(Story by Stephanie Hainsfurther / Photos by Liz Lopez)
An unmistakable sense of place characterizes New Mexico, a state of the Union like no other—a state of mind, too, according to its fond inhabitants. We have it all: high desert and low, mountain and llano, the river and the highway. That physical tension, for some, evokes a strong feeling that a timeless world exists alongside the everyday, a hidden dimension we call the spirit. Out of this tension between the tangible and the unseen came a touchstone of American literature, Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya, published in 1972. A tale of finding one’s identity within and despite a culture of conflict, the novel takes place during the fearful era of World War II. In its simple form, it is the story of Antonio, a New Mexico boy who, through the tutelage and under the protection of a curandera, Ultima, comes of age.
Now the story is an opera, premiering this month at the National Hispanic Cultural Center and performed by Opera Southwest within its 45th anniversary season. Opera Southwest and the NHCC joined resources with California’s Opera Cultura and entrusted Héctor Armienta, composer of La Llorona: A Musical Drama, with the writing of the score and libretto for Bless Me, Ultima.
“As our first main-stage commissioned opera in over 20 years, Bless Me, Ultima is a real milestone for Opera Southwest. We are incredibly pleased to be able to draw on the rich storytelling that is so rooted in our state and embodied and exemplified by the literature of Rudolfo Anaya,” says Tony Zancanella, executive director of Opera Southwest. “This is a project that all New Mexicans should be proud of.” Many of Ultima’s singers are locals, and Ultima herself is sung by mezzo-soprano Kirstin Chávez of Albuquerque. Kirstin sang Amneris in Opera Southwest’s production of Aida in 2015. She has performed to acclaim in the title role of Carmen, and her voice has been described as “a mix of the earthy and the ethereal.”
“Bless Me, Ultima is such a New Mexico story, and it reflects so much of the deepest layers of our culture, so much of the underpinnings that make us who we are,” Kirstin says. She grew up in Asia and so never studied the novel in school. “I came to the story much later. But when I told my sisters (many of whom live in and around Albuquerque) that I would be playing the role of Ultima in a brand new opera, they were over the moon to hear it! They were all made to study the book while growing up.”
Kirstin truly understands the character she plays in the opera, and relates to her on many levels. “I particularly love Ultima’s mysticism; I consider myself to be a very spiritual person, even though I do not subscribe to any specific religion, and Ultima, to me, seems somehow above, or beyond religion,” she says. “It’s as if she gets her very power from the Earth itself, and so it stands to reason that even the animals would bend to her will. I have always been a deep animal lover, and I cherish this part of Ultima’s persona; she may not be a vegetarian as I am (although, I think she might be), but she has an intense respect for all life, and would never take a life needlessly—a theme that reminds me of our Native American ancestors who are also such an important part of our New Mexican history. There is much about Ultima that I myself aspire to be.”
Many New Mexico residents and visitors alike are making their Opera Southwest debuts in this production. Well-known Maestro Guillermo Figueroa, now principal conductor of the Santa Fe Symphony Orchestra & Chorus, will conduct the Opera Southwest Orchestra for the first time. Baritone Javier Ortiz of Pojoaque sings Narciso, a friend of Antonio’s family and the town drunk. Javier Abreu, tenor, and Carelle Flores, soprano, both from Puerto Rico, are making their debuts as Antonio’s parents, Gabriel and Maria. The Owl, Ultima’s familiar, will be sung by Countertenor José Luis Muñoz of Seattle.
But the most awaited debut is that of Daisy Beltran, a 14-year-old soprano from Albuquerque’s Eldorado High School who sings the role of Antonio, “Tony,” the boy who comes under Ultima’s wing. At the writing of this story, she was working with her vocal coach Edmund Connolly for one hour each week, and for 45 minutes a week with Luke Gullickson, principal vocal coach of the opera chorus. Three weeks of rehearsals would begin in a few days with Stage Director Octavio Cardenas.
“I really feel close to Tony,” Daisy says. “When I was younger, about seven, I was constantly told I was an old soul, because I would ask questions that were complicated and controversial. So there’s a sense that I’m connected to Tony because he’s very curious.”
Backstage, another central character takes flight
An opera doesn’t soar on its music alone. University of New Mexico Department of Theatre & Dance Professor Dorothy Baca, a longtime TV and stage costume designer, is doing the costumes for Bless Me, Ultima. Local community muralist Joe Stephenson is designing the sets. And Albuquerque Master Puppeteer Robert Secrest is at work on Ultima’s familiar, The Owl, a character in tandem with that of the countertenor. “We discussed in production meetings the symbolism between the singer Owl, who is the animistic spirit, and the puppet Owl, who is the physical side,” Robert says. “The singer has a special costume.”
They also discussed the scale of the puppet—the Owl’s wingspan is six feet, on a par with the world’s largest existing owl, the Eurasian eagle owl—and the way the director wanted the owl to look. “The director made a strong point that the Owl must be white with some mottling, the summer version of a snowy owl,” Robert says. “We also discussed whether it should abstract or realistic.” Although there is an abstract quality to the puppet, realism won out, certainly. The feathers? They’re made of vinyl slats from Venetian blinds.
Robert will be the man onstage, manipulating the Owl from a helmet atop his head with handheld rods. It’s a Japanese style of puppetry called bunraku, and the puppeteer is dressed in black from head to toe. “My hope is that I will be as invisible as possible,” he says. Robert’s no stranger to the stage, however, having grown up acting in local theater and with Albuquerque Civic Light Opera Association, now Musical Theatre Southwest productions.
New music for a new opera
Composer Héctor Armienta consulted closely with Ultima author Rudolfo Anaya on the story for this opera, a story that must be complete in itself and, as Héctor says, result in “grand theater.” Working with Rudolfo, visiting New Mexico and the specific settings in the story, and researching authentic New Mexican music of the 1940s were all part of his homework. He took seriously his mandate to have Bless Me, Ultima reflect the central themes of the novel while standing on its own as an opera.
The opera’s singers have a lot to say about their favorite results.
From Kirstin, who appears as Ultima: “There is a musical section toward the middle of the opera when I am helping Antonio to find himself in the nature, the land, the air, the water that is all around him—the music is sublime and so expressive, and the words illuminate thoughts and ideas that I, myself, hold so dear. The idea that we are one with one another and that we are profoundly connected to our Mother Earth and all of her gifts. I love this.”
Carlos Archuleta, a baritone from Española most recently seen in Pagliacci last spring, will sing Tenorio, the vengeful saloon-keeper and villain of the story. He has a light-hearted approach to the daunting task of creating a brand-new character within a brand-new work. “I love the music in Act 2. Very Iago-esque,” he said. “I’ve worked on a few world premieres; the challenge is making it make sense, and the joy is actually having the composer there so you can yell at [him]!”
And from Daisy Beltran (who had to write “a lot of boring English class stuff” about the novel in an essay that turned out to be “a really good analysis”): “There’s a persistent question [asked of Antonio]: ‘Will you bless me?’ He knows he can help them but he doesn’t, because he doesn’t feel capable enough. To me, that’s the most raw feeling in the entire opera.”
The world premiere of Bless Me, Ultima from Opera Southwest at the National Hispanic Cultural Center Journal Theatre runs Feb. 18- 25. Tickets cost $15-$89. Visit operasouthwest.org, 505.243.0591 and nhccnm.org, 505.246.2261.