Arizona Artbeat: Guadalupe: The Opera

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“Guadalupe: The Opera” depicts the story of the native inhabitants of Mexico in 1531, who were caught in a violent clash of cultures, and the heroic struggle of Juan Diego to achieve peace for his people. The opera was composed by Arizona State University School of Music Professor James DeMars. DeMars and mezzo-soprano Isola Jones will tell us more about the performance.

TED SIMONS: Tonight's edition of "Arizona Artbeat" looks at Guadalupe, the opera which puts music to the story of a culture clash and the quest for peace in 16th century Mexico. Joining us now, the opera's composer James Demars and mezzo-soprano Isola Jones. Good to have you both here. Thank you for joining us. Why did you decide to tell this story?

JAMES DEMARS: I had a very interesting experience. A fellow came to me and said I want you to write some music to bring attention to the problems we're having with immigration in Arizona. And we couldn't quite decide on the piece and he said he took me down to the park and said I have a story to tell you, and he told me the story of Guadalupe. He said this is very important to me. And I realized then what a perfect parallel it was because the essence of the story is when you finally come to believe that another person can be trusted, then you can build peace on that. So it's coming together. That's ultimately what it is. I believe that we share a common goodness.

TED SIMONS: How did you first hear about this opera and what were your first impressions?

ISOLA JONES: Well, I had known Jim since 1999 and we've done some projects together. And when he started writing the opera, we just talked and he would write a line and I would say that's beautiful, can we put it up an octave? And so the very first manifestation of the opera was in concert form. And we sang it, we had the world premiere in Mesa and reported it and now it has transformed into a theatrical adventure and event. And it's fantastic. It's a feast for the eyes as well as for the ears. The music is sublime, it's gorgeous. It's touching. It's fantastic. You want to get up and dance. It's wonderful. It has everything.

TED SIMONS: What were the musical challenges here because indigenous music seems to be a major part of this opera.

JAMES DEMARS: Well, and it's a major part of what's been my career in Phoenix. We owe a great debt of gratitude to Phoenix's own Native American record company. Robert Doyle said if you write that, I'll produce it and he did. And writing it meant that I had access to all of his artists. So in these performances coming up, he'll just wear a T-shirt and I said you're going to at least take a bow but he's in the pit and Javier is there as well with his wonderful sounds filling the orchestra.

TED SIMONS: How challenging was the music for you?

ISOLA JONES: Well, the first time around, it wasn't that challenging because we had worked on it and I had heard it and we worked together. Because it's changed at this time and several years have passed, it is challenging, and now that we are doing it from memory, hello! And we have a marvelous set, I don't want to give anything away but it is challenging to maneuver the set and to keep your eye on the conductor, to remember your words. But it is -- it is so wonderful. The music does something for the singers. We have a wonderful tenor, Andrew Peck, who is singing this role. It is a monumental role for him. It's a monumental role for any tenor. And he is doing it fabulously. And there's just a lot of things to do and things to see and I'm enjoying it, I'm enjoying the challenge of it.

TED SIMONS: Well, it sounds like you are. But when you compose this, you're kind of dealing with religious icons, religious beliefs, traditions, did you have to tread carefully?

JAMES DEMARS: Well, I did but remember, this was an invitation. Father Richard Romero, a dear friend and he's out doing his thing, he's a wonderful man, he's the one that initiated this and father Jorge Rodriguez also supported it. The artists said, you know, this is the first peace treaty. And these fellas were very enthusiastic about building this and bringing it through the first production which was an oratorio. So it was an education for me. This was outside of my background but I realized we've actually brought the story to many people.

TED SIMONS: Yes.

JAMES DEMARS: As a result.

TED SIMONS: Were you aware of the fact that again religious icons, religious tradition, this is a story that has been told for centuries, but people are pretty sensitive about it, too. Were you aware of that? Are you aware of that?

ISOLA JONES: I was raised Roman Catholic so I know a lot of the Catholic traditions and the icon of Guadalupe is everywhere, especially here in the southwest. She is the patron saint of Mexico.

TED SIMONS: And the Americans.

ISOLA JONES: And the Americans. There's a church, a part of Brophy academy on seventh street, in the balcony if you're standing on the altar looking at the congregation, you look up, there is a huge Guadalupe at the back of that church. And it is -- she's everywhere. And her message is one of love, peace, and conciliation and life. And that is what she brings to this story, this is what she brings to a culture.

TED SIMONS: Is there a show stopper here? Is there something that brings the house down?

JAMES DEMARS: There's certainly, a climactic point absolutely for those of you that would know the story, it's the revelation of the portrait itself. The giving of roses as an indication of faith is not enough and with that, he opens his toma and we see this image that is miraculously embedded there.

TED SIMONS: Was it a challenge to write to that climax? People again know the story, they're somewhat similar in some ways. You have to write something new, fresh and again, bring the house down. I'm using those terms but you know what I mean? Build this thing and let it go.

JAMES DEMARS: I never felt like I was writing to accomplish that. I read the story in its many, many different versions and all of the discussion of the story is huge, I spent a year reading. After that, we settled, I settled on the story, I say me, we settled on the story, and then it was a matter of rendering what needed to be said.

TED SIMONS: We have to stop it right there. Thank you both for being here. Good luck and congratulations on the production.


ISOLA JONES: Thank you very much.


TED SIMONS: Tuesday on "Arizona Horizon," we look at the ethics of attorneys who write books about cases that they've worked on. And we'll check out rare video from 1961 when the nation's most powerful leaders came to Phoenix. That's all for now. I'm Ted Simons. Thanks for joining us. You have a great evening.

VIDEO: "Arizona Horizon" is made possible by contributions from the Friends of Eight, members of your Arizona PBS station. Thank you.

VIDEO: Artbeat is made possible in part by the Flynn foundation, supporting the advancement of arts and culture in Arizona.
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DeMars and mezzo-soprano Isola Jones : Professor, Arizona State University School of Music

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