El Circo Anahuac: An Aztec Opera

3 min read
El Circo Anahuac - an Aztec Opera

The story has all the makings of a great opera. Two young lovers; one a great warrior, the other a princess. He goes to war, she awaits his return. A villain tricks the princess into believing her lover is dead. She dies of sorrow. The warrior returns, is grief-stricken, and stands vigil over her body. The gods transform him into Popocatépetl (a smoldering volcano) and her into Iztaccihuatl (a dormant volcano). The two volcanoes remain today, just southeast of Mexico City.

“The story of Popo and Izta is an eternal story,” said Steven Loza, director of the Center for Latino Arts, chair of Global Jazz Studies and professor of ethnomusicology at the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music. “It’s Romeo and Juliet. It’s Tristan and Isolde.” Yet no opera previously told their story, despite the ubiquity of artistic representations of the lovers throughout Mexico and California. The story centers around epic themes of young love, loyalty, betrayal, constancy.

That is, until El Circo Anahuac premiered in 2018, at La Plaza de Artes y Culturas in downtown Los Angeles. The original production was forty minutes long, created for a seven-piece orchestra, three singers and four dancers. However spare such a production might seem, it was anything but. The libretto, written by Maria Elena Yepes, combines English, Spanish, and Nahuatl. Composer David Reyes mixed themes both quotidian and epic into the score. Elaborate costumes decked in fluorescent paint are worn by dancers and singers performing under blacklight.

Dancer Sheena Castillo performs in “El Circo Anahuac.” (Maria Alejandra Cardona / Los Angeles Times)

The sensory effect was almost otherworldly, capturing a visual and musical dimension that bridged artistic worlds. Audiences responded in kind. The opera played four, sold-out shows in downtown LA and earned a strong critical review in the Los Angeles Times. Audiences also witnessed something rare in operatic performance: an all-Latinx cast of singers and dancers.

“El Circo Anahuac” tells the story of the birth of the twin volcanoes outside Mexico City. (Maria Alejandra Cardona / Los Angeles Times)

“It was important for us to find Latina and Latino artists,” said librettist Maria Elena Yepes. “The excuse all the time is that we can’t find the talent, that Latinas aren’t interested in opera. And that’s not true.”

The vibrant reception to El Circo Anahuac motivated its creators to expand the opera. David Reyes and Maria Elena Yepes made plans for expansion. The work was aided by a surprise phone call.

“We were contacted by [Pasadena theater] A Noise Within to see if we were interested in an artistic residency, to bring the opera there,” said librettist Maria Elena Yepes. “It really gave us an opportunity to expand. We created five new songs and we brought in a new character: the king.”

Rosa Evangelina Beltran sings in “El Circo Anahuac.” (Maria Alejandra Cardona / Los Angeles Times)

The opera’s revision also enabled composer David Reyes to grow the music in unexpected ways. “I discovered in the first scene, that I was approaching the voice as if it was a physical instrument, like a flute, or a clarinet, not so much a voice,” said Reyes. “I was able in the new version to elongate it, to add ornamentation in the vocalizing.”

In 2019, El Circo Anahuac played to another capacity crowd at A Noise Within in Pasadena. Some would-be spectators had to be turned away. After another strong performance, big plans were made for expansion and the opera’s creators brought in a new director.

Singer Rosa Evangelina Beltran performs in “El Circo Anahuac.” (Maria Alejandra Cardona / Los Angeles Times)

“I was asked to direct the opera,” said Steve Loza, who had already supported the opera through the UCLA Center for Latino Arts, which he directs. “And so I agreed.” Plans for the 2020 season included larger halls and an expanded geographic reach. Sadly, nature intervened.

“The pandemic forced us to cancel performances of the opera,” said Steve Loza. “But we are excited to be bringing it back, starting with Schoenberg Hall.”

El Circo Anahuac will be performed Sunday, May 1, at 5:00 p.m. at Schoenberg Hall.