Opera from the underground

Special to The Times

Stuck on a hill east of this city's border crossing is the Libertad neighborhood, a rough crush of concrete-block homes built by poor people and years of hard work.

La Libertad is famous for its junkies and for the artisans who make the plaster Mickey Mouse and Spider-Man figures sold at the border. Few neighborhoods better typify what the city has been. But hidden on 5th Street near Aquiles Serdan Avenue is a vision of what Tijuana is becoming.

It is a cafe dedicated to -- opera.

Posters of the world's great opera houses and scenes from "Tosca" and "Turandot" cover one wall. Album covers from "Aida," "Carmen" and "La Traviata" grace another. The bathroom is lined with photos of opera stars from the 1930s.

This is Tijuana's Cafe de la Opera, announced with Christmas lights strung in the shape of a theater marquee and owned by Enrique Fuentes, a San Diego teacher, Tijuana resident and opera lover. He presents monthly recitals, Thursday-night opera discussions, and lessons in singing, piano and guitar. And every Saturday, after tying back the crimson curtains covering a 36-inch television that sits in a corner within an ornate gold frame, Fuentes screens an opera video. "People asked me why I didn't put it in a more upscale neighborhood," he says. "But I thought, well, I live here. My mother lives here. So I said, 'Why not here?' People who like opera will come."

And they have. For one of the most unexpected regional art developments is that grungy Tijuana now has a flourishing opera scene.

Several nights a month somewhere in the city, it is possible to hear a bel canto recital or a lecture on opera. Classes on opera history are offered around town. An opera radio program airs Thursday mornings. (The city also has two music conservatories, two children's choirs and a youth orchestra.)

Fuentes' cafe has become the crucial forum where fans and artists mingle, and Tijuana's growing number of aspiring Sutherlands and Domingos can hone their skills like jazz musicians at a late-night New York dive. Four promising performers who left Tijuana to study in New York and Mexico City have returned to make careers here. And two generations of young singers -- one in their mid-20s and the other in their late teens -- are emerging as promising talent.

Above all, the city's first opera company formed this summer. It grew from Accorde, a theater and music company that put on operas for the past two years to standing-room-only crowds. In August, presentations of its second full-length opera -- "Madama Butterfly" -- were packed, and that success encouraged tenor Jose Medina and Maria Teresa Rique, a local teacher, to split and form La Opera de Tijuana. They plan 10 chamber performances this year, capped by a production of "I Pagliacci" in August.

Opera in Tijuana is a small thing, and most residents would be surprised to hear it exists. Still, says Rique, "what we've seen has really been a phenomenon. We see people from all classes come to the performances. It's been a snowball."

The underground alternative

In the Tijuana context, opera is an underground alternative. The city's surface is a riot of rumpled shantytowns, television factories and graffiti. Narco-corridos, techno and heavy metal music blast from strip bars as barkers attack each passing tourist with promises of "no cover" and "lots of girls." Bombarded by this cacophony, some residents have searched for harmony, exactitude and discipline -- and have found it in opera.

"Tijuana has an immense hunger for art and cultural alternatives," says Medina, the artistic director of the new opera company. "Tijuana was the city of prostitution, drugs and Mickey Mouse dolls. It's no longer like that. The idea of Tijuana is changing."

Indeed, the discos are often empty. Thousands of well-to-do Mexico City residents moved to Tijuana after the 1985 earthquake. Since then, too, the city's industrial base has boomed. Visiting businessmen far outnumber tourists. Tijuana's middle class has ballooned.

All that, as well as the proximity to the United States, has attracted more cultural activities and the money to support them.

"When we were young, there were no choirs or vocal education," says Marco Antonio Labastida, a tenor who studied in the United States in the 1980s and returned to Tijuana to make his career as director of the Sinfonica Juvenil de Tijuana. "We acquired it away from Tijuana, but now you can get it here. This doesn't just have to do with opera. It has to do with literature, theater, painting. There's more space for all these arts."

But none of them shows so clearly as opera that the quintessential border town has been losing one skin and acquiring another.

The seeds, planted

The seeds of opera's development were planted in 1982, with the construction of CECUT, the Tijuana Cultural Center. CECUT gave the city a nationally recognized theater for the performing arts, and recently, it has also offered classes on opera composers and history.

The Coro Infantil (the Children's Chorus) was formed in 1986. The Escuela de Musica del Noroeste (the Musical School of the Northwest) began giving classes two years later. The Sinfonica Juvenil de Tijuana was formed in 1996. Armando Pesqueira, a local conductor, formed Amigos de la Opera in 1997, intended as a precursor to an opera company.

All helped develop young musicians, singers and fans. Mostly, though, opera owes its popularity to years of selfless toil by several people who love the art.

One of these is Fuentes. A few years ago, he began showing friends opera videos at his mother's home. As the crowds grew, he looked for more space, and last year he opened his half-Internet, half-opera cafe. (The Internet revenues support his real love.)

He scoured San Diego's secondhand stores for opera decor: a lyre, a Viking helmet, an old piano. He named his computers Aida, Carmen, La Boheme; his server is Turandot.

Created out of his imagination and savings, the cafe remains the most authentic symbol of Tijuana opera: home-grown, funky, pure in intent.

Fuentes is breaking even, though he sometimes must rent it for other events; one recently was titled "UFOs: Myth and Reality."

"Often, people depend on government institutions," he says. "I didn't want any of that. That's why I began in a small room in my house and said, 'Let's see where this goes.' "

Another opera pioneer is Manuel Laborin, 61, who toiled for decades in Tijuana's sparse fields of opera appreciation. An accountant by trade, Laborin is a full-time opera aficionado. The walls of his home are virtually tiled with photographs of Maria Callas. A closet is filled with opera videos and his pit bull is named Verdi.

