Artists Speak Out About Latinx Identity in Classical Music

Artists Speak Out About Latinx Identity in Classical Music

September 15 marks the start of National Hispanic Heritage Month in the United States, a date that coincides with the independence days of five Latin American countries: Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. Mexico celebrates its independence a day later, followed by Chile on the 18th.

These countries — and Latin America as a whole — have given rise to no shortage of classical musicians, from conductors to composers, orchestra members to stage performers. And yet, there remains a divide. If Latin music is an overarching category, one that can include jazz, rap folk, pop, and rock, why isn’t classical music commonly understood as part of a Latin music too?

Two artists — frequent San Francisco Opera director Jose Maria Condemi and conductor, pianist, and former Adler Fellow César Cañón — recently spoke with San Francisco Opera about how they see Latinx identity interacting with classical music. They shared their experiences and what they feel needs to change in order to foster greater acceptance.

DIRECTOR JOSE MARIA CONDEMI

“Every time I’m asked to take part in a conversation around these topics, I always feel like I have to tell my story a bit.” Jose Maria Condemi sits at home in Oakland, a beanie on his head and a pillow around his neck. Time to get comfortable. He’s been asked these kinds of questions — a lot.

As well as being the director of opera and musical theater at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Condemi has directed or assisted on dozens of San Francisco Opera productions. He helmed the world premiere of Nolan Gasser’s The Secret Garden. Guided divas off ramparts in Tosca. Orchestrated shenanigans in productions of Così fan tutte and The Elixir of Love.

But his work outside of San Francisco has placed him at the crossroads of Latinx identity and opera. He’s directed the world premieres of two works by celebrated Mexican-American composer Héctor Armienta and led productions of other Spanish-language works, like Maria de Buenos Aires, Florencia en el Amazonas, and Frida.

“I never know what to feel,” he says, when the conversation about race inevitably comes up. Condemi considers himself Hispanic: He was born in San Andrés de Giles, Argentina, and Spanish is indeed his first language. But Latinx identity is a little trickier.

“I think I consider myself Latino by having lived in the Bay Area and being in contact with the Latinx community. But interestingly enough, it’s not what I grew up with,” he explains. “Because Argentina? It’s a bit of an anomaly, if you wish, in Latin America.”

Argentina, like its neighbors Brazil and Uruguay, has a large population with Italian ancestry: Anywhere from 25 to 30 million Argentinian people have Italian roots, accounting for well over half of the country’s population. Condemi’s parents were the first generation in his family to be born in Argentina. His grandparents come from Italy.

When Condemi came to the United States to study in Cincinnati, Ohio, he noticed people assumed he would like spicy food, being Latin American. “This is not an exaggeration. I did not have a single what you would call ‘Mexican dish’ until I moved to the United States. My first time eating Mexican food was in Cincinnati,” he laughs. “Spicy is not part of my culture.”

He also saw how Argentine identity was filtered through a United States lens when he directed Maria de Buenos Aires, a tango opera by Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla.

“When I grew up, actually tango was just not cool. It was a little bit like you stayed away from that,” he says. But he noticed the opera started to take off in the United States in the 1990s and 2000s, fueled by a romantic view of Argentina — something Condemi attributes to increased American tourism.

“If people know about Argentina, they immediately think: tango,” he says. “They look at this dance as something exotic.”

Condemi himself was not immune to those perceptions. When he directed productions of Maria de Buenos Aires, he noticed individuals “instantly assumed that I would know everything about it because it’s tango.”

“It was part of my culture, but it wasn’t something I’m an expert in,” he explains. “It would be like saying: Are all Americans versed in tap dancing? No. It’s identifiable with American culture, but not everybody tap dances.”

While Condemi has been heartened to see the success of shows like Maria de Buenos Aires and Frida — an opera he says is sold out every time he’s participated in it — he worries that companies in the United States are not adequately investing in Spanish-language productions.

“What happened is that companies decide to venture and expand their repertoire by programming operas like Maria de Buenos Aires or Florencia en el Amazonas, and then they don’t do them anymore. So what I see is more of a touch-and-go approach,” Condemi says. “I have not been involved in one that was not a success. And then they never do it again. It’s part of the problem.”

Avoiding the “token approach” requires long-term planning, Condemi argues. And it also requires risk: Florencia en el Amazonas is a proven hit, but what about the four or five other operas composer Daniel Catán wrote?

“It needs to be a concerted effort, as opposed to just the one-off social experiment aimed at checking the diversity box,” Condemi says.

One company whose approach Condemi admires is the Houston Grand Opera’s. It commissioned a series of mariachi-inspired works, including the operas El Milagro del Recuerdo (The Miracle of Remembering) and Cruzar la Cara de la Luna (To Cross the Face of the Moon).

