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From Jalisco to the Cinema to the Stage; the Evolution of the Perceived Mariachi

Dr. Sixto Montesinos Jr, it is so nice to sit down and talk with you. You are music directing Cruzar la Cara de la Luna, America’s first mariachi opera, and this is our first time working with you.

Dr. M: Yes -I'm fairly new to the Bay Area. I'm just now going into my fourth year of living here.

Where did you move here from?

Dr. M: Before this, I had my first college teaching job at a very small college in West Virginia. Then, a job at St. Mary’s College in Moraga opened up, and I moved to the Bay Area, and I'm really happy here and not planning on moving again!

Ah! Lucky us. So, what is your musical background?

Dr. M: My musical background is fairly instrumental. I started piano early on, at age 4. I am from Mexico City and there's so much culture there. In the mid 90s, my parents moved us from Mexico City to Houston, and we couldn't really take a big piano with us!

In Texas, I started playing music again at a middle school band program – now with the flute. I had a very American traditional instrumental upbringing: middle school band, high school band, marching band, and I became really, really good… but I wanted to be a conductor. I was always fascinated by the person on the podium, you know? I was like: what is that?

As I grew older, I was fascinated - almost obsessed with opera and musical theater - specifically the music of Stephen Sondheim. I went to graduate school for a degree in orchestral conducting and a doctorate in wind conducting. Which is really fancy language for saying that I learned to be a conductor.

What is your first memory with mariachi music?

Dr. M: So in in Mexico City as a kid, mariachi was part of my life. Every Sunday, we would go to a really important restaurant in the south of Mexico City called Arroyo. There, they always had a mariachi show - centered around the mariachi band. Every Sunday I would hear this mariachi music for many years. And outside of Sundays we would have parties with mariachi, food with mariachi - it was just like a part of living in Mexico City.

Once I moved to Houston, it was obviously not as prominent and so I stopped hearing mariachi live. But then I would travel back to visit family and then we would go back to that restaurant.

Restaurant Arroyo, the large, lively Mexican dining hall with traditional eats & live mariachi performances.

If you were a teaching a 101 class in mariachi music, how would you begin?

Dr. M: Hmm. Well, I mean, I would definitely begin with the way that it came about: It started in the state of Jalisco, and it was not the way that we think of mariachi today - which is very uniform - like literally they're wearing very fancy uniforms as a large group of 10 or 15 instruments. Mariachi actually started as trios or quartets in Jalisco wearing everyday clothes with maybe… maybe a hat. They were just musicians around the town.

But then their portrayal changed as a result of the ‘golden era of cinema’ in the 1940s and 1950s. Mexico had a parallel Hollywood, with black and white movies produced by big companies like the MGM movie-musicals. And the art directors had to enhance their visuals. So, they put Mariachi musicians in fancy, embroidered, over-the-top costumes as eye-candy – inspired by the Spanish Matadors, inspired by a kind of Spanish flair so that the audiences would appreciate the visual. But the really, real mariachi was very simple.

Obviously this raises an interesting question for today: do we portray mariachi as a kind of flamboyant portrayal that was never really authentic, or… as it really was?

(L-R) 1936 film, Allá en el Rancho Grande, Tito Guízar and Esther Fernández; Mexican cinema icon, Pedro Infante in Los Gavilanes in 1956. María Candelaria, starring Dolores del Rio in 1944.

Makes me think of the Irish in cinema in the 1940s and 1950s, all portrayed as milk maids and dairy cows. The Irish saw themselves reflected as provincial and not really as it was but were left wondering ‘is this what makes me Irish?’

Dr. M: Yes that’s right, this often happens: a community is asked to swallow back a reflection of its own culture when it’s not a familiar representation.

What is the signature instrumentation of Mariachi?

Dr. M: It starts as like a trio and a quartet and it’s the doubling that expands it. You have at least three violins, at least three trumpets, and the guitar family: a large guitar called the guitarron – a very small guitar that looks like ukulele called a requinto, and a standard sized guitar. This is analogous to like the saxophone family where you have the alto, the tenor saxophone and the baritone saxophone.

Is there a signature rhythm?

