Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Other Side of a Brutal City

On June 15 of this year, the torso of a man was found inside a suitcase in the Tijuana neighborhood of Colonia Reforma. At the time, authorities could not confirm whether a decapitated head found earlier belonged to the same victim. For better or worse, Tijuana has a reputation as a dangerous, brawling, heavy-drinking, violent town, the destination of choice for tens of thousands of Americans, out for a good time on Saturday night, cheap and legal pharmaceutical drugs, and a little bit of la vida loca. With a population of roughly a million and a half, it is about the same size as San Diego, just to the north, and despite the grim nature of the street violence there, its crime rate is about the same as Washington DC. What most people don’t know, however, is that despite its much-publicized violence and alienation, Tijuana has a sweet, soft side: it is a city that is passionate about opera.

Opera en la Calle, 2011

In addition to the widely respected City Opera, there are a number of small companies doing work all over the metropolis. In one of the most remarkable demonstrations of the city’s passion for opera, a collaboration eight years ago between the Colonia Libertad-based Café Opera and the Tijuana City Opera, led to a summer festival of live performances on Calle 5, the rough and tumble blue-color neighborhood, smack up against the border fence in the north of the city, a historic barrio minutes from the San Ysidro border crossing, on the other side of town from the Colonia Reforma. Organizers assembled booths to sell food and drink, installed portable bathrooms, vendor tables and cast costumed characters strolling the street. They set up 300 chairs for guests to watch their program of scenes, arias and art songs.

Six thousand people showed up.

Now in its eighth year, there is much that is remarkable about the Opera en la Calle, as the event is called. It is a full-fledged cultural phenomenon, a free celebration of opera, and art in general, written up in most major press and reported widely. It is a favored venue for artists who live in the area, and for many who ome to visit, just for the day-long party. The festival has never been interrupted, despite the surge of drug-related violence of the last three years. This year’s line-up included a traditional Japanese drum performance from San Diego Taiko, and a performance by an ensemble of Irish dancers from Lázaro Cárdenas Federal High School. There were selections from La Traviata and Boheme, as well as portions of the Phantom of the Opera, and Pietro Mascagni’s one act masterpiece Cavalleria Rusticana, which finished off the evening, the first full length opera to be presented in the festival.

Elisabet Mendoza and Jacob Perez

The event has even become an improbable destination for dating couples. Twenty-something Jacob Perez and his girlfriend Elisabet Mendoza snuggle in the cool afternoon air enjoying selections from La Traviata, with as much enthusiasm as they might for pop artists, like Café Tacuba, Los Tigres del Norte or Paulina Rubio.

Jacob explains “People will get even closer to music, and paintings and culture and all that stuff...I think if they go to the way of the culture, they can change.” Girfriend Elisabet Mendoza adds “To have you imagine other things that are not violence, is not our city. Just art, music, things like that…” Starting in 2004, as a cultural promotion of the city, and as an anniversary celebration of the tiny Café de la Ópera on Calle 5, part of the festivities celebrating the founding of Tijuana.

It soon became a renowned event, attracting up to 10,000 people from both sides of the border. In coordination with the State Government, the 22nd City Council, Tourism and Conventions Committee of Tijuana (COTUCO) as well as the private sector, the 2011 edition of the festival featured performances more or less continuously for 12 hours.

Architects from the Technology Institute of Tijuana transformed the working-class street into a tiny Italian village, which becomes the scene of the festival. There were more than 150 singers, musicians, actors and other artists from the region, and under colorful canopies, a variety of restaurants offered a sampling of their food and beverage. The day started around noon and lasted till past 11:00 pm, on a downright chilly July evening.

Jose Medina is a much loved local music teacher and singer. He has been involved in the production of Opera en la Calle from the very beginning, and many of his students are singing today. Though he looks a bit tired from all the planning and rehearsals, he is practically beaming with pride. “Everything you read in the paper, first thing in the morning is assassination and drugs and everything. But this contributes to change the image. This is important…So that at least gives you hope! Tijuana is not just this dark side, we do have this, too. This culture, this hunger of growing up to something so positive!” He then excuses himself, to go help with the set up for one of the acts he has been working on.

Maria Teresa Rique

Returning to run the festival, Opera of Tijuana Director Maria Teresa Riqué, described the rich offering of cultural activities the community offers, including for the first time a complete performance and the live transmission of the project via the Internet.

"The festival is framed in celebration of the centenary of the historic defense of Tijuana in June of 1911. We are preparing a program based on research done by the group Los Californios, led by baritone Manuel Acosta. The main intention of the festival is the promotion of the Opera…I am sure they will enjoy it. You can see the huge amount of talent we have in the city,” Riqué added. "It is great to be able to present a full opera for the first time," said Riqué, noting the involvement of tenor José Luis Duval and mezzo-soprano Ana Rojas. " People who may not be physically able to attend can enjoy the event via a live streaming webcast …a revolution in progress." she added. The performances are presented in a way to attract families, and to welcome everyone and was especially directed to those who have never had opportunity to attend an opera recital or performance, and to attract a young audience.

Between 8,000 and 10,000 people attended throughout the day, enjoying the singing, scenery, art displays, drinks and food, as well as a range of children's activities. Fully a third to a half of the attendees at the Saturday event appeared to be under the age of 25.

Julieta Mesa and Melissa Sanchez

Melissa Sanchez attended this year with her mother
Julieta Mesa. It gives her a lot of pride to be able to show off her city. “If you can show the other side of Tijuana, which is an innovative city, where you find that art and culture has much to offer to the country and the world,” she says, while resting in the afternoon sun. “Maybe it is the result that we are receiving so much talent from other cities of the Mexican republic that art and culture and the proximity to the USA makes as to have a fountain of talent. In this respect young people can contribute in art and culture” she concludes.

Singer Marco Antonio La Bastida is a local favorite, and a regular at Café Opera – he sings the title role in ‘Phantom of the Opera’ tonight, and has seen the changes that opera in general and this street festival in particular have brought to this little rough and tumble neighborhood. “This is a very nice event…with all this very bad situation with what’s happening in Tijuana, this is the other side of the coin saying ‘hey, you know we are making something good…’ I think they [the media] should always promote this kind of event.” La Bastida agrees with Maria Theresa Rique’s assessment that this community’s love for opera is not abstract or pretentious. There is an obvious, natural, and enthusiastic love for this art form they say. “It was a way to tell people not to abandon the streets, to tell them to not be afraid,” says Riqué. “Opera won’t bite you; it’s not elitist,” she insists. “You just have to feel it. After all…” she added, “this type of festival is a reminder that the streets belong to the people.”