- Staging the Nation:Race, Religion, and History in Mexican Opera of the 1940s
In late summer 1948, Carlos Chávez published three newspaper articles in Mexico City's El Universal on the related topics of opera, national opera, and opera in Mexico.1 Chávez was, at this time, the first director of the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes (INBA), a recently created federal institution for the protection and administration of fine arts. As was customary in Chávez's political life, these public pronouncements were meant, simultaneously, to publicize an upcoming event and to explain the rationale behind a particular decision or action that was often both artistic and political in nature. On this occasion, Chávez announced his intention to create an opera company and an opera academy within the INBA, while drawing attention to the first performance, on October 3, 1948, of three one-act operas composed under the Institute's auspices: La Mulata de Córdoba by José Pablo Moncayo (1912–58), Elena by Eduardo Hernández Moncada (1899–1995), and Carlota by Luis Sandi (1905–95).
In a review of the performance issued in 1949, the aspiring composer Luis Herrera de la Fuente recalled the numerous obstacles that earlier Mexican opera composers had encountered in their attempts to have their operas produced and dared to hope that now "the necessary conditions for the blossoming of librettists and opera composers in Mexico have finally been established by the INBA."2 Chávez's decisions and the composition of the three operas by Moncayo, Hernández Moncada, and Sandi were received by many as the first real opportunity granted to Mexican composers to develop an operatic tradition in Mexico, something that, despite the well-documented passion of Mexican audiences for foreign opera, everybody understood to be nonexistent. As it turned out, these three operas would be the only ones commissioned and staged by the INBA under Chávez; indeed, together with Tata Vasco by Miguel Bernal Jiménez (1910– 56), they were the only Mexican operas written and premiered in the 1940s. Nevertheless, the founding of the INBA, its opera company, and the composition of these four "national" operas provide us with an opportunity to reflect on the [End Page 1] meaning of the national in Mexico in the 1940s, the different representations of the Mexican advanced by these operas, and the existence or nonexistence of such a national operatic tradition.
La Partenope, composed by the Mexican criollo Manuel de Sumaya to an Italian libretto by Silvio Stampiglia and produced at the court of Viceroy Fernando de Alencastre on May 1, 1711, is customarily assumed to be the second opera composed in the Americas (the first was La púrpura de la rosa by Tomás de Torrejón y Velasco, presented in Lima in 1701).3 But, despite this early and distinguished beginning and the undisputed predominance of opera in Mexico's musical history in the nineteenth century, we have a poor understanding of the history of Mexican opera itself, of its highlights and many discontinuities. We do have a list of opera composers, starting perhaps with Luis Baca (1826–55), moving through to Cenobio Paniagua (1821–82), and then beyond his student Melesio Morales (1838–1908), perhaps the most successful of them all (relatively speaking). We know about the reception—sometimes positive, sometimes negative—of some of the operas, and we have a handful of anecdotes regarding their production or lack thereof. This information has been preserved in a variety of sources, such as isolated nineteenth-century editions and the chronicles of a few performances, faithfully transmitted from one history of Mexican music or encyclopedia article to the next. But we still lack any series of editions that would allow us to evaluate the music or to understand it in terms of a historical continuity. We simply do not know enough about the composers, the full extent of their work, the sources of their librettos, or the social, political, and cultural work that their operas performed or failed to perform. Nor do we have any sense of the living tradition of the production of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Mexican opera.