Sounds of Cultura (SOC): Florencia en el Amazonas and Arizona Lady

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Sounds of Cultura (SOC): Florencia en el Amazonas and Arizona Lady

JOSE CARDENAS: Arizona opera's 2015-2016 season includes the comic Operetta Arizona lady. Florencia En El Amazonas, the first Spanish opera commissioned in the U.S. We'll talk about these performances in a moment, but first, take a look at what you can expect to see in Arizona Lady.

JOSE CARDENAS: Now joining me to talk about these performances are Joshua Borths, Florencia En El Amazonas, stage director. As well as Arizona opera's education manager, Octavio Moreno who portrays Lopez Ibanez in Arizona lady. Also starred in last season's Mariachi opera, Cruzar la Cara de la Luna. Thank you for joining us on Horizonte. Joshua, first, last year's performance was part of the Arizona opera's efforts to reach out to the Hispanic community, Arizona bold.

JOSHUA BORTHS: Arizona bold is our artistic commitment to doing pieces that are relevant to Arizonans. We believe that we're not just Arizona opera, but Arizona's opera, we found that there are all these piece, this repertoire that really connects to our very diverse population here and to the stories of Arizona. So, we launched it with the Mariachi opera, which was a huge success for us. We're continuing it this year with Arizona Lady, the only Operetta that I know of that's set in Arizona. Then with Florencia En El Amazonas, so it's an exciting time at the opera. Were expanding the repertoire and redefining what an opera company should be.

JOSE CARDENAS: You said that it was a resounding success. Do you get any reaction from the people saying, this is not opera?

JOSHUA BORTHS: It's funny, there were a lot of people who were very suspicious when we announced that we were doing Cruzar. Afterwards, they were surprised that they enjoyed it so much and how operatic -- how it's not that different from others. And there were a lot of people who missed it, who then said that I am so sad that I missed that performance. Building a lot of energy and excitement around the opera which is really a community organization.

JOSE CARDENAS: What about the Hispanic population. Did you have a lot of people who haven't been introduced to opera?

JOSHUA BORTHS: We had a lot of people who had never been inside symphony hall, and one of the exciting things was that then they came back, you know, and our audiences diversified and they enjoyed Rigoletto by Verdi last season. And we are hoping to continue that and keep audiences exploring new pieces and bringing new people to the opera who never thought that they would like it.

JOSE CARDENAS: You were in Cruzar. We have a picture of you with a guitar singing, much like in the introduction that we had here. You've been in opera for a number of years. Give us a thumbnail sketch of your career.

OCTAVIO MORENO: I did my bachelor in music with a -- voice in Mexico. And then I got -- I went to the academy of arts in Philadelphia, I was there for 3 years. I was a member of the Houston Grand Opera studio for two years. Speaking of Mariachi and opera, I started taking voice lessons when I got into the universe because I wanted to sing Mariachi, not opera. But, the old fashioned way, people who study it, opera voice.

JOSE CARDENAS: Two famous icons in Mexican music.

OCTAVIO MORENO: And that's the, that's the old fashioned way, that's the way I liked it. Eventually, I just - my voice instructor was an opera singer started giving me opera songs. I just fell in love and I started doing opera only. Suddenly, when I was in the studio, Anthony, the director, asked me if there was any Mariachi opera. Then later on, little did I know that I was going to have both my loves on stage, mariachi and opera together.

JOSE CARDENAS: What's your assessment of how successful that was?

OCTAVIO MORENO: Well, we've been in many different cities, many different opera houses in the states, like Chicago, San Diego, Arizona, Houston. We've been to Paris. Some of the opera houses are interested in it. It was such a success that later on when we were in Chicago, the director of the opera put Mr. Martinez, the composer on the spot. Made them promise to write the second one, which we premiered this past March, so there are two now out there.

JOSE CARDENAS: So, let's talk about this next adventure, so to speak, Arizona lady. You mentioned it's the only one set in Arizona, but as I understand the history, it's not written by an Arizonan. It was written around the 1950's?

