Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Placido Domingo at Arena Teques

Last Saturday one of the world’s greatest singers performed to a rapt audience just 80 miles from where his career started as a teenager in Mexico City’s National Opera. Placido Domingo sang at the Arena Teques overlooking Lake Tequesquitengo in the state of Morelos. His performance to an audience of 6,000, along with sopranos Angel Blue and Micaëla Oeste and the Acapulco Philharmonic Orchestra, inaugurated this wonderful new outdoor concert venue.

The driving force for the event was Elena Cepeda, wife of Morelos’ new governor Graco Ramírez.  Cepeda had been the Secretary of Culture for the Federal District for six years.  I first had contact with her when she accepted my idea of hosting an homage in Mexico City’s Teatro de la Ciudad for John Ross, the dean of the foreign correspondents in Mexico. 

As first lady of Morelos, Cepeda now has responsibilities imposed on her by Mexican law and custom that would seem to move her away from sponsoring high profile cultural events. The wife of the chief executive at the municipal, state, or federal level always becomes the president of the D.I.F. (National System for Integral Family Development) for that area.  If the chief executive is female, the responsibility can become that of a close female relative – sister, daughter, aunt – but never that of her husband.

Cepeda has made one of her principal projects, as president of D.I.F. for the state of Morelos, the construction of the Morelos Center for Rehabilitation and Special Education.  The Placido Domingo concert was a major fundraiser towards an end she hopes will benefit 100,000 Morelos children with special needs -- a fascinating way to blend the contacts Cepeda made in Mexico City with the world’s leading artists and her commitment to meeting the educational needs of children who have traditionally been hidden away.

From the moment he appeared on stage, Placido gave his all, as did the Acapulco Philharmonic Orchestra.  Headquartered in the tropical and coastal Pacific port, the orchestra members conformed to standard protocol by wearing black.  But in this case they wore a Mexican contribution to fashion:  black, short-sleeved guayabera shirts.  I was amazed to hear that the orchestra had rehearsed with Placido for only a couple of hours that afternoon. The secret to success was conductor Eugene Kohn who collaborates with Placido Domingo in concerts and recordings and is closely in tune with Placido’s needs. 

When the concert ended it was immediately obvious the crowd wanted more.  Much more.  Placido obliged.  His first encore was “Besame Mucho”.  The audience went wild.  After many more encores he obliged the calls for “Granada”.  It seemed that would be the end but he’d saved the best for last.  Mariachis came on stage and sang a few familiar favorites.  Then, joined by Placido in full mariachi attire, the stage was transformed into a Saturday night in any pueblo in Mexico with mariachis accompanied by the best tenor soloist in the world.  

Since he seemed so genuinely comfortable and pleased to be singing with mariachis I asked him later in the evening if what I had once heard was correct, “Did you start your singing career with mariachis?” 

I was hoping his answer would be yes, but he told me “Not true.”

At the press conference Placido expressed his support for the Morelos government’s plan to create municipal and regional youth orchestras.  The plan is modeled on Venezuela’s highly successful National Network of Youth and Children’s Orchestras created by José Antonio Abreu.  Placido endorsed Abreu’s idea that intensive musical training instills discipline and self-esteem and acts as an antidote to the ills of poverty.

Placido took pride in describing the two sopranos who performed with him, Angel Blue and Micaëla Oeste, as former students in opera training schools he founded in Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles. 

It was obvious on Saturday that Placido inspires young opera singers in Mexico too. At the dinner at the Morelos World Trade Center following the concert I met opera students and siblings Sinuhé and Grecia Alvarado. Too young to drive, their father had brought them from Mexico City. Their faces radiated the joy the event was giving them.

After midnight the father of our young tablemates came to claim his children.  All of us were effusive in our praise of his progeny. Digs collaborator Carol Hopkins said, “I wish I could hear Sinuhé sing.”  The father quickly replied, “Oh I’m sure he’d be happy to do so.”  With little encouragement, undeterred by all the noise around, the young man stood and sang a beautiful aria.  The tables around us watched enviously. 

At the very next table, 14 year-old opera student Paola Pelcastregui stood and offered to sing for us too.  Appropriately she sang “Time to Say Goodbye” in Spanish. These three open-hearted young people with their enthusiasm and joyous gift of music sent me home whistling.

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