Cecilia Violetta Lopez remembers the distant afternoons when her mother taught her to sing mariachi music.
At that time, the rural town of Rupert, Idaho, offered migrants from Mexico the opportunity to make a living in the beet fields. Every summer, as her family weeded and hoed, they would pass the time singing the melodies her mother remembered from her childhood in another land: songs about love, destiny and heartbroken doves.
“All the songs she taught me were like magic,” Lopez remembers.
This Saturday, Lopez will debut as Rosalba in the Florida Grand Opera production of "Florencia en el Amazonas." In this opera by Mexican composer Daniel Catan, and inspired by the magical realism in the fiction of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, she will live out a magical reality of her own.
Just as her character Rosalba makes an arduous journey down the Amazon River, Lopez has traveled far from the beet fields of Idaho. When her mother discovered her daughter’s aptitude for music, Lopez says she stretched the family’s meager earnings to buy the 9-year-old a small electric keyboard and pay a teacher $4 a week for piano lessons.
“That was all my music training during my adolescent years,” Lopez laughs, “taking piano lessons with that little old lady in Rupert, Idaho.”
By the time she turned 14, her mother would push her toward the edge of the stage at Idaho rodeos, insisting that the visiting Mexican bands allow her daughter to join them for a song. Lopez would sing a few bars, so they could catch her key, then sing full voice into the microphone, feeling what she described in Spanish as a “bag of rocks in her belly.”
By the time she was in her early 20s, though, she was a new mother and homemaker living in Las Vegas. She thought she had left music behind. But her then-husband suggested she pursue her passion, and study music.
At University of Nevada-Las Vegas, she enrolled in classical singing lessons. She attended her first opera in her junior year, a student production of the Puccini classic, “La Boheme.” Immersed in the story, Lopez felt much as she did when watching telenovelas on Spanish-language television. She was shocked by the tragic ending.
“Se murió Mimi,” she said to her husband in disbelief. “Mimi died!”
Not long after graduating, she won a place in the young artist program at Opera San Jose, giving her the opportunity to perform nine major roles, including the tour de force Violetta in Verdi’s “La Traviata.” As she delved deeper in the opera repertoire, her family grew immersed in the stories too. She jokes that her parents always ask her, “Do you die this time?”
The role of Rosalba allows Lopez to show off her vocal power and acting chops. As stage director Jose Maria Condemi points out, “The magic realism and the video projections we use in “Florencia” are modern, but the music reminds me of Puccini. It’s very melodic. There are a lot of opportunities for the singers to shine.”
Condemi sees the magic realism in the exotic setting, represented in video projections of the vast Amazon jungle. The libretto, written by Marcela Fuentes-Berain, a former student of Garcia Marquez’s, also features many of the Colombian Nobel laureate’s most famous motifs: butterflies, cholera, a hero named Aurelio.
But Condemi says he does not direct the singers any differently than he would if they were performing “Tosca,” another Puccini classic that the Argentine recently directed for Florida Grand Opera. “The characters in the story don’t know they are going on a magical realism journey,” Condemi explains. “They are just going on a journey.”
However, even he has to admit that when Lopez performs the scene where the character Rosalba discovers that a fellow traveler on the boat down the Amazon is none other than her idol, the fictional opera diva, Florencia, well, then, “The fiction and reality match.”
The FGO production features the celebrated Puerto Rican soprano Ana Maria Martinez in her debut as Florencia. Condemi describes Martinez as “one of the most exciting performers in opera today,” noting that “she brings a humanity to the character that is just incredible, and her voice is beyond belief.”
Performing with Martinez moved Lopez to tears. “Never in my life did I imagine that I would share the stage with someone like her,” Lopez says. The first time she tried, in rehearsal, she choked up and could not sing. “Here I am, a little Mexican girl who used to hoe beets in Idaho,” she says. “Rosalba soy yo. I am Rosalba.”
That reinforces Lopez’s larger point. “I’d like to raise awareness for the people that don’t know,” she explains: “Opera is for everyone.”
If you go
- What: ‘Florencia en el Amazonas’ by Florida Grand Opera
- When: Opening 7 p.m. Saturday through May 5 at various times
- Where: Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, Ziff Ballet House, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami
- Info: Cost: $21-$225, www.fgo.org.