JOSHUA BORTHS: Written in 1953, premiered in 1954. Emmerich Kalman, the composer is the most popular Operetta composer in the world. He was a Jewish Hungarian composer who escaped Nazi Germany, lived in California, vacationed and traveled through Arizona. When he returned to Europe after the war, wrote this Operetta as a love letter to the state. So, while the Operetta, itself, is fun and effervescent and comedic and light and beautiful, underneath is this really human story, as Kalman was really struggling with his time in the United States and Arizona was this great light in that time to him.

JOSE CARDENAS: And despite his reputation. His popularity, this one was kind of lost for decades.

JOSHUA BORTHS: Yeah, for many decades, it was kind of, just left in obscurity. And it was, actually, it's been rediscovered recently. Our conductor, Kathleen Kelly, who also translated this piece into English. Is an Arizona native, it's funny all these things come together. She was the first head of music, female head of music at the Vienna state opera. She found this operetta in the archives called Arizona lady. Our director had heard of it. We started working with the Kalman family to craft our own version of Arizona lady.

JOSE CARDENAS: Let's talk a bit about Arizona lady. We have got video we're going to show while we're talking, of one of the scenes, but give us a sense for the plot, without giving anything away that might disappoint those who might see it. What's this about?

OCTAVIO MORENO: It's pretty much about a lady who is Viennese. She's from Vienna, and she comes with her family to Arizona. Tries to make a future. Get money and stuff. Then, when her, when her father dies, she's left in some sort of debt, and she is into horseracing --.

JOSHUA BORTHS: Arizona lady is a horse, not an actual person.

OCTAVIO MORENO: Oh, exactly. Yes, which is this lady horse, her horse is the Arizona lady. And then, through horseracing, she meets this young couple that she likes very much, but, meanwhile, the sheriff of the town where they live, it's in love with her and wooing. I am a rich Mexican that moves into Arizona in that town.

JOSE CARDENAS: One of the people, also, wooing her.


JOSHUA BORTHS: It's a love Pentagon that you have?

OCTAVIOC MORENO: Everybody wants Lona. And so, and then there are two races in the show. She loses one and wins one, and she ends up being happy in Arizona.

JOSE CARDENAS: It all has -- the races have some impact on who wins her hand, as I understand it?

OCTAVIO MORENO: Like on the first one, when, when she loses, they bet against, the sheriff bets against Arizona lady. He says if Arizona lady loses, I win, I win your hand. I think the term he uses is right of first refusal, something like that.

JOSHUA BORTHS: Yes. They use the bets on the racehorses to try to gain the upper hand with Lona, it's funny because she's a character who takes many risks on her horses but very few in love, which I think is something a lot of people can relate to. They love their jobs but the more emotional, love side of things can be more complicated and touchy.

JOSE CARDENAS: You mentioned some translation into English, but there is also some translation into Spanish.

JOSHUA BORTHS: Yeah, so this performance, they sing and speak and act in English, German and Spanish. We were looking at creating our own version of Arizona lady, one of the things that became apparently was we had to bring the Spanish language into it. So Alberto Rios worked with Kathleen Kelly to translate parts of it, things for Ibanez, into Spanish, and so we have a really cool trilingual Production with his help.

JOSE CARDENAS: When will this be shown?

JOSHUA BORTHS: It opens in Phoenix this Friday, Saturday. Sunday. So October 16-18. At symphony hall.

JOSE CARDENAS: And Octavio, you were in Cruzar and this one, your sense for audiences, will they like this as much?

OCTAVIO MORENO: Yes, even though that's more like a drama and this is a comedy, but I guarantee, you come to see the show, and you are going to forget about everything and be entertained for 2.5 hours. It's just -- it's a great show. It has a bit of drama in it, but nevertheless, it's a fabulous comedy, it's very happy, very bright.

JOSHUA BORTHS: Theatrical.

OCTAVIO MORENO: Very theatrical, yes. There is some sections like, becomes very much Mexican opera, very, but, it's a great show, very, very funny. It's one of those shows that makes me want to not be in it and be, actually, watching it.

JOSE CARDENAS: You want to watch it. I am sure your day will come. Let's talk about the other piece. Florencia En El Amazonas, much different focus.

