Ortíz’s ‘Camelia la Tejana,’ and the Folklore of the Mexican Drug War



Tallies of property damage, incidences of violence, and deaths – direct and collateral – always brutal: in these ways are wars often remembered by those who observe them as well as those who feel its brunt. But it’s in the way that the residue of warfare seeps into the consciousness of an affected people or nation that war can often make its greatest impact. And this residue, dark and born from violence, can sometimes fertilize a cultural soil, giving fruit to lasting works of art that can at once serve as a resplendent mirror of their age, while being able to transcend it.

Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica,” Dmitri Shostakovich’s “Symphony No. 7” and Junichiro Tanizaki’s “The Makioka Sisters” are among the many products of artists that bear witness – sometimes stating their views explicitly, often needing to recourse to subterfuge – to their time and place, their humanity and vitality a defiance of the nihilism of war.

The Mexican Drug War, now entering its seventh year and in its wake leaving behind thousands of missing, maimed, and dead, has similarly begun to leave an imprint on the Mexican consciousness. How it will ultimately reshape or even warp that consciousness remains to be seen. But its cry has been heard in Mexico and is beginning to pierce abroad.

Consider one of the late Carlos Fuentes’ final novels, “Destiny and Desire,” its opening monologue spoken by a decapitated head floating on the Pacific Ocean.

“Today the great drama of Mexico is that crime has replaced the state,” intones one of that novel’s characters. “Today the state dismantled by democracy cedes its power to crime supported by democracy.”

A whiff of that passage can be felt in Gabriela Ortíz’s opera “Camelia la Tejana,” which was conceived in collaboration with her multimedia artist brother Ruben Ortíz Torres, and will be performed by the Long Beach Opera on Sunday. Hers is a tale of crime and violence becoming the stuff of folklore, blurring the boundaries of reality and dream. And Camelia la Tejana – the real one, whoever that was, if there was one – from the smokescreen of her life erected a vast legend that has spawned numerous movies, not to mention an eponymous song, its definitive recording sung by Los Tigres del Norte.

If there is a whiff of Kurt Weill’s and Bertolt Brecht’s “The Threepenny Opera,” it’s a connection the composer readily admits to.

“That relationship with Weill and Brecht has much in common with our opera,” said the composer. “At many points during this opera’s composition I thought of Weill. What I’m looking to present here is a kind of norteño cabaret.”


That opera, a genre that for many is synonymous with “high” art and characters more marble than flesh, may seem to some a curious vehicle to bring this sordid drama to life.

“I wanted to create a hybrid between the contemporary and the popular,” she said. “My work in general is very eclectic in that sense. And these characters are, in a sense, so fun. But for characters like these I can’t append to them music that sounds German, that sounds like Schoenberg or Wagner or Puccini. That just won’t work.”

Threaded throughout this hybrid is the Mexican corrido, a kind of ballad that details the exploits of certain heroic or tragic figures.

“Much in the same way the troubadours did in the Middle Ages,” noted the composer. It’s a genre that can trace its roots at least as far as the Mexican Revolution, another internecine onslaught whose echoes can still be heard to this day.

“The corrido functions as a mini-opera,” said Ortíz.

“Camelia la Tejana” has had a long gestation period, stretching to the mid-1990s when the composer and her brother came across an article written by a person purporting to be Camelia in the Mexican shock tabloid ¡Alarma! Reading it over and discussing it further, they came to realize that the story had great musical and dramatic potential. The end product is, according to Ortíz, a kind of docudrama.

“What we attempted here in this opera is to demonstrate how the media influenced and shape this myth,” she said.

Long Beach Opera will perform “Camelia la Tejana” at the Terrace Theatre in Long Beach, on Sunday, March 24 at 2 p.m. and will be repeated Saturday, March 30 at 8 p.m.


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