Yesterday evening at the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts, Opera Parallèle presented the first of three performances of “Xochitl and the Flowers,” the result of this year’s Hands on Opera education and youth performance program. “Xochitl” is a one-act opera, composed specifically for Hands on Opera by Chris Pratorius, based on the children’s book of the same name by Jorge Argueta. Roma OIvera transformed Argueta’s text into the opera’s libretto.
Hands on Opera is a collaborative process through which the Opera Parallèle production team holds an eight-week residency with elementary school students. In this case the students were third graders in the Alvarado Elementary School Spanish Immersion Program, whose classes are bilingual (English and Spanish), taught jointly by Cecilia Macdonagh and Luis Sierra. Olvera’s libretto was correspondingly bilingual, with transitions between the two languages that were often too smooth to detect. Since Argueta’s story was set in the Mission District, the bilingual text perfectly reflected the venue of not only the story but also the site in which the opera was performed. Opera Parallèle was fortunate to have Argueta in the audience last night, and Olvera recognized his presence before the performance began.
The story is a relatively simple one. Xochitl (soprano Sabrina Romero Wilson) has left El Salvador with her mother (Yemonja Stanley) and father (Andres Ramirez) in search of a better life in the United States. They arrive in San Francisco where the father gets piecework in construction and the mother cleans homes. Xochitl helps her mother make paper flowers, which they sell on the street. Their hope is to rent a place of their own in the Mission District. They find a building that has a backyard. Xochitl sees it as an ideal place to grow real flowers, but the landlord (Bradley Kynard) points out that the space is currently full of junk. Nevertheless, she persists and manages to trigger some of his own memories of greener surroundings. By the end of the tale, they get the place, the whole neighborhood helps to clear the yard, and Xochitl starts to grow her flowers.
That is a generous amount of narrative. However, Argueta deftly compressed it into a children’s book, which Pratorius and Olvera then turned into an opera about one hour in duration. 44 Alvarado students represented the “people of the city,” primarily with bilingual chorus work to establish setting. At the end they all join Xochitl in clearing out the backyard space. The production was designed by Rachael Heiman in a way that each child represented a different type of work, all of which had local references. (One boy wore ordinary casual clothes but sported a badge saying “Google.”) They were there to establish place, rather than comment on the action in the manner of a Greek chorus. Ultimately, this is a tale about the positive value of a community in which the whole is as important as any of the parts; and, in our current climate of divisiveness, it is definitely a tale worth telling (even if the story gets lost of powerful real estate brokers and developers).
That action for the leading characters was conceived sparingly by director Brendan Hartnett. He knew how to work with spare resources, compensating with finely-crafted delivery of the text. All four vocalists had to deal with some impressive challenges from Pratorius’ score, but they all knew how to rise to those challenges. The choral work was, for the most part, matched to the capabilities of the third graders. If they did not hit all of the right notes all of the time, they still set the right environment, including the inevitable chaos found on Mission Street.
Instrumental resources were provided by Keisuke Nakagoshi on piano, Jessie Nucho on flute, and percussionists Diego Becerra and Benjamin Zucker. Pratorius did not go out of his way to establish a specifically “Latin” rhetoric for either the instrumentalists or the vocalists, although I could swear that, at one point, Nucho traded her flute for an ocarina. The conductor was Luçik Aprahämian, who was particularly good at maintaining the attention of the chorus, even when Hartnett gave them a generous amount of activity.
I have tried consistently to put out the word about Hands on Opera productions since the project was launched. However, this was the first time I was able to squeeze a performance into my schedule. (Unless I am mistaken, it is also the first time the opera has involved local subject matter.) I was definitely impressed with both the results and the massive turnout in a relatively modest space. The good news is that there will be two more performances tomorrow; and, since the tickets are free, they will definitely be worth the time to check out the latest results in one of the more ambitious efforts of community outreach.