JOSHUA BORTHS: Yeah, it's very different. When I've been talking to people about it, it's based on the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, so it's really taking -- it's a serious Spanish language opera elevating to the highest level of art from Latin America. It takes place on the Amazon River, about a mystical journey, that all the characters go on as they travel from Columbia to the opera house. So, if you have read 100 years of solitude, you get a sense for the score. It's interesting because a lot of --

JOSE CARDENAS: Does it capture the elements, the magical realism for which he was noticed.

JOSHUA BORTHS: Yes. The character of Florencia is looking for her long lost lover, who is a butterfly Hunter, and she turns into a butterfly because since she can't find him maybe he can find her. That's one element of how the mystical and the magical creep into the story.

JOSE CARDENAS: We mentioned in the introduction that it was the first Spanish language opera commissioned in the United States. When did that happen?

JOSHUA BORTHS: So this opera was commissioned and performed in 1996 at the Houston grand opera where Cruzar also originated. And it has taken the world by storm. It's one of the most successful, contemporary operas written. I think part of that is because the score is so beautiful and so melodic. People think on new opera and it's sort of thorny, new music.

JOSE CARDENAS: And elaborate costuming, as I understand. We have got some sketches of some of the costumes. You mentioned one of the characters turns into a butterfly at the end. How do you accomplish that?

JOSHUA BORTHS: You will have to come and see it to see how we do it, but I can tell you that it's a costume transformation. Our goal in designing this entire piece is to create a world unto itself, a world where magical things are possible and where anything can happen.

JOSE CARDENAS: And if I were to go and see it, when would I go and see it?

JOSHUA BORTHS: In the middle of November, it opens November 11th here in Phoenix and the following weekend in Tucson.

JOSE CARDENAS: Octavio, how important is it to have opera, you come from an opera background in Mexico. But, to have opera performed in Spanish in the United States?

OCTAVIO MORENO: Well, I think that at some level language can be a barrier, not only in opera, but in many of the different things. When you, when you submit the audience to the language that they can familiarize with, it's one less thing that they need to worry about, speaking of people, who is the first time they are coming to see an opera show in this case. So, if you bring the language where they feel comfortable, they will definitely feel comfortable picking up every part of the story, instead of looking at the screen, trying to see what the translation means, and then paying attention to the actor, paying attention to the singer and reading again. So it's not only in Spanish in any country you go, you put the opera, or the show to the language, the people speak. They feel comfortable, and relate to it.

JOSHUA BORTHS: Spanish, also, has the beauty of the great Italian operas but also, the emotion and the passion and kind of the very real quality to it, as some other languages like Germans, you get the best of both worlds in singing, In Spanish. It's a beautiful language to sing in.

JOSE CARDENAS: Cruzar, was it performed in Spanish language countries?


JOSHUA BORTHS: Hopefully it will.

JOSE CARDENAS: I was wondering if we would get a different reaction there with the Hispanic population.

OCTAVIO MORENO: It's in the U.S., it's been in Paris. The French, they loved it. French, it's a romantic language, I find that when they have the same group, it relates easier, like when I see French or Italian opera, I relate easier than German or English.

JOSHURA BORTHS: It's also interesting because Cruzar was also about immigration and that's a story anyone can connect to. All the operas we have a universal quality to it.

JOSE CARDENAS: And speaking of the work you are doing, this is part of your outreach to the Hispanic community, that's what Arizona bold is all about. What's coming up next? We have 30 seconds left.

JOSHUA BORTHS: So, with Florencia we're doing a Latin American cultural festival that should be exciting and working down the line we have a major world premiere of a piece based on the life Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, and that will be very exciting. This is just the beginning of bringing opera to Arizona, about Arizona.

JOSE CARDENAS: It's all very exciting. Thank you both for joining us on Horizonte.


JOSE CARDENAS: Tell us when it happened and what it's significance is.

VERONICA PENA: On September 15, just last month. We were recognized because there were a number of perhaps reaching specifically the Latino population. Enhancing parents' leadership and advocacy skills and looking to change the statistics, the graduation statistics for Latinos here in Arizona. And Abriendo Puertas does that nationally.

