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300 Years of History Heats Up 'Time and Again'

By David Steinberg
Journal Staff Writer
    The Albuquerque Tricentennial's official opera "Time and Again Barelas" premieres this week in the 'hood— the very neighborhood of its title.
    The premiere will be at the National Hispanic Cultural Center on Thursday. It also will be staged the next two evenings at the University of New Mexico's Popejoy Hall.
    But the story of Miguel del Aguila's opera is not a factual history of the blue-collar neighborhood of Barelas, though it contains many familiar historical local settings.
    "Those people who expect we will narrate the history of Barelas will be disappointed. It's no more historical than 'Carmen,' " said Guillermo Figueroa, the music director of the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra.
    "And it doesn't portray a rose-colored 300 years," added del Aguila, who composed the music and some of the libretto for the opera.
    "Look at 'Carmen.' It's exotic. You can write nice dances. I don't want to do that here. Yes, the music will be exotic to many people. But to me, Barelas is pretty much its difficult history, a very turbulent history."
    In his sweeping opera, del Aguila made the couple of Marcelina and Ignacio embody the struggle of New Mexicans through the centuries.
    In the opera's first scene, the time is 1680 and in a skirmish, Indians and Barelas residents, including Marcelina Barela's father, die. The attackers also kidnap Marcelina.
    If he were historically accurate, del Aguila said, he would show that Marcelina's boyfriend, also an Indian, rescues her. A few months later they marry and live happily ever after.
    "But that's not the stuff of a dramatic opera. So I made the massacre perpetrated by the conquistadors, including the character of Ignacio.
    "The entire problem is symbolized and exaggerated in (Marcelina and Ignacio). They end up as totally opposite characters," del Aguila explained. "This man has killed her father. How far apart can they be? At the end they forgive each other."
    There's also a curse by an Indian shaman that condemns Ignacio to have a heart of stone. By the final curtain, the curse is lifted when Marcelina and Ignacio forgive each other after having fallen in love time and again over the centuries.
    Tenor Rafael Dávila is Ignacio and mezzo-soprano Gabriela Garcia sings Marcelina.
    In a recent rehearsal with Garcia, del Aguila was at the piano. During a break, he said Garcia is so extraordinary because she memorized her part before she arrived in Albuquerque from her home in New York City.
    So Garcia's main job here is to learn the staging, he said.
    Not just that, Garcia added. Because "Time and Again Barelas" is a modern opera, she as a singer "will have to listen to the orchestra to get the feel of what you do vocally."
    Figueroa described the opera's music as "very Latin but not necessarily Latin in a New Mexican sense. ... There's tango, Caribbean sounds and that works very well."
    Dávila said his character begins as a villain and becomes a hero. As a singer and actor, he finds the experience interesting to make this transition.
    How del Aguila came to receive the commission to write a musical work is its own story.
    Figueroa said the NMSO, the National Hispanic Cultural Center Foundation and the Downtown Action Team had the idea for a musical work for the Tricentennial. They were also the prime movers in organizing the effort, he said.
    Figueroa said he suggested that the NMSO commission a work, but he didn't know what form the work should take or who should write it.
    "We asked a lot of people, advertised, sent out letters," he said. "We knew we wanted a Hispanic composer, ideally a New Mexican composer, but no one fit the bill."
    Then, Figueroa said, he and NMSO executive director Kevin Hagen weeded out résumés and interviewed candidates. Del Aguila was picked from among five finalists.
    Figueroa suggested ideas that he wanted in the work.
    "He said, 'Wait a minute. It sounds like you're putting all these restrictions. If you hire me, I write what I want to write,' " Figueroa recalled.
    "I said, 'That's what I want. A true composer who writes what he wants. That's what the great composers did. To put a subject or style restriction would be stupid."
    Del Aguila was given carte blanche but he didn't know what form the work would take.
    During the time del Aguila was carving out a synopsis, Figueroa remembered the composer telling him, "I don't know what to call this. But it's turning into an opera.' There was great debate in the (NMSO) office what to call it."
    The only restriction placed on the Los Angeles-based del Aguila was that he had to spend 18 months living in Albuquerque to familiarize himself with the community.
    "How that experience made its way into the music is up to him," said Figueroa.
    Del Aguila's first trip to Albuquerque was in the fall of 2004 after writing a tentative synopsis and informing himself of the city's history. While here he asked people of many ethnicities all over the city what they think a musical work for the Tricentennial should be about and should say.
    "What I slowly started figuring out was that the responses were pretty much along lines of ethnic background," del Aguila said.
    "One thing that really became evident at the beginning was that I wasn't going to please everybody. There are always people leaving a performance where their history is not told."
    Del Aguila concluded that the facts of New Mexico's history really depend on who's interpreting them.
If you go
    WHAT: The opera "Time and Again Barelas" with the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra and Chorus
    WHEN and WHERE: 8 p.m. Thursday, April 20, at the National Hispanic Cultural Center, 1701 Fourth SW; 8 p.m. Friday, April 21, and 6 p.m. Saturday, April 22, at Popejoy Hall, Center for the Arts, UNM campus
    HOW MUCH: Tickets for Thursday's performance are $25, $30 and $35 at Ticketmaster outlets or call 883-7800 or at www.ticketmaster.com. For more information on a $75 VIP ticket for opening night, which includes a post-performance party, call the NHCC box office at 724-4771. Tickets for Friday's and Saturday's performances range from $10-$56 and are available at the NMSO box office at 4407 Menaul NE or at tickets.com outlets or go to www.nmso.org. For credit-card reservations call 881-8999