Shakespeare used it. Richard Strauss wrote for it. One of Michael Frayn's hilarious plays is all about it.
What A Midsummer Night's Dream, Ariadne auf Naxos and Noises Off have in common is that they effectively exploit the same storytelling device: A story within a story.
Audiences feel titillated at witnessing the diegesis unravel. They feel as if they are insiders in the action. They feel like a character in the drama, like someone in-the-know who's aware of what's truly happening.
It's not by coincidence that Houston Grand Opera's newest Song of Houston chamber opera, Past the Checkpoints — set to premiere Friday and Saturday at Talento Bilingüe de Houston — has a similar aesthetic, particularly for anyone who was in attendance at the staged premiere of Cruzar la Cara del la Luna (To Cross the Face of the Moon) in December 2010 at Talento Bilingüe de Houston, when the University of Texas Pan American's Mariachi Aztlan stood in for Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán, the ensemble which performed a concert version of Cruzar at Wortham Theater Center a month prior.
That premiere was a turning point for HGO, whose HGOco, the company's community engagement arm, was preparing to embark on a multi-year initiative to commission, produce and offer the local community at large fresh chamber operas whose stories are deeply imprinted in Houston's point of pride: The immigrant experience, cultural diversity and warm hospitality.
In contrast to most traditional productions where the instrumentalists are somewhat in the dark and hidden from view, Mariachi Aztlan in Cruzar took a prominent spot alongside a powerhouse cast, among them mezzo sopranos Cecilia Duarte, Brittany Wheeler and Vanessa Cerda Alonzo, tenor David Guzman and baritone Octavio Moreno.
Standing confidently among his colleagues in full mariachi regalia was trumpeter David Moreno, at the time a 20-year-old junior at the University of Texas-Pan American in Edinburg. His powerful tone, ebullient vibrato and dazzling technical prowess conveyed the chasm between joy and sorrow that's often embedded in the genre. Moreno, as a musician and as an optimistic person, was noticed.
Traveling beyond checkpoints
"The triumph of the opera is represented in David's will to go after his dreams despite considerable pressures."
It was his involvement that mused this sequel of sorts, titled Past the Checkpoints, commissioned by HGO's O.N., Opening Nights for Young Professionals. Except this chamber opera doesn't continue the tale of Cruzar. It picks up Moreno's life journey as a Mexican immigrant who arrived in Texas on a vacation visa when he was 5 years old — and never returned to his native country.
Composer David Hanlon, who was the music director for Cruzar, and writer Joann Farías created the protagonist of Past the Checkpoints, Gabriel, in Moreno's light. The fictional character is a trumpet player, a student at Rio Grande City high school, who guards his undocumented status in secrecy. He grows increasingly tense as the confines of his situation hinder the pursuit of his passion. The opera concludes with a catharsis roused by the realization that there's a path to his dreams.
"As a music director, you always look for leaders who can help the rehearsal process along," Hanlon says about meeting Moreno for the first time. "David instantly stood out as that guy. It was obvious his peers respected him and looked up to him as a leader. I was already invested in him as a person before we considered writing an opera about his life."
Moreno, now 22, is a college senior finishing his degree in music education at the University of Texas-Pan American. He has legal resident status through the DREAM Act (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors); he had the honor of performing at the White House for President Barack Obama.
It's on purpose that the plot line of Past the Checkpoints is somewhat inconclusive. What crowns the opera is the acknowledgement that the character has changed, that he has arrived at an epiphany that will shape his future outlook.
"The triumph of the opera is represented in David's will to go after his dreams despite considerable pressures," Hanlon continues. "If there's an ounce of cynicism in David's outlook, I have get to see it."
The message of Past the Checkpoints, Hanlon explains, is that there's always a way to navigate the hardships of life, although the answer is sometimes hard to see. It takes imagination, creativity and perseverance to find that path, however curvy it may be.
"Anyone can sympathize with David's story. We all have secrets that consume us. If we tell someone, what would they say? Would we get rejected? Would we get found out?"
Art imitating life?
It's often said that art imitates life. Though in this case, life engulfs art on account of a serendipitous commingling of relationships.
Moreno is part of the trio of instrumentalists who will perform Past the Checkpoints. The score calls for keyboard and electric guitar.
To make matters more intertwined, director Loren Meeker chose to place Moreno on a podium slightly separated from the other musicians. Moreno and his trumpet are living, breathing leitmotifs. When Moreno steps down from his platform and becomes a part of the action next to the fictional leading role, the adage "art imitates life" ascends to a metaphysical dimension.
What ensues is a strong connection between the biographical thread set to music and the Moreno's factual experience of being a prisoner of his predicament, of being an undocumented resident of his own home, of not being able to travel past immigration checkpoints in fear of deportation when his intention was to improve himself through education. Concert goers who tune into this significant alignment — something that may not happen in future productions — will surely sense a looming truth that thrusts outwardly and shatters the proverbial fourth wall.
Gabriel Gargari, 32, a first generation Mexican-American tenor, plays Gabriel. The New York-native, Washington State-resident learned about the role from an online source, flew to Houston to audition and felt an instant connection with Moreno's tale. While in Houston rehearsing for the premiere, Gargari has been housed with Moreno and the two have developed a close friendship bond.
"Anyone can sympathize with David's story," Gargari says. "We all have secrets that consume us. If we tell someone, what would they say? Would we get rejected? Would we get found out? I draw on this from my own life to layer it onto my role."
While hanging out, watching movies and sharing meals Moreno and Gargari have discovered they have much in common. They both love to dance. In fact, Moreno was named best dancer of his mariachi band. They are both inquisitive, ambitious and strive to see the world through a different lens. They surround themselves with intelligent friends who challenge their own convictions about life and music.
"What opera can do is tell stories, it can share stories that bind us together in kinship."
"It brings back a lot of memories, these things really happened," Moreno says. "There were days when I would get frustrated at my parents, at my situation. I didn't understand why. When you are a teenager you don't think about why things had to be this way."
Moreno says that seeing his story through Gargari music is not painful. It's emotional. He feels a sense of accomplishment.
"It was hard for my parents, too," he continues. "I can't imagine having to watch your children being limited by a situation they didn't choose for themselves."
Politics and opera
Moreno hopes that Past the Checkpoints shows that the current immigration policy is in dire need of reform. His wish is for others like him to be able to achieve their full potential.
"Even if one person, one student or one adult is inspired by my story, that's already a win," Moreno says. "But politically, my story should say that not every Mexican is here to take jobs away.
"Students want to get an education to become lawyers, doctors, musicians, more than to work for minimum wage at a restaurant. I am one of them."
Yet Hanlon says that opera isn't the most effective tool to advocate for laws. It's not the function of the genre.
"What opera can do is tell stories, it can share stories that bind us together in kinship," he explains. "Past the Checkpoints won't change anyone's mind, but I hope that everyone who comes to the performance, regardless of their background or political beliefs, that they see a part of themselves in David.
"We've all experienced working very hard for something that seems unattainable at the end. We've all fallen apart. We've felt this thing that weighed on us heavily — and we couldn't tell anyone."
Houston Grand Opera presents Past the Checkpoints on Friday, 6 p.m., and on Saturday at 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. at Talento Bilingüe de Houston. Admission is free. Young Neighbors, Neighborhood Center's young professional group, will hold its next gathering on Friday at 5 p.m. prior to the world premiere.