Before the curtain of Sunday’s premiere of Joseph Martin Waters’ opera El Colibrí Mágico, I asked the composer how long he had been working on or living with his opera. “About five, maybe six years,” he answered.
I first encountered his opera in March, 2017, in a concert at San Diego State University’s Smith Auditorium, where Waters presented several semi-staged portions of his opera in progress with singers from the then nascent San Diego City Opera company. Only at that time the opera was titled St. Francis de los Barrios. In April of this year, more sections of the opera appeared in another Smith Auditorium concert, only by this time the opera had become El Colibrí Mágico (The Magic Hummingbird), and the title character Francisco had been changed from a Tijuana-based sex worker to an undocumented Latino teenager who lives in San Diego and sings in a three-person rock group.
Sunday’s premiere, however, turned out to be a fully staged performance of only the first half of Waters’ now completed opera. The mix of faculty and students, professional singers and non-professionals made the short rehearsal schedule from the beginning of the university’s fall semester to mid-October less than ideal for a solid performance. Along the way, Waters and his team decided to focus all of their effort on the opera’s first half for the premiere.
In the first act we follow Francisco, sung by the poised, resonant countertenor Rodolfo Giron as he is pursued by visions from the spirit realm, including the forceful curandera Maria Sabia sung by soprano Karen Garcia. Because these visions detain him as he attempts to meet up with his two Anglo band members Clara and Franklin for a gig the trio has in Tijuana, he misses their performance at a club full of cavorting San Diego area college students. Eventually Francis finds his friends and also encounters his love interest, the fey but wise Elias.
The foursome then stumbles across and enters a curious botanica. After they sample some of its mystical wares, they experience another visitation by spirits of questionable intentions as well as a second curandera, Appolonia. After this mind-expanding encounter, Francisco, Clara, and Franklin attempt to return to San Diego, but Francisco is prevented from crossing back because the border agents find his ID papers are fake. He goes back to find Elias, and the two end up in a refugee camp. Unexplained shots ring out at the camp, and the curtain falls.
Because Waters’ Francisco represents his attempt to retell the life of St. Francis of Assisi in a contemporary context, we trust that something redemptive will happen in the opera’s second half, but on Sunday we were sent out into the cool of the evening after the end of Act One with only our imagination to assuage our expectations.
The strongest points of Waters’ opera are the emotionally compelling arias he writes for Francisco and the imposing curandera Maria Sabia along with his rich, complex instrumental foundation that infuses the stage with magical possibilities. The powerful, resplendent voices of Karen Garcia and Rodolfo Giron gave flight to Waters’ persuasive themes. Among the eight instrumentalists in the supporting ensemble, Waters wrote equally captivating obbligato lines to exploit Todd Rewoldt’s expressive alto saxophone and the piano prowess of Geoffrey Burleson.
Mezzo-soprano Sonya Schummann’s lyrical grace as Apollonia compassionately interpreted Francisco’s earlier visions in a deftly structured aria. Gabriel Igtanloc as Elias projected the slightly wan innocence of a 1950s folksinger, and Cat Rojo as Clara and Jackson Shaffer as Franklin gave sufficient vocal definition to Waters’ simulation of a contemporary rock style.
Waters’ ensembles are the weak link in an otherwise confident score. When the denizens of the refugee camp sang their earnest, slightly martial anthem “Who Will Win? I thought we had accidentally transitioned into a rehearsal of Les Miz.
Lauren Haughton took on the challenging role of stage direction faced with no set: just a bare stage occupied only by rows of chairs and no scenery, save for projections adroitly designed by Scott Boynton. For the most part, Haughton made good choices, although her choreography, especially the exotic ritual dance of Apollonia’s acolytes, exhibited more than a touch of inspiration. I was puzzled, however, how an early scene of college students, played by actual SDSU college students, appeared so awkward and stilted in the Tijuana club where they are supposed to be having such a raucous good time.
Richard Morrison confidently conducted the chamber ensemble placed at the far stage right. He was fortunate to have Joseph Martin Waters’ own SWARMIUS ensemble as half of the group: saxophones Todd Rewoldt and Ian Buss; pianist Geoffrey Burleson, and vibraphone player Daniel Pate. They have played the composer’s compositions for years, and from them his eclectic, ingratiating music flows like a mighty stream. SWARMIUS was augmented by percussionists Jeffrey Mossier and Donovan Newkirk, guitarist George Svoboda, and bassist Harley Magsino.
Joseph Martin Waters was responsible for the music and lyrics of El Colibrí Mágico. The book was a joint effort of Waters, Michael Gillis, and Gustavo Alcoser.
“El Colibrí Mágico” was presented by the New West Evolving Arts and Music Organization on October 13, 2019, in San Diego State University’s Smith Recital Hall.