Accounting gave Laborin money to travel to operas in Los Angeles, Seattle, New York and Europe, and he frequently attended the San Diego Opera. "If I'd focused on what there was here in Tijuana, I would have felt as if I were in a desert," he says. "It was a cultural Sahara here."

But in 1993, Laborin himself began to change that. He became the city's first opera radio DJ, with a program, "Invitacion a la Opera" (Invitation to the Opera), on tiny Radio Tecnologico.

Many people say opera's fan base began to expand with Laborin's show.

The program made opera accessible to the masses, with explanations of opera terms, history and plots. Crucially, it provided a forum in anonymous Tijuana where performances could be advertised and opera lovers could get acquainted.

"People have always considered opera elitist," Laborin says. "But taxi drivers called me, getting out of their cabs after listening to the show. Piperos, the guys who sell water in large trucks in neighborhoods that don't have water, would call me while listening to the show in their trucks. I realized that in Tijuana there was a vein that hadn't been exploited."

In 2001, he moved the show to Thursday afternoons on Radio Universidad, which is now heard in Tijuana, Mexicali and Ensenada, and expanded it to three hours.

A symbol of renewal

The efforts of people like Fuentes and Laborin have made opera in Tijuana a symbol for Mexico as it emerges from decades of one-party rule. Both are learning all that can be accomplished by going it alone, without depending on the government.

This is radically new for Mexican arts.

The Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which ruled Mexico for 71 years, taught Mexicans to depend on the government for almost everything. Arts companies, too, were taught to turn to the government -- rarely to the private sector -- for support. In recent years, the government has had less to give, though a dependency culture remains. Even Tijuana's rock bands clean themselves up and go to the Institute of Culture for money.

The Opera de Tijuana is that rare arts company whose budget comes only from private donations. The company's directors are businesspeople, many of whom are in arts promotion for the first time. "They're inventing a new model for Mexico," says Ian Campbell, director of the San Diego Opera, which has provided sets to Tijuana opera productions. "They're behaving like a non-government-sponsored arts company."

Actually, Tijuana's businesspeople have contributed to the arts for years. They gave to opera companies in San Diego, Costa Mesa and Los Angeles, and to San Diego classical radio stations that reached into Tijuana.

What they hadn't done was donate to Tijuana arts.

"One of the things that really attracted people from the private sector is that no one from the government was involved," says Dr. Rodrigo Rodriguez, owner of IBC Hospital and a longtime arts patron who is on the board of the Opera de Tijuana. "When you donate money to any cause, you never see where the money went. People who run these kinds of foundations, you see them living well. I can say as a doctor, I've seen donations made to the Red Cross that never got there."

Tijuana's business class was thus wary when, in 2000, Rique came asking for money for the city's first opera: a production of arias from "La Boheme" and "Elixir de Amor." Besides, who'd ever thought opera was possible in Tijuana?

"But this woman worked 24 hours a day for six months," Rodriguez says. "She knocked on doors, talked to everyone. You gave her money because you felt sorry to see her begging for money as if she were dying of hunger."

The arias, in August of 2000, played to packed halls. "That changed everyone's mind," Rodriguez remembers. "Suddenly, people realized that this kind of thing was possible without the government. Plus, you could see that every peso we gave had the effect of five pesos in her hands."

Purse strings loosened. During the next two years, three more privately funded operas followed -- each playing to overflow crowds. Some businessmen, Rodriguez included, have shifted their giving from San Diego and Los Angeles to Rique's opera productions.

So far, government participation is limited to allowing the free use of the CECUT.

Many involved in opera in Tijuana believe this non-dependence on the government is precisely why the art form has grown.

"It's like a child. If you give him everything, you turn him into a bum," Laborin says. "If you give him the basics, he learns to do it for himself. That's what happened to us. The people of Tijuana, more than anyone else, have created this."

Visionaries, missionaries

Like any underground music, opera in Tijuana survives on the work of a few obsessed visionaries. La Opera de Tijuana has only Rique, Medina and a secretary to handle sets, promotion, tickets, costumes. And the company has no annual budget or endowment -- only a budget for specific operas. The company's board is learning to raise money.

Its emergence, however, makes clear that Tijuana has more on its mind than selling cheap thrills to tourists.

The opera scene is still in its infancy, and many years will pass before it attains the quality of what's put on in San Diego. But several young, Tijuana-born singers are the face of a promising future. Monica Abrego is singing in New York City. Samantha Garcia is studying in Milan. Guadalupe Paz won a National Assn. of Teachers of Singing contest in San Diego in 2001 and was a finalist in a competition at the La Jolla Symphony and Chorus. All three sopranos are in their 20s. Baritone Emmanuel Franco, 18, has had parts in two Tijuana operas and plans an opera career.

Rique and Medina envision putting on five operas a year within five years. Rodriguez hopes someday for joint productions with the San Diego Opera: "I'd like to see [the companies] working together, and creating in opera what's already a reality at many other levels: a Mexico-U.S. integration."

As for the Cafe de la Opera, Fuentes recently bought a grand piano. He wants to expand his recital series and buy an abandoned movie theater across the street. But he doesn't have the money and, again, he doesn't want to ask the government for it.

So for now, Fuentes feeds his opera addiction with savings and whatever profits the cafe generates. He remains convinced that opera will fit in snugly amid Tijuana's strippers and drug smugglers.

"A doctor I know says opera is a vice," he says. "In a city of many vices, this is another."

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