tiffany Brannan

Tiffany Brannan

12/8/2023

Updated: 1/26/2024

Commentary
Ballet has an annual Christmas tradition, “The Nutcracker,” which is performed by almost every ballet company and school year after year. However, opera doesn’t have a counterpart which is as nearly as popular. The main holiday opera is “Amahl and the Night Visitors,” an American chamber opera about a crippled shepherd boy who meets the Three Magi which was written for television by Gian Carlo Menotti in 1951. While its short runtime and limited cast makes it easier for performance in small venues, it’s a little too simplistic to be a mainstage opera production for most opera companies. There are some other Christmas-themed operas, but few are well-known.
This year, San Diego Opera put on a Mexican mariachi opera called “El Milagro del Recuerdo,” which means “The Miracle of Remembering.” It was written by Javier Martínez with a libretto by Leonard Foglia. The opera was commissioned by Houston Grand Opera, where it premiered in December 2019.
This show was a co-production of San Diego Opera, Houston Grand Opera, and Arizona Opera. It’s the third mariachi opera San Diego Opera has performed, which is a good amount considering how young the genre is. The first mariachi opera was “Cruzar la Cara de la Luna” from 2013, which was composed by José “Pepe” Martínez, Javier’s father. It was also commissioned by Houston Grand Opera with a Spanish libretto by Leonardo Foglia. “El Milagro del Recuerdo” is the prequel to “Cruzar la Cara de la Luna.”
San Diego Opera performs the mariachi opera called “El Milagro del Recuerdo,” which means “The Miracle of Remembering.” (Courtesy of Karli Cadel)

San Diego Opera performs the mariachi opera called “El Milagro del Recuerdo,” which means “The Miracle of Remembering.” (Courtesy of Karli Cadel)

An Immigrant Story

“El Milagro del Recuerdo” could be considered “Amahl and the Night Visitors” set south of the border. It too is about family, generosity, and the true meaning of Christmas. It’s set in 1962 on Christmas Eve in the little Mexican village of Michoacán. Two families and the village priest prepare to put on their pastorela, the annual Christmas pageant commemorating the journey of the shepherds and the Wise Men to see the Christ Child. Both young families are without the father, since both men are working in the United States to support their families.
While Lupita, the mother of two children, understands why they have to be separated for the holidays, Renata is very distressed that her husband is absent for Christmas and the rest of their son’s important life events. She bemoans the fact that she feels like her family is growing apart, yet she puts on a glad face for her son’s sake. In the middle of their pastorela rehearsal, the two fathers burst in as a joyous surprise. They are thrilled to be reunited, but Renata is greatly dismayed to learn that her husband, Laurentino, intends to leave again in just two days. He tries to convince her that he’s doing what’s best for the family, but she believes that their being together is the most important thing.
The next day, Lupita’s husband, Chucho, informs his family that he wants them all to join him in America, but Lupita feels conflicted. Meanwhile, Renata despairs of ever being a real family with her husband and son, while her mother tries to make her realize that being right all the time isn’t the most important thing.
Chucho’s father contemplates whether his parents, who died in the Mexican Revolution when he was a small child, would be displeased with how little he has accomplished in his life. The priest confesses to him that he wonders whether his now deceased parents regretted his decision to join the priesthood instead of continuing the family name. Throughout the story, a beautiful but mysterious woman appears to Laurentino in magical circumstances, reminding him of the love that he and Renata have shared their whole lives.
San Diego Opera performs the mariachi opera called “El Milagro del Recuerdo,” which means “The Miracle of Remembering.” (Courtesy of Karli Cadel)

San Diego Opera performs the mariachi opera called “El Milagro del Recuerdo,” which means “The Miracle of Remembering.” (Courtesy of Karli Cadel)

