BWW Interviews: Vanessa Cerda-Alonzo Talks HGO's CRUZAR LA CARA DE LA LUNA
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by David Clarke
I recently got the chance to speak with Vanessa Cerda-Alonzo, who has been performing all over the world as Lupita in the world's first Mariachi Opera, CRUZAR LA CARA DE LA LUNA. We talked about her career, her training through Multicultural Education and Counseling through the Arts (M.E.C.A), and CRUZAR LA CARA DE LA LUNA. Also, she freely told me, "It's very moving, CRUZA LA CARA DE LA LUNA." Vanessa Cerda-Alonzo also quoted Cecilia Duarte, who sings Renata, exclaiming, "Bring your tissues because you're going to cry!"
Me: Mariachi is a time-honored tradition. How did you come to be involved in this art form?
Vanessa Cerda-Alonzo: Mariachi was an in school program that was provided by M.E.C.A., Multicultural Education and Counseling through the Arts. I started out in middle school. Actually, the program started at my elementary school, which was Crockett Elementary School, which is now like a music vanguard program here in HISD (Houston Independent School District). It started out at Crocket, and then it was a program that fed into middle school and then high school. So, I went to Crockett, Hogg [Middle School], and Reagan High School.
I started in middle school, though. I wan unable to start in elementary because I started out in violin. I took violin, and then I was like, "No, this isn't going to work for me," [Laughs] as a kid, right? So, then I went on to middle school, and I started the program there. There's just something about it [Mariachi]. My grandmother used to sing with Mariachis at parties, and I was like, "Man, I want to do that. I want to be able to do that-get up and just sing!" And so, I started learning. I was like, "Oh, my grandmother would be proud of me if I learn how to sing." And, it was nice.
Me: You began you training with the late Alfonso Guerra at Multicultural Education and Counseling through the Arts (M.E.C.A.). What was that experience like for you?
Vanessa Cerda-Alonzo: Well, it was beautiful because my grandfather lived in Mexico and my other grandfather passed away when I was young, so he was like my second grandfather. He was awesome. He taught me the very traditional ways. You know, the poses that the old Mexicana singers, the ranchera singers, would use. And to be proud of my music, which was Mariachi music, and everything that it involved, through the dresses, the signing, and all that beautiful postures he would teach me. It was beautiful.
Me: Tell me a little bit more about M.E.C.A. For example, what all does the organization do?
Vanessa Cerda-Alonzo: M.E.C.A. is the largest non-profit arts organization here in Houston, as far as for Ballet Folklorico, for Mariachi, for classical ballet, classical piano, violin-any art form that is not in the reach of inner-city youth. And what they do, they offer classes on a sliding scale. Sometimes, it's like $65 an hour. Well, at M.E.C.A it's on a sliding scale and it's per month, you know. So, the kids get a good education from great teachers. You know, they get good training, as I did when I was young. [Laughs] Although, I didn't get paid for it because I always performed for my classes. Performance was my pay.
Me: Performing has allowed you to travel the world. What are the best and worst aspects of these adventures in your life?
Vanessa Cerda-Alonzo: The best has been everything-learning different cultures and being able to have the confidence to stay with different people, like host families in Norway, and being able to stay in a hostel in Ireland. You know, it doesn't let me be afraid, so I can stay anywhere and be fine with it. I'm not scared to stay anywhere and I have a lot of-what would you say?-confidence. Anywhere I go, I'm like, "Lets do it." It just gives me that go for it attitude.
The worst? Well, one of the worst-I'm a heavyset woman-was not being prepared for the Vietnamese people telling me about my weight. [Laughs] They would look at me and point at me. And I was like, "Why are they pointing at me?" Well, I'm big, you know. They're not used to seeing big people. [Laughs] but by the time I finished singing to them, they were bringing me flowers. It was just a beautiful experience even though it wasn't something I was prepared for. Maybe that was the worst one. But it was fine afterwards. You know, once they got to know me because I'm down with them.
Me: What was it like getting to perform at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah?
Vanessa Cerda-Alonzo: It was cold. [Laughs] The Winter Olympics were awesome though. At the Winter Olympics, when we got to Salt Lake City, we didn't have hotel rooms. I guess somewhere along the way somebody dropped the ball, and there was 26 Mariachi members and family members that didn't have a room. So, we were going to stay with host families. But there was this one man, he was very generous, and his name was Mr. Perez, and he took us in. He took all of us in to his house. Luckily, he had a big house with three stories. It was a huge house. And we all stayed-couches, floors, beds, and everything. It was beautiful. A beautiful experience.
Me: How did you get involved with CRUZAR LA CARA DE LA LUNA?
Vanessa Cerda-Alonzo: Actually, Alice Valdez, from M.E.C.A, suggested to Houston Grand Opera to, you know, give me an audition. And they did. Through M.E.C.A, really, that's how I became involved. I've been singing Mariachi music since I was a kid, they head me sing, and voila!
