The May Day rampage of the Los Angeles Police Department over peaceful protesters and journalists at an immigrants' rights march lends an undeniable immediacy to America Tropical, a new and at times poignant chamber opera by composer David Conte and librettist Oliver Mayer that addresses the legacy of racial and class exploitation built into the very fabric of the City of Angels.
The compact 60-minute work, which premiered April 27 at the Thick House under the auspices of San Francisco's Thick Description, takes its cue from América Tropical, a 1932 Olvera Street mural painted by the great Mexican social realist artist David Alfaro Siqueiros (sung with appropriately formidable presence by a swaggering, tempestuous Mark Hernandez). Meant as a mirror held up to the past and future of Los Angeles, Siqueiros's wall pointed back to the city's 18th-century Mexican founders in a group of pobladores (played here by six capable singers led by an impressive Antoine Garth) and ahead to the grim strife of an ethnically and racially stratified class system.
That strife culminates in America Tropical as the conflagration of the 1992 riots sparked by the police beating of Rodney King (played by Garth), famously witnessed and transmitted to the world by private citizen George Holliday (Chad Runyon), whose videotape thus becomes something of the equivalent of Siqueiros's politically charged mural.
In an apt, indeed concrete metaphor for an increasingly divided and dividing age, walls as sites of division, reclamation, toil, and creative resistance pervade the poetic libretto provided by playwright Mayer (Blade to the Heat, Joe Louis Blues), which effectively brings Sisqueiros's social realist language into 3-D relief. "Tell me what a wall can do," Siqueiros sings. "I'll show you what a wall can be."
Meanwhile, Conte (whose beautiful, ghostly desert opera Firebird Motel was commissioned and produced by Thick Description) has fashioned a score featuring serrated melody lines and lush choral harmonies to augment the work's three centuries, succinctly blended in Mayer's libretto. The music moves determinedly forward through alternately agitated, wistful, angelic, and angry passages provided by an excellent sextet of piano, strings, and woodwinds conducted by John Kendall Bailey.
At the same time, Siqueiros's emotionally powerful and provocative visual allegory can translate awkwardly to the stage. Those walking in cold without any knowledge of the opera's deeply rooted relationship to Siqueiros's mural may find some of the mise-en-scène (such as the crucifixion) a trifle hokey, despite graceful staging by director Tony Kelly, not to mention the excellent singing, generally decent performances, and arresting music. Some preparation for the audience a description of the mural on a lobby poster or somewhere in the program might have been in order.
Siqueiros's Olvera Street mural was one of the earliest examples of the Mexican urban art movement that publicly portrays the local narratives of ethnic and indigenous people. But in 1932 the police arm of the ruling class had a brush of its own, and soon after the mural's unveiling the LAPD whitewashed it into what turned out to be temporary oblivion. (It was partially uncovered and rediscovered in the 1960s and has recently been undergoing restoration.)
It's more than merely ironic that the mural's images of workers and an indigenous American woman, named the India (sung by Sepideh Moafi), crucified on a double cross of American imperialism, were staging a second return in Conte and Mayer's America Tropical even as LAPD clubs and rubber bullets rained down on workers and families at MacArthur Park.