A Beautiful Production

The cast of this opera includes eight featured singers, four females and four males. There are also four child roles, which are speaking parts. The heartbeat of the music is provided by three mariachi guitar players, who played for all but sixteen measures of the score. In full mariachi costumes, they are often on stage, either providing accompaniment from the background or interacting with the characters. They were accompanied by a fifteen-piece orchestra in the pit, including eight violins, two violas, one cello, a harp, and three trumpets.
As is often the case with mariachi operas, this production was performed with the use of microphones instead of the unamplified singing for which opera is famous. This allowed the singers to use a more relaxed, natural technique, while still being comfortably heard in the large auditorium. It also helped with the extensive Spanish dialogue between songs.
The scenery was simplistic but very beautiful and warm. The basic set pieces were a few moveable walls, which were adjusted to convey the impression of the interior and exterior of the family homes. A few lovely moments were especially magical against this homespun backdrop. In one of the most playful scenes, Laurentino and his son picked a special gift from a row of colorful piñatas which lowered from the ceiling like a papier-mâché parade. In a tender flashback to Laurentino and Renata’s childhood romance, the two children were encircled by a kaleidoscope of shiny silver butterflies, which gently fell around them like a shimmering snowfall. In the finale, the pastorela began with the priest singing a joyful song in an ornate Magi costume while metal star light fixtures slowly floated down from the rafters, filling the sky.
The score is comprised of melodies which are simple enough to be very memorable; however, that doesn’t make them any less beautiful. The audience was clearly touched by the message which the moving tunes conveyed. Since this show has an ensemble cast of featured soloists, the majority of the music consists of duets in intimate scenes between two characters. Platonic duets are surprisingly rare in opera, with most being love songs between tenors and soprani. This opera introduced many such moments. My favorite such scene was with Aba, Chucho’s father, and the priest. Blending faith with human frailty, each man confesses to his friend that he has regrets and doubts about his life and wonders what his parents would think of him. It’s a touching moment of fellowship between the baritone and tenor characters.
San Diego Opera performs the mariachi opera called “El Milagro del Recuerdo,” which means “The Miracle of Remembering.” (Courtesy of Karli Cadel)

San Diego Opera performs the mariachi opera called “El Milagro del Recuerdo,” which means “The Miracle of Remembering.” (Courtesy of Karli Cadel)

A Moving Story

I went to the Sunday matinee of “El Milagro del Recuerdo,” which was the second of two shows. The huge theater was packed with a very eclectic crowd, with season ticket holders for decades seated next to first-time opera goers. The audience may have been mixed, but their response wasn’t. The reaction was extremely enthusiastic, with the whole crowd rising to a unanimous standing ovation during the curtain call. Although the show was performed in one of San Diego’s largest venues, it felt very intimate.
I appreciated how tasteful this opera is. It’s a very clean, wholesome family story, yet it isn’t juvenile or immature, like most “family shows” these days. Much like a classic movie, it deals with problems faced by real people in everyday life, adding the beauty and inspiration of music and art. As San Diego Opera’s general director, David Bennett, said in the post-show question and answer session, this opera’s story isn’t just relevant to Mexican-Americans. It’s a story about families who made sacrifices to come to the United States in search of a better life for their children, which is shared by every American whose parents or ancestors immigrated to this country. I found it very refreshing that San Diego Opera didn’t overemphasize the characters’ being a minority. The Mexican culture is respectfully and charmingly depicted, but it doesn’t seem like the overly dramatic ethnic “virtue signaling” we see all too often today.
This opera moved me to tears with its beautiful music, tender words, and, especially, its message about family and remembering what’s important in life. It’s a beautiful work, and I commend San Diego Opera for doing it justice in this excellent production. No professional recording has been made of this young opera yet, but this and other mariachi operas are becoming more popular. Keep an eye out for a production of “El Milagro del Recuerdo” near you, especially if you live in the Southwest.
San Diego Opera performs the mariachi opera called “El Milagro del Recuerdo,” which means “The Miracle of Remembering.” (Courtesy of Karli Cadel)

San Diego Opera performs the mariachi opera called “El Milagro del Recuerdo,” which means “The Miracle of Remembering.” (Courtesy of Karli Cadel)

Tiffany Brannan

Tiffany Brannan

Author

Tiffany Brannan is a 22-year-old opera singer, Hollywood historian, vintage fashion enthusiast, and conspiracy film critic, advocating purity, beauty, and tradition on Instagram as @pure_cinema_diva. Her classic film journey started in 2016 when she and her sister started the Pure Entertainment Preservation Society to reform the arts by reinstating the Motion Picture Production Code. She launched Cinballera Entertainment last summer to produce original performances which combine opera, ballet, and old films in historic SoCal venues.

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