JOSE CARDENAS: We noted in the introduction that this is a partnership between Helios foundation and Chicanos Por La Causa CPLC. When did that begin and what's involved there?

VERONICA PENA: The program actually initiated in June of 2014. It was a two-year initiative. We scheduled our first training here in Phoenix with Chicanos Por La Causa migrant seasonal head start program, and we moved from there to Yuma. From Yuma, to Tucson. From Tucson, to Phoenix. Then to Flagstaff. Our goal was to train -- have a statewide trained implementers for Abriendo Puertas curriculum.

JOSE CARDENAS: What are you teaching the folks? You've been involved in various initiatives in your career, but this one is different. I think that you think more successful than others?

VERONICA PENA: Yes, it's unique in that it was written in Spanish initially, and parents participated in giving the feedback about the content and the, as well as the process. So, it's a popular education model, which means that the parent is not a participant, but is a teacher at the same time that they are learning. So what strengths the parents bring into the program are, what the curriculum uses to build.

JOSE CARDENAS: And is the curriculum for parents to use in developing the reading skills of their preschool children?

VERONICA PENA: Yes. The Abriendo Puertas curriculum is a ten-session program. The first couple of sessions, encourage parents to take ownership of their role as the child's first teacher. Their home is the most influential school. Basically, the goal is to walk parents through the development of process for children. What happens, how can they support their children in learning, probably the most important thing that Abriendo Puertas does is demystifies this process of how do you get your child from first grade through high school through college. Knowing that third grade is the marker of success for children move from learning how to read, to reading in order to learn. And so, we try to inform parents. We don't try to inform parents, we inform parents that reading begins very early in the child's life. As a matter of fact, we posed that question to the families. We say, when should you start teaching your child to read? We suggested it's while the child is still in the womb, you begin to, the process of teaching children to learn and to appreciate reading and learning.

JOSE CARDENAS: You teach them not only how to interact with their children, but as I understand it, also advocacy skills.

VERONICA PENA: Advocacy skills is a critical component of this. I have -- actually, I have taught the curriculum for many years. It does a really good job of foundationally introducing the concepts of child development. The last session, session 9, talks about the process in the U.S., specifically, about the Mendez family. The first civil rights effort that they made in 1946, in a school in California. So, then it takes them through how does that happen? what does it take for you to advocate for your child? What your rights are, and then exactly how you can do that. It demystifies the steps of knowing your rights, knowing how you can advocate for yourself. We had a specific success story that I thought was really great, with Chicanos Por La Causa. Specifically, we had a mom who shared with our evaluator her story, and she said that initially, she had no desire to participate in programs and start participating. She tried her skills out at the school, and then they had a storm, a major storm in Yuma, a rainstorm. She didn't ask anybody to go advocate for her, she went directly to the city to advocate for herself because now, she knew the steps and that she had a voice and that she could take the steps to get her needs met and her community's needs met.

JOSE CARDENAS: So evidence that works. Speaking of evidence, I read some of the materials, it describes this program as evidence-based. What does that mean?

VERONICA PENA: Evidence-based means that you actually have done some rigorous evaluation, and so it was evaluated using pre and post studies, both qualitative and quantitative data to determine whether parents were learning what they intended for parents to learn. Whether they were gaining knowledge. If that knowledge was informing the way that they thought, and then the way that they acted. The popular education model that this program is based on is actually set up to facilitate an action reflection practice. He's been the person given the credit for developing this, but what they did, that works really well, is that they broke it into several steps, four steps, where they give information. Parents hear a lot of information but don't know what it means, so you walk the parents through reflecting on the information, and then analyzing the information. Through that analysis, you gain awareness, and through that awareness, then, you are able to build actions that will specifically address the information you received. For example, if your son can't read this third grade, that's the information. You reflect on that information. What am I doing to make sure that my child can read. You move from there to, to analyzing the steps that you are taking, that awareness leads you to take different actions.

JOSE CARDENAS: There's a lot of information going both ways. And we had on the screen a website address for people to get more information. Thank you so much for going us on Horizonte.

VERONICA PENA: Thank you for having me.

Abriendo Puertas

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