The Met and a Texas Middle School Teamed Up to Create a Mariachi Adaptation of ‘La Traviata’

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With hours upon hours of rehearsals completed and a strong mixture of excitement and nervousness, students at L.V. Stockard Middle School in Dallas are ready to take the stage today for a one-of-a-kind Spanish mariachi opera commissioned for them by The New York Metropolitan Opera.

“For the audience, it’s going to be unique. No one has ever done this before. It’s basically a mariachi and opera mix. It’s amazing how everything is going together,” says Daniel Arreola, a 13-year-old performer.

He is one of a group of students nicknamed, “The Mariachi Pantera De Oro,” that will perform an original opera live on the Dallas stage, with representatives from The Met present, as well as local educational and community leaders. The performers will combine famous mariachi songs with a new adaptation of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera, La Traviata.

The performance is a culmination of more than a decade-long partnership between The Met and the Dallas school district through The Met’s HD Live in Schools initiative. The educational program streams live operas from The Met stage to classrooms in 48 cities across the country. The initiative equips music educators with a comprehensive curriculum and aims to bring “opera to all” and “get kids excited about the arts.”

The group’s instructor, Beth Poquette Drews, who teaches mariachi, guitar, and orchestra, attended the Metropolitan Opera Live in HD Educators conference earlier this year, and it’s there that a dialogue opened about how to make opera more accessible to students. Drews suggested a mariachi opera and The Met’s education department then suggested arranging the “Brindisi” from Verdi’s La Traviata.

Photo by Vincent Peters. Courtesy of The Met
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La Traviata is part of the current season at The Met. The project gives the students an opportunity to incorporate traditional Mexican folk art and music with traditions of opera.

“We commissioned it. We translated the lyrics in Spanish. And then she went back and she’s teaching her kids the song and they created kind of a whole mariachi opera around the theme of La Traviata,” says Marsha Drummond, The Met’s Director of Education.

The students will perform live on their school’s stage at 6:30 p.m. Before the conversation with Drews, Drummond said she had never thought of this concept before.

“While studying the opera, the students began to connect the characters of the opera to songs that they had learned in mariachi (class). To connect the songs together in a story, the students wrote their own transitional music combining mariachi and operatic styles,” Drews says.

“We are doing a big project that no has ever done before.”

“No one else ever did this mixture of mariachi and opera together before,” says Emilio Ramirez, a 13-year-old violinist. “I’m proud because I’ve seen a normal mariachi perform, but we are doing a big project that no has ever done before. I feel happy and nervous and excited at the same time.”

The Region 10 Secondary Teacher of the Year has taught mariachi for 10 years, including five of those years at L.V. Stockard Middle School, where more than 90 percent of students are Latino. The program Drews created at a different middle school was at the request of her students and she eventually brought it with her to L.V. Stockard.

She learned mariachi by attending conferences, listening and asking local experts questions. She also presented a workshop at the National Modern Band Summit in Fort Collin, Colorado, on starting a mariachi music program.

“Seeing the students take ownership of the project, writing their own music, and making suggestions about staging has been exciting,” Drews says. “It has also been enjoyable to include the school’s dance and visual arts departments.”

The Met’s Drummond plans to coordinate a FaceTime chat among the students and world-famous soprano Ailyn Pérez to afford them a role model and a cheerleader of sorts. Pérez tried but ultimately won’t make it to Friday’s show.

“Wherever I can, I try to bring singers of color into the schools, because I know firsthand the power of representation,” Drummond says.

The Met’s educational arm is creating a behind-the-scenes short video of the making of the production that will incorporate interviews with Drews and the students.

“For the last four or five years we’ve been taking some of the curriculum we create and translating it into Spanish. We have many materials up on website, available for download in Spanish. I hope their use becomes more frequent and we service the Spanish-speaking community more,” Drummond says, adding she’d eventually like to bring those resources to South America and Mexico.

Drews says the students have other mariachi projects coming up, including the Stockard Mariachi Fiesta on February 28, 2019. It’s the performers’ annual fundraiser to purchase trajes and other program expenses. Fiesta is open to the public and other student mariachi groups who may want to perform or sell food and drinks.

Editor’s Note, Nov. 30, 2018: An earlier version of this piece incorrectly spelled Beth Poquette Drews’ last name as Drew. It has been corrected.