Genre-crossing opera about border conflict a timely work in progress

Sat Nov 10, 2018 at 3:32 pm
Swarmius xxx Photo: William Chu

Joseph Waters’ opera “The Magic Hummingbird (El Colibrí Mágico) — A California Story” was performed Friday night at The Cutting Room. Photo: William Chu

An opera set along the tumultuous U.S.-Mexico border got a timely dry run Friday night at a Manhattan nightclub called The Cutting Room, and from the dozen interconnected songs performed by the opera’s California-based composer, Joseph Waters, and his bi-coastal band, Swarmius, a promising work of art began to emerge — sometimes in fits and starts.

Waters’ gestating production, The Magic Hummingbird (El Colibrí Mágico) — A California Story, is a loose, magical-realist update of the saga of St. Francis of Assisi, who famously rejected his patrimony to live in poverty and preach the gospel. In the Waters libretto, three privileged San Diego teenagers cross into Tijuana for a night of partying and instead face a supernatural awakening to the plight of migrants.

In its present musical form, The Magic Hummingbird is essentially an avant-garde jazz opera. An elastic, expressionist form of jazz is the dominant idiom, with operatic voicings integrated into a shape-shifting — and fully amplified — musical language that also draws on pop, blues, Bach, cabaret, electronic and Latin music.

The eight-piece combo of three singers and five instrumentalists, playing in changing configurations, was up to the task of bringing Waters’ varied and complex scoring to life. “These guys can wail,” Waters said at one point, marveling at the rest of the band’s proficiency from his spot behind a laptop. The pre-recorded tracks from his own (qwerty) keyboard ranged from theremin-like sweeps to deep bass pulses to an entirely software-generated voice that joined its human counterparts for an eerie, uncanny-valley fugue.

The Magic Hummingbird is a riot of invention, and rich in characterization with its American teens, desperate refugees, border angels and border vigilantes, and an elderly pueblo mystic who can summon ancient spirits. It is also a work in progress, with more songs to be written, and some of its ostensibly finished pieces showing rough edges both in construction and in performance.

The opera got off to a balky start with “Things,” a contemplation of death in which sweet-voiced countertenor Rodolfo Girón struggled at first to modulate his amplified singing. But the five musicians in this grouping righted themselves quickly and finished with a haunting instrumental coda, artfully played by Geoffrey Burleson on piano, Daniel Pate on vibraphone, and Todd Rewoldt and Ian Buss on alto and tenor saxophone, respectively.

A waltz called “Kiss” quickly buckled under the weight of too many moving parts, while an affecting ballad, “Shouldn’t,” cried out for some addition — perhaps a bass or baritone saxophone line — to anchor its airy, show-tune theatricality.

Waters’ instrumental writing sounded, on balance, more assured than his lyrics and vocal melodies. But on a handful of songs every element converged powerfully. “Sand,” sung with spare directness by baritone Charles Coleman, evoked the pitiless desert that migrants must cross through imagery of wind-blasted skeletal remains in a space where “men dissolve into shadowland” and “the breath of God is spent.” Coleman also excelled as the villain of a song called “Brothers Keeper,” a Minuteman Project type who scorns refugees, singing, “We got here first/That’s all the proof I need.”

“Who Will Win” featured Coleman, Girón and soprano Nina Deering alongside the aforementioned computer in a piece that moved with remarkable ease between baroque singing and a big, beat-happy Norteño jam — a moment that also highlighted the relative scarcity of Latin music, at least to this point, in a story about life on the border.

Waters has said there is still more writing to do for The Magic Hummingbird, so it could be that he’ll incorporate more regional flavor. It’s also possible that working mostly in North American and European idioms is his compromise with the inevitable question of ownership, as he takes on a story that isn’t entirely his, culturally speaking, at a time of backlash against what critics call appropriation. 

What’s unimpeachable is his timing, as the border battle intensifies under a hard-line White House immigration policy that has separated children from parents, and Waters tackles the most fraught questions of territory and identity.

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