Dr. M: That's a good question. Because it's actually a combination of so many different rhythms - Mexico has such a rich and diverse musical landscape. As far as like musical genres, it's so overwhelming – and Mariachi is pulling from all of it. You could have a master’s degree in just Mexican music because it would take years of study! It's very much like jazz. Mariachi blends all different kinds of Mexican music so as to get a music that can reach the masses. There’s Huapango mariachi with compound meters like six-eight, but then you also have the two-fours like 123123 in dun, dun, dun, dun, dun dun…so that you're feeling the music in two. In Cruzar, there is a number where it's like written in three-four, but the feel of it is in six-eight.

So as you’re preparing for Cruzar la Cara de la Luna… Opera and Mariachi: do they belong together? Does this make sense? What was composer José ‘Pepe’ Martinez thinking?

Jorge Negrete in the 1940s

Dr. M: Well, the most important example of how this makes complete sense begins with Jorge Negrete who goes back to the golden age of cinema in Mexico, and who was an icon of mariachi music. A heartthrob movie star. And, he was trained as an operatic tenor. Also Pedro Infante – another trained operatic tenor and heartthrob movie star playing mariachi music on the screen. This golden age of Mexican cinema solidified the tie between opera and mariachi. These stars could have gone on to European opera very easily. But, instead, they sang Rancheros, and mariachi music. The vocal nature of mariachi is very operatic like a tessitura where the song tells a very dramatic story. I mean, every song tells the story, right? But in opera, and in mariachi, the song gets straight to the heart. When you see mariachi, the singer sings with so much passion – and it’s their passion – the passion belongs to the singer who is emotionally charged. And it just turns you on as the listener. Just like opera, you see people listening to mariachi music they're like, sobbing.

So theatrical. Like a communal catharsis.

Dr. M: Exactly yea. I mean, it can be music that's highly festive and fun that makes people super excited and happy, but it can also be really highly tragic music too.

You know so much about this music and I hope our audiences are able to find you in the lobby afterward and learn more! For you, what is Cruzar la Cara de la Luna about?

Dr. M: Well, I mean, obviously let's start musically first which, oh, my gosh, I mean, it's so great to have this marriage of the mariachi genre with opera. And it’s an opera but it’s a musical theater piece too. They call it an opera because I mean, Houston Grand Opera commissioned it, but to me it’s really a marriage of mariachi, opera, and musical theater.

As an immigrant myself, I obviously connect with Cruzar at a very deep and personal level. I know what it's like to cross from one side to the other. I know what it's like to go from one country to another country and what that does to a family. What that does to the psyche of everybody in the family and like, be the things that you have to deal with.

When I moved to Texas from Mexico as a 10-year-old, I didn't speak English. I learned to speak it. And now, English is what I think in and how I relate to people. English has become my primary language. But still the heart of me is in Spanish. It shows up in my work: my dissertation was in the history of bands in Mexico from 1810 to 1910. And so, you know, I keep going back, researching, reading sources in Spanish…I love that many parts of Cruzar are in Spanish, because… it's like…the more Spanish I hear, the better I feel, and the more connected I am to my right to my roots. The opera knows that’s how hearing your home language works – it connects you to your own roots.

Scene from Houston Grand Opera's premiere of Cruzar la Cara de la Luna. Photo: Lynn Lane

Do you have any questions going into Cruzar la Cara de la Luna? Anything that you just don’t know about yet and aren’t quite sure how it’s going to work?

Dr. M: The mariachi! Hahah! There’s no question that the mariachi group is going to be able to play the notes and play the rhythms. They obviously know the rhythm. They know the notes, they know the tempos, they know the music like the back of their hands. They've really studied it. But what will my relationship be with them and how will it be different than the opera singers? I’m curious how it's all going to unfold once we get into the space. Staging director Karina Gutierrez has this really amazing mind - she loves to think outside the box, and she has the idea for the band to not be stationary in the back - in most of the productions we've seen they just have them in the background and they're just standing there. But she has the idea of making it more interactive. She has a beautiful idea for the opening of the opera that I don’t want to give away, but it will really connect the heart of the mariachi music to the heart of the story.

And costumes! What the mariachi band is going to wear? Answering this is a big question for how we will understand mariachi in this world.

Thank you for taking this time Dr. Montesinos. I think this opera is really going to open up preconceptions of what mariachi music is, and what opera is.

Dr M: Oh it’s my pleasure. I can’t wait to start rehearsals. I know I’m going to love every minute and I think audiences are going to feel the same way.


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