Revolutionary Arts

Opera goes underground


Tijuana, the Mexican border town south of San Diego, isn't exactly known as an incubator for culture, other than the kind of culture gringos explore after downing mucho tequila. Yet in the last year Tijuana has made headlines in U.S. papers not as a place to get drunk cheap and buy (and use) Viagra but as the home of a fledgling underground opera scene.

Organized opera in Tijuana began literally underground, in the basement of enthusiast Enrique Fuentes' Internet café, Café de la Opera. It has grown into La Opera de Tijuana, a company formed by café regulars Jose Medina and Maria Teresa Rique. Under Medina's artistic direction, the company will this year stage 10 chamber performances and its third full-length production, I Pagliacci, this August, reports the Los Angeles Times.

Such a high-culture watermark was once limited to Mexico City, where residents are extremely proud of their government-funded cultural institutions and have long considered Tijuana a vulgar backwater. But change has come gradually to the border town, in part thanks to an industrial boom and an influx of wealthy newcomers after the 1985 earthquakes in the capital.

But Tijuana opera remains different from that of Mexico City. For one thing, its underground origins have taken the traditional art out of its elite context and introduced it to less wealthy Mexicans. As significant, it has shunned government funding. So far the only public assistance the Tijuana Opera has accepted is free use of the city's performing arts center.

Such independence is almost revolutionary for Mexico, where artistic exploits, even rock bands, are routinely government- funded. Many involved in the Tijuana opera scene have attributed its dynamic growth to its independence.

Manuel Laborin, the city's first opera radio DJ, is one of those people.

"It's like a child. If you give him everything, you turn him into a bum," Laborin told the Los Angeles Times. "If you give him the basics, he learns to do it for himself. That's what happened to us. The people of Tijuana, more than anyone else, have created this." Many credit Laborin's radio show, which first aired in 1993, with developing the multi-class audiences that today mean packed houses for Opera de Tijuana productions.

Internet-opera café owner Fuentes echoes Laborin's sensibility. "Often, people depend on government institutions," he told reporter Sam Quinones. "I didn't want any of that. That's why I began in a small room in my house and said, 'Let's see where this goes.'"