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UMD debuts an opera on the legacy of Mexican President Santa Anna

Written by: Sophia da Silva 🇧🇷

Image via The Clarice (artwork for Orgullo)

Antonio de Padua María Severino López de Santa Anna was a one-legged, exiled Mexican president. The University of Maryland’s opera graduate students debuted Orgullo which tackled the contentious historical figure Feb. 9 at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center.

The piece by composer Christian De Gré Cárdenas and co-librettist Joseph Reese Anderson recounts the legacy of President Antonio López de Santa Anna as their exploration of pride within a series inspired by the seven deadly sins.

“The nature of the story that we wanted to tell just matched up perfectly with the tools and artists that we had to tell them,” said Anderson

The opera follows a circus troupe as they find Santa Anna’s amputated leg and debate about his difficult legacy. They recount his life from the failed dream of “La Luna Verde,” Santa Anna’s vision for Mexico, and his tragic loss in the Mexican-American war.

Playing on the border of myth and reality, comedy and drama, De Gré Cárdenas explores an extremely tense moment in Mexican history.

“We don’t talk about this war. It brings about a great deal of shame…we lost half of the country,” he said.

De Gré Cárdenas said he’s been dreaming of the Mexican-American war for the better of 20 years. He talked about a mural in Chapultepec Castle that served as a great inspiration to him. The mural “La Intervención Norteamericana” depicts the fall of Juan Escutia refusing to give up the Mexican flag to the Americans during the war. 

De Gré Cárdenas found it very difficult to research this war; in Mexico, there are very limited records, and in the U.S., historical records tell a story of heroism. He found it was actually the French that had the most factual records of the war.

In writing the story De Gré Cárdenas said he and Anderson decided they wanted to play with both the facts and fables associated with the history.

The production was done in collaboration with the Maryland Opera Studio (MOS) which is the University of Maryland’s opera master’s degree program. Every year MOS commissions a piece to be made for the current first-year class to debut in the New Work Reading. This is a very stripped down performance of a brand new opera, with the only set dressing being “music stand choreography,” according to stage director Corinne Hayes.

For this opera, De Gré Cárdenas and Anderson visited the campus in September to meet the cast and compose the opera for them. The cast got their scores in December and began formally practicing together at the beginning of the spring semester, about three weeks before the performance. 

Having an opera so custom-tailored to a cast is very uncommon in the opera world. Along with the parts being written to fit the cast’s vocal ranges, their personalities were also written into the characters. 

Nuria Shin, who played Ximena, a Korean-Mexican immigrant, said she was moved to see a character description that reflected who she was.

“I thought that was such an incredible moment to see that it is possible for an artist like me to feel represented in an opera,” said Shin.

Kat Norman, who played Santa Anna’s wife, Maria Inés de la Paz Garcia, was sick the day De Gré Cárdenas and Anderson came to campus but still found a personal connection in the setting of the opera in Veracruz. Norman’s family has roots in the Mexican state.

“It was really cool to hear a little bit about the state my family comes from and just hear it in this new context,” said Norman.

De Gré Cárdenas and Anderson said the experience of centering the cast in creating Orgullo was inspiring and rewarding. “Writing to the humans” as De Gré Cárdenas said, taking into account who they were and where they came from allowed them to approach the characters in a new way. 

Nicole Plummer, who played Le Limbe, Santa Anna’s leg, called the experience one of the coolest and most fulfilling of her young career. 

“It was a great feeling of agency to the entire process,” she said. 

Plummer also said that the great sense of community and collaboration in this production gave her freedom to have fun with her performance.

Along with being part of a cycle of operas inspired by the seven deadly sins—of which lust, gluttony and sloth have also been performed—Orgullo will be part of an eight-part series exploring the Mexican-American war, according to Anderson.

“We got really invested in the whole idea of who gets to tell what story and how does that story get told,” said De Gré Cárdenas.


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