It's not every day that someone tells you, "Drop whatever you're doing and go see an opera about human trafficking." But today is one of those days: So drop whatever you're doing this evening and go see an opera about human trafficking. I'm totally serious.
An unusual piece of performance that involves a collaboration between four contemporary composers — two Mexican, one American, and one Chinese-born — as well as an American soprano and a Mexican novelist, "Cuatro Corridos" tells the story of four women, who, in some way or another, have ties to the human trafficking that occurs across the U.S.-Mexico border.
This mini-opera (it is only 60 minutes long) is told over four corridos or ballads, each sung by one of the key women in the story: cruel Dalia (once a victim of trafficking herself), who lures young women into prostitution; a pair of trafficking victims, Azucena and Violeta; and the Chicana police officer Rose, who helps bust the whole operation.
"This whole issue of trafficking and why women find themselves in these positions, it's not just a sad story," says Susan Narucki, the San Diego-based soprano who sings all four roles. "It's a complicated and tragic series of choices that society makes, that we all make, and that we all have to figure out how to turn around."
The issue is indeed important, but it's the artistry of this project that makes it worthwhile (even if you're not into opera). The first scene, alone, is riveting for both its music and its content. In it, Azucena relates the horrors of being forced to service men in the agricultural fields near San Diego. The music that accompanies her is a traditional Mexican corrido that has been deconstructed and reassembled into modern music. Upbeat tempos dissolve into dissonance. Here and there emerge the snare drum beats that evoke the military bands that play the plazas of Latin American cities on Sundays.
It is like no opera I've ever heard.
"Trafficking is a huge problem here," says LAFLA Executive Director Silvia Argueta. "One of the top three destinations for trafficking victims is California. And within California, Los Angeles is one of the top three points of entry for victims. In L.A. and Orange County there have been some really big cases. Recently, we worked on a case that involved a huge ring of women that were being trafficked as prostitutes in MacArthur Park. They are brought here very young — as young as 14."
Narucki, who also serves as artistic director on "Cuatro Corridos," says she came to this difficult subject matter because she was interested in doing something that involved the border.
"Moving here from the East Coast, and living in San Diego, I've just become really aware of the cross-border issues that exist," she explains. "Pablo Gómez, who serves as the guitarist on the project, he introduced me to [novelist] Jorge Volpi and Jorge basically said, 'If you're looking to do something on border issues, here's one of the most important."
Volpi got on board to write the libretto. Narucki then roped in the composers: U.S.-born/London-based Arlene Sierra, Hilda Paredes and Hebert Vázquez (both from Mexico) and Lei Liang, who was born in China, but now lives in San Diego.
Certainly, a meal with this many cooks in the kitchen shouldn't work. But it does. Each composer scored the music for a single character, yet it all comes off as a unified whole. (Read classical music critic Mark Swed's take on the opera, when it first debuted in San Diego last year. He has also made the show this week's critic's pick.)
"When I started thinking about this project," says Narucki, "it was natural for me to think about who I like working with. The other musicians on the team are people I've known for years. And there's this kind of magic that happens when friends and friends-of-friends get together and collaborate. For having so many people on the team, we rarely had disagreements, which is unbelievable."
Liang, who composed the piece of the opera sung by police woman Rose, says that for him the content struck close to home.
"When I came here from China I was 17," he recalls. "I was studying in Boston at the New England Conservatory of Music. And I worked in a restaurant as a waiter where I met many Chinese illegal immigrants They told me about how they made it to the U.S. and how they had witnessed so many terrible things. They left China overland through Vietnam. All the women were raped. Some of them were almost abandoned on a ship that was smuggling them in from South America. These were the invisible Chinese people that are everywhere making our food."
"When Susan called me about this project," he adds, "I felt that I could work on a project that, in a way, tells my own story."
Argueta of LAFLA says that the opera provides a way of giving voice to the pain and suffering that trafficked people go through. "It's an incredible combination of art coming together with the immigration work that we do."
A beguiling work of art, all based on true stories, all for a good cause. I can't think of a better reason to go.