David Hanlon, music director of HGO's world premiere mariachi opera explains what it took to get the opera down on paper.
The problems of page turns and playing from full score turned out to be more fun to conquer than anything. As for making a mariachi sound at a piano, I discovered that it wasn’t so different from playing opera after all. The job of a pianist in an opera company is one of a translator. The composer writes in one language that of an eighty-person orchestra and the pianist translates that to the language of a single instrument. Along the way, you make decisions about when to translate literally note-for-note and when the spirit of the original is best captured in a pianistic idiom. This was pretty similar. Instead of an orchestra, I was translating the sound of a mariachi band. Most of my principles of arranging orchestra scores worked equally well with Mariachi.
When my opera head drew a blank, I could fall back on my experience of having played a fair amount of Afro-Cuban music. The genre feels to mariachi music as Italian does to Spanish: not the same thing at all, but similar enough to give you a feel for the overlaps in vocabulary. Most helpful of all, Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán made a study CD of all of tunes from the opera. It was invaluable. When I prepare a standard opera, I’ll listen to multiple recordings to get the sound of the orchestra in my ear and get a sense of the choices that conductor might make. Here I had a document of the very band that would be premiering the opera, led by the composer. I had a ball putting on my headphones and jamming with Vargas, trying to emulate their every nuance, whether it was the precise articulations of the violins, the rhythmic freedom of a trumpet solo, or the infectious rhythm from the vihuela.
The first day of our workshop on the opera, the cast and I ran through all of the songs. We got to the middle of one song where a huge glissando interrupts the music and propels it into a high-energy dance rhythm. The cast let loose with a few whoops and gritos. “OK,” I thought “this is working...”