Last month, Hector Armienta’s animated opera “Mi Camino” premiered to audiences around the world. The work represented one of the industry’s first lively operas and featured the stories of migrant Latino farmworkers during the pandemic.
The Mexican-American composer has been recognized in the United States performing works with the Pacific Symphony, the Oakland East Bay Symphony and the Western Stage Theater as well as with the Fort Worth Opera House and many other institutions.
With “El Camino”, Armienta returned to its Mexican roots.
The composer spoke to OperaWire about the innovative experience and challenges of telling the stories of these migrant workers through opera.
OperaWire: Tell me about the origins of the work?
Hector Armienta: The idea came in April 2020 and we were originally going to do a live article about the dreamers and I was going to do interviews here and then go to Mexico City and interview people who were kicked out. It’s really a complementary piece to another piece called “Cuentos de Peregrinacion” which is about people who come from Mexico and have moved to San José. And then during the pandemic, I realized we weren’t going to do a live. Then with all the news, you didn’t see what was going on with all the farm workers, so I changed the subject and decided to work on this. And this is the reason why “El Camino” was born.
OW: Tell me about the interviews you did and how you found the people you based your work on? What were the specificities that you were looking for?
HA: Well, we work with different social service organizations and we try to get as many community members to come and see our work. So we contacted Harvest Food Bank and they provide food services to communities and there was one in Gilroy. Gilroy is a community of farm workers and many Latinos live there. We also worked with a community called ALAS, known for their training programs for Latinos. They switched to giving them food and helping them with grants. The city of San José also helped us locate people.
At first, many of them did not want to be interviewed because of their fears, and to offer incentives, we provided allowances if they were ready to be interviewed. A couple did not want to be seen so we interviewed them over the phone. There was a woman whose story was more about cleaning houses and all of her work. There is a play called el “Diez de Marzo”, which is the day she was called by her employers saying they didn’t want her to come. And his story is quite sad. And then I worked with ABC News and they would record them on video and interview them on video via zoom.
OW: How did you make them feel comfortable when you interviewed them?
HA: We were very clear on what we were doing and why we needed them. And we told them they could be videotaped if they wanted to or they could be masked. I worked for a long time in the community and I was very careful what I asked and I think they knew I was sincere. It was difficult and the guys were a little more skeptical and they didn’t want to answer too many questions. But in the end, they opened up to me to tell their story. I encouraged them and told them how much I appreciated the time.
OW: Tell me about the process of writing the libretto, creating the music, and the world of the avatar. What came first, the animation or the music?
HA: It’s a song cycle opera and I call it an animated opera. But I think each tune is like a two to three minute movie and they’re all in different places and all have different stories. But the general arc of the story is that of farm workers during the pandemic. This is what ties the work together.
When I started working on the booklet I was watching the videos and had someone help me with the transcription because I don’t speak Spanish well. So they transcribed it for me, and then I went through the important themes of each interview and the story it contains. This is how I developed the text and then I wrote the music. Subsequently, I started to work on the creation of avatars. There is a program where you can actually take pictures of people and then create an avatar based on their image. So the avatars look a bit like opera singers. And then I created the virtual world in another program.
I’m used to working with a live orchestra but for that I used a virtual orchestra and it was a whole new world and I had to learn more. I had a consultant export it, and then we did the audio recording. We took the singers into a video recording studio and it was quite interesting. Someone took this video and imported it into the virtual world that I created. It was quite a long process.
OW: Tell me about the casting process. Did you write the work for these three singers in particular?
HA: Mezzo-soprano Deborah Martínez Rosengaus is a Latina born here with her family in Mexico City and tenor Emmanuel Mercado is Mexican and no longer worked too much as a singer. But I found it thanks to a colleague. I love Cecilia Violetta López and her story is really so important for the authenticity of this work because she comes from a family of farmers. I was happy to be able to have it as part of the project.
When we did the recording we hadn’t rehearsed at all and when I told her about the aria she was singing, “Somos Familia”, Cecilia started to cry because it was about. of this woman who had so many dreams but who somehow gave them to help her brother. Cecilia had a connection to it in her own life. So involving her gave her a lot of reality and authenticity and she’s just such a great singer and one of the best we have.
OW: When you were recording, what was the biggest challenge because it was done from afar?
HA: When I work with singers, I always learn from them. They are the best instructors and my writing always improves working with them. They can interpret things and it’s a lot different to hearing what you wrote with the singer. There is a singularity and when I create a new piece I try to adapt it or make changes. With this registration process, I did not have this opportunity. If the singers could have met, I would have relied on them for some of these changes. We were able to make some changes with the dynamics, the rallentandos, and where they needed more time. It was hard for me.
The recordings they also received were tuned and they couldn’t make any adjustments. With a conductor you can do that, but here they had to follow the click leads. It was a big challenge for them. The other thing was that the tracks they were getting didn’t have any dynamics because that would happen after the mixing process.
OW: Are there any plans for a live performance of the piece?
Oh yes ! We are in contact with a company in Mexico City to run it live there. And then the goal is to bring it back to the United States for a much larger production that would include the three singers, a live orchestra, and some of the virtual footage as a stage background. This is the dream and I hope we can make it happen.