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It might seem an unlikely pairing — mariachi, the art form so closely associated with Mexico, and opera, with its deeply Eurocentric roots.

But this weekend the distinctive sound of the vihuela and guitarron replaces the symphonic swirl of violins and cellos as Arizona Opera mounts the first-ever mariachi opera.

“Cruzar la Cara de la Luna” (To Cross the Face of the Moon) opens Arizona Opera’s 2014-15 season. Phoenix premiered it Friday before a nearly sold-out audience at Symphony Hall; a final performance there is at 2 p.m. today before it comes to Tucson Music Hall Saturday and Oct. 19.

Arizona is the fourth company to mount the piece, which Houston Grand Opera commissioned in 2009 and premiered in 2011. Since then it has been staged with the original Houston cast and the pre-eminent Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán in San Diego, Chicago and Paris, where it sold out six performances before returning to Houston in spring 2013 for an encore run.

“Parisians are not all too familiar with mariachi music, but it was hugely, hugely, hugely successful there,” said Leonard Foglia, the stage director and librettist for “Cruzar la Cara.”

“It’s mixed so well the people leave impressed, even crying, from the beauty,” said Mariachi Vargas violinist José Martínez, son of the opera’s composer and Vargas’ music director José “Pepe” Martínez. The senior Martinez has led the seminal Mariachi Vargas for nearly 40 of its 117 years.

There were a few audible sobs from Friday’s Phoenix audience, but mostly it was the cheers and shouts of bravo that filled Symphony Hall in a performance that prompted a standing ovation and deafening applause at the end of the 90-minute performance.

The biggest applause was for Mariachi Vargas, which was the inspiration for the opera; Houston Grand Opera’s General Director Anthony Freud saw the ensemble perform under Martinez and called Foglia with a wild proposition to create an opera that told a story that built on the emotion and theatricality of mariachi.

“He just got this idea. He said, ‘This music is just so emotional.’ The whole style of it felt very theatrical and operatic to him,” Foglia recalled as the production was about to set up in Phoenix two weeks ago. The original cast — the two lead roles are sung by Mexican-Americans and another singer is from Bogota, Colombia —is on board for the Arizona run.

Freud brought Foglia in to write the libretto that follows three generations of the Velasquez family as the death of the patriarch, Laurentino — sung by the standout Hermosillo, Sonora, baritone Octavio Moreno— is imminent. His American-born son Mark (sung by Texas baritone Brian Shircliffe) is straddling two worlds — the Mexico of his immigrant father and the America where he was raised.

His daughter, Diana (admirably sung in Phoenix by Cincinnati soprano Brittany Wheeler), is trying to fulfill her grandfather’s deathbed wish to be reunited with his son Rafael (Colombian tenor David Guzman, whose Phoenix performance was breathtaking), who was left in Mexico after the boy’s mother died while trying to cross the desert into Arizona.

Foglia drew on the experiences of his own father, who immigrated to the United States from Italy when he was 10. “Cruzar la Cara,” he explained, is centered on the Mexican immigration experience, but at its core is the idea of answering the question: Where is home?

“It was that notion. The Mexican-Americans in the United States — where is home for them in their minds? Is it Mexico where you came from? Is it the United States, where you now have children and maybe grandchildren and you’ve put down roots? And this divided soul of the people, and it’s not just Mexican-American — it’s Mexicans, who have family in the United States,” said Foglia, who had a home in Mexico for nine years and became a big fan of mariachi.

José Martínez said “Cruzar la Cara” is his father’s legacy for Vargas and for mariachis everywhere. Mariachi Vargas performs the music with the cast on stage without an orchestra backing it — which for Arizona Opera is the first time in recent memory that the company will mount a production without its orchestra, said Executive Director Ryan Taylor.

“The piece itself, I think, speaks directly to the kind of community Arizona Opera serves in our state,” said Taylor, who said the story is especially timely as America and Arizona in particular grapple with contentious and volatile immigration issues.

“But I feel especially in the past few years the arts have been a safe place for unsafe topics like immigration,” Taylor said. “Instead of it being polarizing, we found it to be an incredible story of love and journey and understanding.”

Martínez said “Cruzar la Cara” was a personal journey for his father, who will not be with the group for the Arizona performances; Pepe Martinez is home in Mexico recovering from an illness, his son said. Martinez said he and his sister, Rosario, who sings with Vargas, and his nephew Felipe, a musician, helped compose the music.

“Cruzar la Cara” resonates with Martinez and the ensemble because of the millions of fellow Mexicans who have migrated to the United States. But the story’s universality strikes a chord in audiences who have no personal connection to Mexican immigration, he said. Its story goes deeper, exploring the emotional toll and sense of displacement people feel around the world when they are living in a foreign land.

Foglia said when Freud tapped him to write “Cruzar la Cara” he insisted on only one thing: That people of all walks find something relatable in the story.

After one of the performances in Paris, a Croatian woman in the audience approached Foglia with tears in her eyes. “That’s my story,” she told him.

“And that was a big deal,” he said. “That was the moment that I thought, OK, this is really about all kinds of people that are displaced and feel conflicted about where they are in their lives and where their home is.”

Foglia and Pepe Martinez are putting the finishing touches on their second mariachi opera, also commissioned by Freud through Lyric Opera of Chicago, where he has been general director since 2011. Chicago will give the world premier of “El Pasado Nunca Se Termina” (The Past Is Never Finished) on March 28 and 29, featuring Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán.

Contact reporter Cathalena E. Burch at cburch@tucson.com or 573-4642. Reach Ernesto Portillo at netopjr@tucson.com or 573-4187.


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