The Classic Chicano Novel Reimagined as an Opera

Mezzo-soprano Suzanna Guzman is backed by members of San Mateo’s Masterworks Chorale as she rehearses the role of Ultima in the opera Bless Me, Ultima.  (Photo: Courtesy of Tamara Liu)

Bless Me, Última, a Mexican-American opera by composer/librettist Héctor Armienta, premiered in Albuquerque, but will have its West Coast premiere in San Jose.

The opera, co-produced by Opera Southwest and the National Hispanic Cultural Center, is based on the beloved coming-of-age novel by Rudolfo Anaya, and this is a rare opportunity to see the book come to life on the operatic stage.

"It's a really powerful story and it really captures New Mexican culture," says Armienta. "It brings together the Spanish culture, the Native American culture, the Mexican culture and the spiritual power of that place."

The story is about the relationship between a young boy, Antonio Márez y Luna, and his mentor into the spiritual universe of New Mexico, the Última of the opera’s name. She is a curandera, a traditional Native healer or shaman, and she's able to connect to the power of the natural world, as embodied in the rivers and plains of New Mexico.

Check out this trailer for a 2012 movie based on the book.

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The novel's spiritual message has proven controversial over the years, and a number of school districts have banned the book or been asked to consider doing so, even as it has become canonical in many classrooms across the country.

But Bless Me, Última remains relevant and compelling for new audiences.

Armienta's opera gives new audiences a chance to appreciate the classic tale, and he says some ticket holders for the San Jose performances will be traveling from as far away as Fresno and Sacramento.

The role of Antonio is played by Nicholas McKee, soprano boy wonder from the crazy good Ragazzi Boys Chorus in Redwood City. "A phenomenal young singer and a wonderful actor," Armienta says.

Suzanna Guzman and Nicholas McKee rehearse ahead of Bless Me, Última's open in San Jose later this month.
Suzanna Guzman and Nicholas McKee rehearse ahead of Bless Me, Última's open in San Jose later this month. (Photo: Courtesy of Tamara Liu)

Última is played by mezzo-soprano Suzanna Guzmán."She is Última. She captures this elderly woman who connects to nature in a powerful way. She's just a great actress," Armienta says.

The opera's chorus will be performed by more than a dozen members of San Mateo’s Masterworks Chorale.

Bless Me, Última runs April 20-22 at the Mexican Heritage Theater, in the School of Arts and Culture in San Jose.Details here.

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