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An Interview with Gabriela Ortiz
by Marianne Kielian-Gilbert
When did you first decide to compose an opera with a Mexican theme?
A long time ago I received a commission from the OEA (Organization of American States) to write a chamber opera. When I discussed this request with my brother (visual artist Rubén Ortiz-Torres), he suggested that we look at the El Alarma (a tabloid magazine that claims to print “Only the Truth!) as a point of departure for ideas about popular stories in the news media that had a particular social impact. Then we found a striking piece of news and visual images about Eleazar Pacheco Moreno who committed suicide in Ciudad Juárez because of a woman Camelia la Tejana (Camelia, the Texan). From that story we started to conceive the entire opera.
More recently, I received both Guggenheim and Fulbright fellowships to go more deeply into this project and this past year I came to Bloomington, Indiana to complete this new video-chamber opera during my sabbatical.
How has your thinking about the project changed and developed during this time? What kinds of materials and sources did you work with?
Since the stories of Camelia la Tejana presented a very strong cultural myth, gradually I shifted from a focus on the corrido story itself, to a study of the different dimensions of her character that were evident in the popular cultural imagination and in academic writings on the corrido. In addition to discovering materials about actual individuals claiming to be Camelia (e.g., Agustina Ramirez), I began to understand that, in the ‘mythology’ of corrido lyrics and music, Camelia could assume multiple and changing identities in the cultural imagination. In the different “corrido” stories, she was fictional and real, religious and a prostitute, a murderer and murdered. She became a legend, a mythic character that continues to resonate in the popular consciousness.
Why write a videopera, especially for the Contemporary Vocal Ensemble (CVE) of the Jacobs School of Music, in contrast to opera with traditional musical forces, staging, and set design?
My brother and I intended that ¡Unicamente la Verdad! combine the languages of video and cinema to visually support the story and contribute to the music's emotional effects. Rather than traditional scenery, we planned for a video installation that would project film or still images of the locations where the events occurred. These images would be mixed with live camera shots of the singers, fragments of the press-clippings, and other artistic commentaries on the actual events that we encountered in our research into the character of Camelia in the news media.
¡Unicamente la Verdad! is operatic and dramatic, with themes of love and betrayal, moving in the continuum of opera, oratorio, ritual commentary, and musical theater. Conductor Carmen Helena Téllez, Director of the CVE in the Jacobs School, also lent support and advice. The role of the chorus took on some of the dramatic and musical qualities of a Greek chorus, commenting on the action and feelings of the main characters, and allowing individual singers in the vocal ensemble to assume particular theatrical and musical roles in the narrative (TV people, bloggers, readers).
Millions of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans know the corrido “Contrabando y traición” (Smuggling and Betrayal) that tells the story of Camelia la Tejana. What attracted you to this story?
Many Mexicans – especially the working classes – know this corrido by the name of the character "Camelia la Tejana” rather than by the corrido title (Contrabando y Traición / Smuggling and Betrayal). In the 70’s growing marijuana was often a means of economic subsistence and survival for poor individual farmers, particularly in the social-political climate of a “war on drugs” that targeted the Mexican supply rather than the US demand. According to Elijah Wald (Narcocorrido: A Journey into the Music of Drugs, Guns, and Guerrillas, 2001), corrido writers transformed the harsh reality of the drug culture into a “musical mythology.” I also found very fascinating, in the research that Rubén and I did for this project, that the story of Camelia or her character would surface in many different ways in the popular press and media becoming both larger than life and very down to earth! The plot of this corrido is an opera in itself, it has everything: love, betrayal, murder and so on.
Why did ‘Camelia la Tejuna’ (Camelia, the Texan) become so important as a character and myth in the borderland imagination?
That’s what the opera is about! How Camelia becomes a myth. . .
Could you describe the process of artistic collaboration, and how ¡Unicamente la Verdad! has evolved with the collaboration and the input of faculty and students in the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University?
Opera is collaborative by its very nature! The artistic and financial support of multi-disciplinary and multimedia collaborations are crucial for projects like this, and they have been invaluable to me in composing this opera. I’ve been able to draw on the talent, expertise, resources, and input of the faculty and students in the Jacobs School to test my ideas about different dramatic and musical aspects of the opera, and to do this over the course of a crucial period of composing. For example, ¡Unicamente la Verdad has also developed through the input of director Carmen Helena Téllez that I’ve received in the process of writing for the choral ensemble at IU – the CVE handles (and embraces!) the challenges of new music and the complexities of music informed by popular and vernacular traditions. It has been a wonderful opportunity for me and for them to interact on this project; the final stages of rehearsal, now in full swing, have contributed new ideas for the refinements I am making. I am very grateful to Professors Téllez and Kielian-Gilbert and their grant from the New Frontiers in the Arts and Humanities at Indiana University for making possible this opportunity to collaborate on this kind of innovative artistic project.
You’ve studied music composition with Mario Lavista at the National Conservatory of Music, Federico Ibarra at the National University of Mexico, Robert Saxton at The Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and electronic music composition with Simon Emmerson at The City University in London. How have these studies shaped your compositional voice?
My music presents elements from different Mexican vernacular traditions in a contemporary musical language. Though inspired by narco-corridos about Camelia la Tejana, ¡Unicamente la Verdad! is more of a commentary on the human elements and aspects of her story than my setting or giving her corridos a contemporary form. For example, there are moments in the opera that reference fragments and tiny hints or moments of the corrido (both rhythmic and melodic). These draw from the corrido rhythms and elements as sources or undercurrents of my musical thought.
I wanted to have my own voice emerging from the Mexican Norteño music style. I also composed passages of electronic music for interludes between the different scenes to reinforce the aesthetic and dramatic aspects of the opera. It is exciting for me to see and hear my work come to life in these performances!