Occidental College Professor of Music Bruno Louchouarn was a graduate student in his native Mexico City when the great earthquake of 1985 struck, killing 40,000 in a single day. In the nine days following the magnitude 8.1 temblor, Louchouarn participated in the relief effort, assisting los topos (the moles) in freeing survivors trapped beneath rubble and debris.
His new multi-media chamber opera, Voces en el Polvo (Voices in the Dust), premiered at Pasadena’s Boston Court last Saturday, depicts his reflections and experiences over that brief, tumultuous period.
Years in the Planning
Though contemplating an opera about this complex moment in Mexico’s history since the 1990s, it was only when Louchouarn met Juan Felipe Herrera, Professor of Creative Writing at UC Riverside and the Poet Laureate of California, that the idea crystallized into its ultimate form. Herrera created the 92-page libretto to which Louchouarn’s music was set.
The Poet Speaks
“I hadn’t written anything like this before and I really enjoyed it,” remarked Herrera in a post-concert discussion with Patch. “It was a big step for me, writing a libretto on this emotional topic.”
Herrera’s spontaneous, arresting poetry, written in Spanish, English, and moments of French, alternated between the genre of “spoken word” and traditional operatic libretto, ideally complimenting Louchouarn’s multifaceted musical language. Louchouarn’s music, in turn, evoked the full spectrum of emotions surrounding the opera’s highly charged topic, from the depths of grief to the heights of the miraculous.
'Intimate Feel, Sense of Isolation'
Louchouarn’s musical forces, while amply sufficient, were relatively few in number: Three singers, librettist Herrera narrating from the stage, and Mark Robson—multi-talented Eagle Rock-based musician—performing a rigorous piano accompaniment and conducting (from the keyboard).
“As funding becomes available for a larger-scale production, I would like to add a few more characters and orchestrate the music, but will preserve the current version’s intimate feel,” Louchouarn elaborated from the stage in a post-concert discussion with audience members.
“The sense of isolation—in a time without cell phones, especially—was severe during the days following the earthquake,” said Louchouarn. “We knew that many had died, and our inability to contact each other and check on family and friends hurt us further.”
Focus on the Individual
Louchouarn conveyed that isolation and the struggle of the individual against indomitable circumstances, by focusing on the personal stories of each character, rather than the general devastation of the event.
Louchouarn’s autobiographical tale, developed along with his wife and creative partner, Corey Madden (the production’s director), unfolded amid a series of captivating arias, by turns poignant, haunting, surreal, and joyous. Moving yet unaffected, Louchouarn’s music authentically conveyed deep, universal emotions in each aria.
The Characters Reflect
Soprano Melodee Fernandez (La Doctora) brought pathos and understanding to her aria La puerta era una puerta, where her character’s leg is painfully trapped under an unrelenting mass of wreckage.
Playing the part of El Estudiante, (representing Louchouarn himself) tenor Ashley Faatoalia sang a gentle lullaby for an infant discovered alive a week following the earthquake, still clinging to its deceased mother. Atmospheric yellow lighting and mildly syncopated rhythms in the piano part complimented Faatoalia’s mellifluous, penetrating tenor tone.
A colorful Dama Fortuna character, performed with zest and insight by mezzo-soprano Peabody Southwell, provided an essential foil to the mortal, vulnerable element ubiquitous throughout the opera. Standing apart from the earthquake’s victims, Dama Fortuna, an archetype of fate and fortune, observed the unfolding of the tragedy with distance, poetry, and at times humor.
'Embodiment of Mexico'
“Dama Fortuna is an embodiment of the spirit of Mexico, with its awareness of both life and death in equal measure,” explained director Corey Madden in post-performance remarks.
Southwell’s whimsical, exuberant rendition of El Jarabe Loco, a traditional Veracruzan song adapted by Louchouarn and Herrera, opened the opera’s dénouement cheerfully, contrasting distinctly with the preceding intensity of mood.
Gringos in the audience might have benefited from English translations, especially in the inventive text of such numbers as the Jarabe Loco.
Salvation Despite Devastation
The opera ends on an affirming note, depicting the doctor and student meeting, then parting ways, with a calming ode to the “the cycle of life and death.”
Louchouarn’s music, while wholly original, is influenced “on the DNA level by Stravinsky, Messiaen, Pärt, traditional Latin-American music, and U.S. folk and country music.” Those varied musical roots found common expression in this important, memorable work. A clear portrait of devastation and salvation emerged, clarifying this singular moment in human history.