Mexican composer Gabriela Ortiz's "Camelia la Tejana," which will be performed this month at Long Beach Opera, is actually three stories in one.
First, there's the legend of Camelia la Tejana, a Mexican drug-smuggling queen who shot and killed her lover in a jealous fit — if, that is, she really existed.
Then there's the tale of how Camelia's gruesome exploits were immortalized in the smash narcocorrido tune "Contrabando y Traición" (Contraband and Betrayal), which was written by Ángel González and definitively recorded by the superstar norteño band Los Tigres del Norte.
Finally, there's the story of how Ortiz and her brother, L.A.-based multimedia artist Rubén Ortiz Torres, stumbled upon a 1986 interview with a woman claiming to be the "real" Camelia la Tejana in the Mexico City murder-and-mayhem newspaper Alarma! (yes, the exclamation mark is part of its name). That tabloid confessional, Ortiz says, helped persuade her and her sibling that the lurid saga of Camelia was the stuff of which great opera could be made.
"This is 'Salome.' It's the border 'Salome.' It's the Mexican version of 'Salome,'" Ortiz recently recalled her brother telling her several years ago, referring to Richard Strauss' operatic landmark. "I always trust him. So I said, 'This is absolutely crazy, but OK. Let's do something about it.'"
Whether any of these stories — or elements of each — are true, false or occupy some shadowy land between fiction and reality, is in a way the real subject of "Camelia la Tejana." Ironically subtitled "¡Unicamente la Verdad!" (Only the Truth), the six-scene work is a meta-opera that uses Brechtian staging, video projections and a mash-up of musical styles (norteño, avant-garde classical, Weimar-era cabaret) to deconstruct the mythology surrounding its mysteriously compelling central figure.
Its dramatis personae include the title character, sung by the Mexican soprano Enivia Mendoza, as well as a journalist, a blogger and a norteño singer, all based on real people. Their sometimes conflicting, sometimes overlapping accounts shape the work's prismatic perspectives.
"It's a mosaic of contradictory evidence about this character," says Ortiz Torres, speaking in Spanish at a Silver Lake coffeehouse, about the opera's collagist approach.
Simultaneously, "Camelia la Tejana" seeks to seduce audiences with a melodramatic tale, part western, part film noir, that hardly could be more timely, given the spasm of drug-fueled violence that has killed at least 60,000 Mexicans in the last six years while feeding the insatiable habits of Uncle Sam's offspring.
"The theme, finally, is how a character in a song gets created through the media into a myth," Ortiz Torres says. "Because the character supposedly doesn't exist. Nevertheless, if you as a journalist start looking into this you're going to find a lot."
Those ambiguities helped attract the Ortiz duo to the story. The brother and sister, whose parents were folk musicians, had been fishing about for a collaborative project ever since Gabriela received an arts grant from the Organization of American States in the mid-1990s. Eventually, Ortiz Torres hit upon the idea of an opera based on the notorious Camelia, after spotting the Alarma! article in a musty Mexico City archive.
Even though Ángel González, composer of "Contrabando y Traición," always insisted that he made up the entire story, the Alarma! article purported to show a photo of a woman identified as Camelia la Tejana weeping over the body of a lover who'd been decapitated by a train in Ciudad Juárez.
Subsequently, two other women surfaced claiming to be Camelia, one in the respected Mexico City newspaper La Jornada, the other on the country's TV Azteca network. Both those incidents became scenes in the libretto, which was assembled entirely out of interviews and found texts.
"Everything came together, because I said, 'This is great, we are not going to write anything,'" Ortiz says. "All the things that the singers are going to sing are on the news, are in the media. So we are not going to invent anything. Everything is just there."
Instead of having scenery, the siblings then decided to shoot video at the places where all the opera's scenes occur, including Ciudad Juárez, the notoriously violent city that borders El Paso.
"We got almost killed there because people were trying to steal the camera," Ortiz says. But the siblings also ended up getting another scene for the opera when they encountered a Juárez newspaper vendor who claimed to know Camelia la Tejana and spun out an entire story about her on the spot.
"¡Unicamente la Verdad!" has had two productions, one at Indiana University, where Ortiz previously taught, the other at the Teatro Julio Castillo in Mexico City's Chapultepec Park. "The libretto holds power and poetry," a critic for the Bloomington Herald Times wrote of the Indiana production. "The music, ranging stylistically from exotic avant-garde to lyrical, fits the subject marvelously."