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Hispanic Opera Gets Bay Area Boost

September 24, 2013

La TaniaSoprano Alexandra Sessler let loose a zesty and sardonic Spanish aria in 6/8 time the other day at the Oakland studio of La Tania, the noted flamenco dancer and choreographer. They’re performing with the piano-playing composer Hector Armienta September 28 at San Jose’s Mexican Heritage Plaza Theater in a program called “Zarzuela and Beyond.”

Armienta, whose operatic and symphonic music has often drawn on his Mexican and Chicano heritage, was accompanying Sessler at the piano on this hot late-summer afternoon, ripping through “Zapateado,” a classic song about the bite of the tarantula — in this case, a spidery symbol for the lecherous master of the estate, who wants to make the sister of the boy singing the song. It’s a pants role number from La Tempranica, a 1900 zarzuela, the Spanish operatic form some have likened to Gilbert & Sullivan, by the Spanish composer and conductor Gerónimo Giménez.

La Tania joined in with a dazzling display of the percussive, traditionally male dance called, not surprisingly, zapateado (from the Spanish word for shoe), stamping and clacking her heels, slapping her thighs and gesturing like a bullfighting banderilla poised to pierce the poor beast’s shoulder with those barbed darts.

“It’s too slow. It has to be a little faster,” said La Tania, who later talked about the gestures shared by toreadors and flamenco dancers. She grew up in southern Spain among Gypsy flamenco performers, the daughter of a French father and an American mother who performed the fiery Iberian art.

How much faster should it be? Armienta asked. The dancer demonstrated by spinning out some fancy footwork at a crackling tempo that gave Sessler pause. Her tongue was already flying in high gear.

For much of the piece, “there are two syllables to sing for each pitch, and they’re eighth notes. And I have to sing them in a Castilian accent,” Sessler said. “I’m trying to sing them in a Castilian accent,” she added with a laugh.

Bitten by the Zarzuela Bug

Alexandra SesslerA lively young woman with long black tresses, a diamond stud in her left nostril and a star tattoo on her arm, Sessler was in good spirits despite having just been rear-ended by a hit-and-run driver on the new, improved Bay Bridge on her way to rehearsal. Unharmed, she was bugged about her smashed bumper but jazzed to be singing zarzuela. On the 28th, she’ll sing arias from operas Manuel F. Caballero, Emilio Arrieta, and others.

A professional singer in the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, Sessler teaches at San Francisco State University, where she got her masters, co-founded the early-music ensemble Mission Baroque, and sang in Armienta’s musical drama La Llorana/The Weeping Woman. It was produced last year by Opera Cultura, the San Jose nonprofit that he directs, and whose primarily Latino audience he hopes to expand and enrich by presenting a wider world of Hispanic music, classic and contemporary.

Sessler’s mother, a classically-trained singer of Puerto Rican ancestry, sometimes played zarzuela recordings at home in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania. But Alexandra had never sung the music until Armienta called. Now she’s hooked.

“I love the passion of it!” she says.

“I get to dip into more passionate repertoire, and really put my heart and soul into it in a way that’s different from the way I sing the “inas” and “annas” of Mozart.” - Alexandra Sessler, soprano

“What’s really cool about zarzuela is that the arias are not for a specific Fach (the German system for categorizing singers), or voice type. Most of the time, you’re just not allowed to sing music out of your voice type. But in zarzuela, any soprano can sing any soprano aria. Something might seem to be for a heavier voice, but I can sing it. I get to dip into more passionate repertoire, and really put my heart and soul into it in a way that’s different from the way I sing the “inas” and “annas” of Mozart. Despina (from Così fan tutte) is not necessarily tortured. But I get to sing these arias that are extremely emotionally varied, and have music to match that emotionality.”

There’s a common misconception among classical singers that zarzuela is fluff, added Sessler, who disabused one of her coaches of that notion by showing her the music she was learning.

“She said, ‘Wow, this is a lot more operatic than I thought.’”

Tapping Into the Classics

Armienta, 49, didn’t know much about zarzuela either until he plunged into this project, which brings together classic arias and a new original piece he wrote under the influence of flamenco and other Spanish music and created in collaboration with La Tania (she doesn’t use her French last name, which “doesn’t sound like a flamenco dancer,” she said with a smile).

Armienta, whose father came from Mexico and his mother from a Mexican-American family in Texas, grew up in Los Angeles, studied at Cal Arts and earned his masters degree in composition at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music under the tutelage of Conrad Susa. In earlier works, like his Postcards from Mexico, which Michael Morgan commissioned for the Oakland Youth Orchestra Symphony and premiered in 2010, Armienta incorporated elements of Mexican folk music into his compositions, quoting corridos and writing whole-tone mariachi melodies.

“I want to expand the work that Opera Cultura does, to expose the community to a larger picture of what Latino/Hispanic culture is.” - Hector Armienta, composer/ founder, Opera Cultura

With this project, he wanted to explore what he calls “my European side.” Armienta sought out La Tania, who started performing with various Spanish national companies as a teenager and has led her own troupe for many years. He’d read about the choreography she’d created and danced with her group for Opera Parallèle’s production of Osvaldo Golijov’s Ainadamar last winter at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

When they first met in her studio, the composer videotaped her as she showed him the flamenco grooves, clapping and dancing the beats. “I basically taught him the rhythms and the accents,” the dancer said.

Armienta went home and wrote the first draft of La Mujer tormentada (The tormented woman), a darkly dramatic four-minute piece flavored with flamenco and other Spanish music. He made revisions based on feedback from La Tania, whose choreography for the piece, which at times involves a chair, suggests a mix of flamenco and Martha Graham.

“I like that the music is really dramatic, with a lot of feeling,” she said. “It’s like a fusion of flamenco and classical music.”

Armienta’s piece doesn’t try to summon those melismatic flamenco vocal melodies, which don’t translate to the keyboard, but draws on Spanish melodic patterns. “You really can’t play those quarter tones,” he said.

The Beginning of Something Larger?

La Tania wanted to run through “Zapateado” one more time, at the faster tempo, and record it on her laptop to study.

“The only cure is to dance, to dance out the poison,” Sessler sang in her Castilian-accented Spanish to the syncopated slap and pop of stamping heels on hardwood floor.

“Yeah!” the soprano shouted after the final flourish of notes and stamps.

“I love these collaborations, working with different artists and art forms,” said Armienta, who has acquired the rights to Rudolfo Anaya’s 1972 novel Bless Me, Ultima so he can write an opera based on it.

“I want to expand the work that Opera Cultura does,” he said, “to expose the community to a larger picture of what Latino/Hispanic culture is. It’s zarzuela, it’s flamenco dance, it’s contemporary music. We’d like to develop into a more regional opera company, and explore these kinds of collaborations. I’m hoping this is just the beginning of a larger initiative.”

Jesse Hamlin has written for The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications over the past 30 years on a wide range of music and art, covering jazz musicians and symphonic conductors, sculptors, poets, and architects. He has also written for The New York Times, Art & Auction and Columbia magazines, as well as liner notes for CDs by Stan Getz and Cal Tjader.