Anthony Freud has been steeped in the opera art form for decades. So, what does he know about mariachi?
Anthony was born in London, England. Even though he was educated in law at London King’s College and qualified as a barrister, his abiding passion for opera outdistanced his law training. Before immigrating to the United States, Anthony produced recordings of international classical artists, ran the Welsh National Opera, and chaired Opera Europa. In 2006, as he moved to the United States, Queen Elizabeth II honored him with the Order of the British Empire for his service to music. In the United States, Anthony was first the General Director and CEO of Houston Grand Opera, Chair of Opera America, and is currently the General Director, President, and CEO of Lyric Opera of Chicago.
But in 2007, a single mariachi performance blew Anthony away and set him on a path to learn more about this remarkable Mexican music tradition.
During his first year at Houston Grand Opera, Anthony bought a ticket to an upcoming performance by a group of musicians called Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán. “I didn’t know anything about them or the music,” Anthony recalls. When he arrived, he found a packed theater. “The concert was in the same performance space as our Houston Grand Opera, but I didn’t recognize anyone in the audience.”
“It was passionate, intense, emotional, and instantly accessible,” he says with delight. “Mariachi Vargas was a group of thirteen virtuosos with spectacular musicianship. Most of the numbers were sung, so it was totally operatic. And on top of that, the audience greeted them like heroes, engaged in the performance with an enthusiasm that I could only dream of matching in an opera production.”
The current mariachi genre originated in mid-nineteenth-century Mexico, further evolving in the twentieth century to its present-day form. The instrumentation combines the time-honored Mexican folk instruments of the classical guitar, guitarrón (large acoustic bass guitar with six strings), and vihuela (small acoustic guitar with five strings and rounded back), with violins, trumpets, and harp. Additionally, all musicians are expected to sing. The common mariachi apparel reflects the traje de charro suit of a sombrero, waistcoat, and tight-fitting pants. Riding boots complete the attire.
It would be hard to envision an important life occasion in Mexican culture without the presence of mariachi, which frequently perform at weddings, funerals, birthdays, baptisms, and special concerts. Mariachi is passed forward from one generation to the next, and in the United States, often symbolizes Mexican identity.
As Anthony absorbed the performance, his mind raced with questions and ideas. Had there ever been a full-scale mariachi opera? His research revealed that some earlier operas and zarzuelas (theatrical performances alternating between spoken and sung scenes) included affinities of mariachi, but there was no bona fide mariachi opera where the two forms were truly fused. Anthony decided it was time to commission one.
“I envisioned an opera which merged the traditional short-form songs of mariachi with a coherent story and musical structure, but would never stray from being authentic mariachi,” he notes. “The last thing I wanted was some sort of ‘mariachi-light,’ crossover piece. I wanted the real thing, but with its outer limits stretched to become something new. Mariachi and opera would be on equal terms, and the culminating result would break down boundaries that had confined both.”
Anthony contacted José “Pepe” Martinez, then the music director of Mariachi Vargas, who was also a leading mariachi composer. “With the help of an interpreter, I discussed my idea of a new kind of opera. I’m not sure he fully grasped the extent of what I was proposing,” Anthony says, “but at least he didn’t say no!”
Next, Anthony called esteemed theater and opera director Leonard Foglia, a passionate and knowledgeable lover of Mexican life and culture. “I asked Lenny if he would be interested in being both book writer—librettist—and director of my crazy idea. He agreed the idea was crazy and said yes right away!” Anthony’s project swiftly moved from a dream to reality. By 2010—the bicentenary of Mexican independence and the centenary of the Mexican Revolution—Mariachi Vargas gave the world premiere performances of the mariachi opera in Houston.
Anthony wanted the story and characters to resonate universally with Mexicans, those with Latin American heritage, and more general audiences. They would name the opera Cruzar la Cara de la Luna (“To Cross the Face of the Moon”), a story invented by Foglia about a migrant worker from Michoacán in the United States; a family divided by generations, cultures, and geography because of economic challenges; and the metaphor of monarch butterflies migrating to new lands.