To see those works being presented on the company’s main stage made a difference, says Condemi. “That’s important to know these pieces have a place in the same room where the regular opera happens too.”

Ultimately, Condemi has faith in opera — in its ability to adapt, to beguile, to welcome new audiences. That’s what brought him into the medium, after all. Back in Buenos Aires, he had been gearing up for medical school — for a different career altogether. But it was the sound of Georges Bizet’s Carmen that sent his life careening in another direction.

Even now, he smiles: “I can still sing it from the beginning to the end.”

CONDUCTOR AND PIANIST CÉSAR CAÑÓN

When César Cañón picks up the Zoom call, his cat Misha is nearby, meowing for dinner. His household is on the move: Following the completion of his residency as an Adler Fellow at San Francisco Opera, Cañon accepted a position at Norwegian National Opera and Ballet. He moves to Oslo this month.

It’s the latest in a year of personal milestones for the conductor and pianist. Just this summer, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, he got married. Now, his life is packed in boxes as he prepares to leave the country he’s lived in since 2013.

Cañón is not originally from the United States. Rather, his hometown is Bogotá, Colombia, where he grew up studying the piano, starting at age 6. His father noticed his aptitude for music and auditioned him for a children’s conservatory, where Cañón practiced a range of skills. But when his voice dropped, he grew self-conscious about singing. Behind the keyboard was where he preferred to stay.

When he came to the United States to study for his master’s and doctorate degrees at the University of Michigan, he started to notice the differences between the classical music culture in his native Colombia and that of North America. One of the most startling was the sense of tradition — or lack thereof.

“When you ask a Colombian or a Venezuelan or a Peruvian what's traditional from there, they can point you to a million things immediately like this dish, this fabric, this musical genre,” Cañón says. “When I moved to the United States and I started asking people: What is American folk food? Or what is American traditional music? Past country and burgers, there are not a lot of answers.”

From what he’s seen, that sense of tradition translates into resources. Funding in Colombia, he says, comes largely from the government and is spread over many musical genres, reflecting local tastes. But in the U.S., “European appropriated culture” like opera attracts more funding — funding that has to be rallied from private support.

It makes him laugh. In Colombia, “we have considerably thinner program books, without the pages and pages of the donors that we're thanking here.”

That investment led Cañón to perceive a North American relationship with opera that feels more personal, more intimate. The sense of belonging does not necessarily exist at the same level in Colombia.

Part of the reason stems from a brain-drain pattern Cañón has observed in his home country. There is no shortage of raw musical talent in Colombia, he argues. But the demand for high-quality education cannot always be met within the country’s borders.

“Traditionally and historically, people who have a successful career have, for the most part, not returned to teach in our countries,” Cañón says of Latin America. “So the instruction that we have — as much as we want to try — is not the same quality of education, at the same musical level, as it is in the United States or Europe.”

Part of that has to do with Colombia’s history of conquest and colonization, Cañón says: a history riddled with inequality. Pianos and other instruments had to be imported to create European-style classical music, a process that could be difficult in colonial times: In some cases, donkeys had to haul them across Colombia’s three successive ranges of Andean mountains.

“And so the amount of instruments and musical instruction that you had was limited. Most of the time in the history of zarzuela and opera music in Latin America, you would see that in the pit: You would mostly have to arrange for a symphonic band and not a symphonic orchestra because those were the instruments available. The military brought with them a marching band,” Cañón explains.

Still, classical music left its mark on the Latinx scene. While classical works aren’t popularly thought of as “Latin music” — a category that can include any number of genres — Cañón explains the two have merged so completely, the classical influence often goes unnoticed.

“If you look at the string section of a mariachi band, that cannot come from anywhere but from classical music. But it's not the symphony orchestra that has made it into the mixes with the pop culture. It’s the mariachi.”

However, the visibility of Hispanic classical music, like zarzuela, has historically been curtailed by a lack of availability. “Challenge number one is that you can’t find the music,” Cañón says. “People haven't printed it as much as Germany, Italian, French music, just because the publishing houses were never super strong.”

Then, there are the stereotypes. Having European roots lends greater credibility to classical music than having Latinx roots. The same goes for the artists who play classical music.

Cañón experienced this himself as a young artist. He had already notched performances in Canada and Colombia when he went to study in Europe. “After I returned from a summer program in Italy on opera, suddenly more companies were interested in me,” he says. “Suddenly my experience was multiplied in the eyes of people interested in hiring me.”

Even in the United States, Cañón has noticed Latinx communities feel a sense of alienation toward classical music forms like opera. Not only is there the perception that tickets are beyond their means to buy, but “a lot of times they just don't go because they don't feel culturally worthy of it,” he says.

At the end of the day, Cañón sees the challenge as twofold. For classical music to be accepted by Latinx communities, it has to do more than just entertain: It has to get people to attend in the first place.

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