Dallas — How often do you hear about an opera written by four different composers? Cuatro Corridos, which got a blazing performance as part of the Soundings series at the Nasher Sculpture Center on Oct. 4, is one of the few examples. It is an hour-long ,very intense, opera for one soprano, guitar, percussion, and piano, and divided into four scenes, each by one of the four composers: Hebert Váquez, Arlene Sierra, Lei Liang and Hilda Paredes. Each also explored a different character.
The libretto, by Mexican author Jorge Volpi, was inspired by the horrific stories of women used as sexual slaves in the equally grim agricultural farms around San Diego.
According to the various court cases brought in the 1990's and even more recently, hundreds of Mexican girls between 7 and 18 were kidnapped or enticed with a tale about new lives as a “wife” of a rich American, by organized criminal sex trafficking gangs. They were brought to the farms and reportedly raped by hundreds of men per day (yes, that is “per day”) in agricultural camp based brothels. Your memory immediately goes back to the notorious “comfort women,” that the Japanese kidnapped for similar sexual servitude during World War II. They too were placed in brothels to keep the Japanese troops content, and to discourage mixed race children from popping up all over the world.
Soprano Susan Narucki was amazing as she portrayed the four different women and sang the very demanding music, in four different styles, that pushed the limits of both range and endurance. Before becoming the specific character, she pulled a pair of shoes out of a sand pile (beach maybe) and put them on. Each character had their own shoes and the “walk a mile in my shoes” metaphor was never more appropriate. While she didn't change her vocal quality to change characters, her individual portrayals were remarkably distinct from each other. It was a tour de force.
There was an equally impressive and concurrent visual performance showing on a large rear projection screen. Three of the texts were in Spanish and the translation appeared on the screen in a video (maybe film) production. The text appeared, letter by letter or word by word, as the words were sung. The typeface was also a work of art. In one scene, in which the character was writing in a diary (maybe a letter) and the text was in cursive, and we saw it appear as she wrote it. In another, the text was in the familiar “x” patterns of needlepoint. When the text was in English, for a press briefing on the arrest of the Salazar brothers, the projection was in Spanish. Never has the problem of supertitles been so creatively solved and turned into an artistic achievement in its own right.
All of the musical styles of the composers was quite different, but only in their degrees of modernism. The first scene, by Váquez, utilized some folk elements (even a hint of Mariachi). The second, by Sierra, showed the influence of minimalism. The third one (the press conference), by Liang, caught the matter of fact tone of the words but there was a chilling undercurrent that made it effective. The last, by Paredes, was the most dissonant and pointillist. The piano used all kinds of accoutrements to change the sounds and to create new ones. For example, a string drawn back and forth around a string had an eerie wail.
The ensemble, which offered the complex accompaniment, did a superb job of realizing the complex score. Without being able to see the printed score, it would only be a guess as to how much was aleatoric (improvised with a given set of notes) and how much notated, or a combination (notated to show rhythm and melodic shape without specific note heads). However, all of these are established musical forms were surely present and can create great results. Most of the four scores were effective, the best compliment you can pay to a dramatic score, and only occasionally appeared to use an effect for its own sake.
Considering how active she was, it was a shame to not be able to see percussionist Ayano Kataoka. Many of her cadenza passages were surely aleatoric (not to mention aerobic), but her performance was jaw-droppingly impressive in her frequent virtuoso solos. However, she was very, very loud so maybe she was put in the back for balance reasons. Some of her landings on various drums were as loud as possible, rivaling famous drum explosions such as the big bass drum note that launches the end of Stravinsky's Firebird and Mahler's hammer blow in his sixth symphony. She really hit them hard and it is amazing that the drum head stayed intact.