“At the heart of a scattered family lies the questions of home,” Anthony says. “Is home where you are born? Is it where you die? Is home where you live and where your loved ones are?”
Those same questions resonated in Anthony’s family. His parents were born in Hungary in 1911 and 1912, and they suffered through increasingly vicious anti-Semitic laws. Rules in the 1930s restricting the number of Jews admitted to Hungarian universities prevented Anthony’s father from attending.
“He never fulfilled his dream of becoming a veterinarian,” Anthony notes. “He first worked in a bank in Budapest, later moved to Paris where he still felt unsafe, then moved to Brussels, where he then obtained a refugee visa to Britain. He spent the first part of the war working in Scotland on a farm that raised silver foxes, the second part of the war in a munitions factory in Glasgow, and later moved to London.
After hiding in Hungary during World War II, Anthony’s grandmother moved to be with her son in London. Uncle Antal, for whom Anthony is named, was murdered by the Nazis in Auschwitz. Anthony’s mother, a schoolteacher first imprisoned in the Jewish ghetto of Györ, was deported to Auschwitz, imprisoned in Birkenau, and taken on the “march of death” into Germany, before being liberated by the American army in Minden. Ultimately, she acquired a refugee visa to London, where she advertised English language lessons in the local Hungarian newspaper.
“My father happened to see her newspaper ad, thought it would be a good idea for his mother to take English lessons, and responded. My grandmother became my mother’s pupil! She never learned English but found a daughter-in-law.” His parents married in 1953. Four years later, Anthony was born. After years of displacement and disruption, they too, explored the same questions of where home is. For them, the answer was completely clear: home was London and their post-war lives together—emphatically not Hungary.
Cruzar la Cara de la Luna was an instant success, embraced by Mexican and other Latin American communities, as well as Houston’s regular opera goers and newcomers, to tell an important story in an authentic way. “I’ve lost track of the number of companies and venues that have produced Cruzar around the world,” Anthony says.
When Grammy-Award winners Mariachi los Camperos later performed Cruzar in 2018, 2019, and 2021, director Jesús “Chuy” Guzmán noted the opera’s special characteristics: “Cruzar is a beautiful story. My father lived those same experiences in the opera when he moved from Mexico to the United States. This is one of the first operas with mariachi. I have always lived in the world of mariachi, and this opera is beautiful to me.”
Anthony has a special keepsake to remember his landmark project. His husband, Colin Ure, commissioned Michoacán artist Lourdes Moreno to create a display of calavera (“skull”) mariachi sculptures. “It was February 15, 2011,” Anthony recalls. “Colin called me at work and said he had a surprise for me, and please would I get home punctually that day.” Returning home, Anthony was greeted by a small gathering of friends and the recording of Cruzar la Cara de la Luna playing in the background. Together, they toasted the magnificent art commission of thirteen mariachi musicians wearing Mariachi Vargas livery, all mounted on a base replete with painted images of the monarch butterflies of Michoacán.
“It was an emotional moment in my long and richly rewarding journey with Cruzar and mariachi,” Anthony says.
Cruzar la Cara de la Luna transcended the traditional operatic boundaries with European roots to demonstrate just how universal the genre can be. “My idea for a mariachi opera was born on a wave of emotion when I experienced mariachi in 2007 for the first time,” Anthony reflects. “More powerful has been the many occasions where people of diverse backgrounds, ethnicities, ages, and life experiences have said to me, ‘You are telling my story’”—a story of many divided families who have had to redefine where home is.
Jane Chu describes the contributions of immigrants to the United States through her stories and illustrations. A visual artist living in New York, she served as the eleventh chairperson of the National Endowment for the Arts. She expresses appreciation to Dr. Daniel Sheehy, Smithsonian Folkways curator emeritus, for contributing to this story.