The role of Lupita started off with a few pages and a duet with Cecilia [Duarte]. I got back to rehearsal, and I start singing with Ceci [Cecilia Duarte], and the next day in rehearsal, I end up with more signing parts. And, so there I go with the role of Lupita.
Me: In your opinion, what makes the CURZAR LA CARA DE LA LUNA such an appealing opera?
Vanessa Cerda-Alonzo: It's appealing because it appeals to a huge topic that's very popular today, which is immigration. You know, a lot of people come to the US to work, to send money back home, and that's exactly what's still happening today. It's been happening for years. And Laurentino [sung by Octavio Moreno] coming to the US to work, leaving his family behind, that's what's going on right now, you know. And a lot of people, not that they forget about their family, they end up not going back as often because it's harder and harder to get back to the US, and that's what happens. They end up making a home over herein the US, and sometimes they might even lead a double life. So, that's what's appealing about it, I believe. You know, like for example, my mom's dad ended up having a family in Mexico because my grandmother came with them over here to the US. It's a story that happens a lot. I'm not going to say in every family, but it happens a lot.
Me: Mariachi and Opera seem like such differing art forms. Where do you feel they intersect?
Vanessa Cerda-Alonzo: Mariachi and Opera, well, they both tell stories of love, loss, and we have to tell a story with our voices, you know. A lot of the Mariachi songs take a lot of vibrato, a lot of heartache, a lot of beauty, and love of the land. That's what Opera talks about as well, you know. Love and loss. It's just the beauty of the voice.
Me: What was it like premiering CRUZAR LA CARA DE LA LUNA in Houston in 2010?
Vanessa Cerda-Alonzo: It was nerve-racking for me because I had to pray a lot [Laughs] that I wouldn't mess up. I mean, this is my first huge production with a big company like Houston Grand Opera, and I was like, "Ok. Houston Grand Opera, that's cool, you know, but singing with Mariachi Vargas [de Tecalitlán], you know, for me, as a Mariachi singer, I was [Makes a Nervous Squeal]. I better get it right! I better not mess up! Oh my God!" I was praying and crying. I was sick to my stomach, as I am now. I'm getting ready to go to San Diego. Once I hit the stage, it's like, "I have to get it done. That's it. Let's do this. [Laughs] You better do your best woman!" So, I kind of beat myself up in the process. It was really making me nervous, but it was also very exciting. I love the word beautiful, and please excuse me, but it was beautiful! [Laughs] I had this pain in the back of my head, at the end, or even before then, I had this big pain in the back of my head. It was not hurtful, but I guess it was joy that I was feeling? Extreme joy.
Me: What about reprising your role and opening the 2011-12 season at Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris?
Vanessa Cerda-Alonzo: That was just amazing. I was excited and happy, even though I was scared. But I was ready to take it. I was like, "Ok, you got this Lupita. You got this." It was actually very, very life changing for me because in all my years of singing Mariachi music, I traveled with M.E.C.A. And now, I'm traveling with another non-profit, which is HGO (Houston Grand Opera), and I was just in awe. I mean words weren't enough to describe my feelings. And again, I felt that pain. But, I'm telling you, full of joy. [Laughs] I didn't know joy could be so painful!
Me: As Houston Grand Opera is preparing to produce CRUZAR LA CARA DE LA LUNA again, what are you most looking forward to about this particular run?
Vanessa Cerda-Alonzo: I guess, CRUZAR [LA CARA DE LA LUNA] is just such a beautiful story, and bringing life to Lupita again is just beautiful. I think that bringing it to the Wortham is the most beautiful part, and being able to show it off fully staged, costumed, and everything to a bigger, bigger audience, that's beautiful, and I'm excited about it.
Me: As an artist, what inspires you?
Vanessa Cerda-Alonzo: Life. Everything in life. Things that happen. Politics. My family inspires me. Just a lot of things inspire me. When I sing Mariachi music, I take in to account and think, "Ok, how am I going to say this person's story?" I put myself in other people's shoes in order to inspire myself, you know.
Me: What advice do you offer to all the young people who aspire to perform professionally?
Vanessa Cerda-Alonzo: I would say, and even though it sounds very cliché, "Follow your dreams." [Laughs] Follow your dreams because they will come true if you keep at it, as mine did. A lot of doors closed on me, but the next door was always open. I'm very, very happy that I wasn't chosen for some things that I was really, really setting my mind on because a huge door opened for me with Houston Grand Opera, and I'm very thankful for it. And I am following my dreams.
CRUZAR LA CARA DE LA LUNA will play two performances in San Diego, California on March 16, 2013. Then the opera will run from March 21 - 24, 2013 at the Brown Theater at The Wortham Center in Houston, Texas. For more information and tickets to the San Diego performances visit http://www.sdopera.com/Home or call (619) 533 -7000. For more information and tickets to the Houston performances visit http://www.houstongrandopera.org or call (713) 228 - 6737.
Photos courtesy of Houston Grand Opera.