The opera “La Malinche: Traitor | Savior” by composer Nathan Felix, premiered July 21 at the Albuquerque Museum, exploring the journey, influence and legacy of historical figure La Malinche and her involvement in the Spanish conquest of Mexico. The opera, commissioned by the Albuquerque Museum, coincides with an exhibit currently showing, “Traitor, Survivor, Icon: The Legacy of La Malinche,” which showcases works of art surrounding the iconic figure.
La Malinche, whose real name has been lost over time, was gifted to Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés in 1519. Due to La Malinche being fluent in Nahuatl and Maya, two of the languages spoken in the Aztec Empire, she became Cortés’ translator. Eventually, La Malinche would go on to mother Cortés’ child, according to the Albuquerque Museum.
The free opera stars Lucianna Astorga, a Sam Houston State University senior studying vocal performance, as La Malinche. The cast also includes Madison Marie Mcintosh as Hernán Cortés, as well as Emily Anderson and UNM Alumna Hope Willenbrink-Marchesi as Aztec slaves. The orchestra, conducted by Kelsey Rangel, is comprised of violinist Everette Ortiz, violist Luis De Vargas and cellists Randall Holt, Revolution Rivera-Felix and Zach McGee.
The opera, instead of being performed in the museum’s amphitheater, moves through the interior of the museum. The performance begins in the lobby and moves through the La Malinche exhibit, in and around the audience and the art. As a composer, Felix has held a lifelong fascination with acoustics and performance in unusual spaces such as these.
“Each area you stand in a particular museum, you can actually get a different sound. I like to think of it as activating the space in some way and experimenting with sound. It gives joy to me to present something in a way that moves or challenges the audience — whether they know their ears are being challenged or not,” Felix said. “I want the audience to find themselves in the space and realize, ‘Oh, I’m five feet away from this immaculate voice.’”
Felix, who doesn’t originally come from an operatic background, also emphasized making the art accessible to a wider audience than opera typically allows. This nontraditional approach is reflected in his direction as well, which encouraged the performers to focus on the acting as much as on the music itself.
“I really challenge the cast in every performance that I produce to not think of themselves as an opera singer. I really want them to hone in on their acting skills as an actress or actor, that’s really important to me,” Felix said. “The audience is right there, the larger the gesture, I think, the better … It can be something that makes everything feel a little more communal.”
The immersive components of “La Malinche” offered unique challenges for the actors and musicians alike, according to Astorga.
“Because it’s immersive, you have to really pay attention to why you are doing things and focus on the music in the libretto … There are a few areas where I am telling the story as this woman, but then there are times where I’m in this gallery and I am trying to communicate to these people, you know, I did what I had to do to survive.”
To both Astorga and Felix, the opera is a way of commenting on the legacy of a complicated woman.
“(Felix) does a really beautiful job of making sure that she’s not just seen as a traitor or as this horrible woman, you know. She was sold into slavery because the Aztec people wanted to get her to persuade the Spanish to go away,” said Astorga. “There are moments in (Felix’s music) that speak to that and try to convince the audience that she’s a strong, powerful, intelligent survivor woman.”
Part of what drew Felix to this story and to accepting the commission from the Albuquerque Museum was the chance to work with his son, Revolution Rivera-Felix. A senior at Oak Grove Classical Academy, Rivera-Felix is the youngest member of the chamber orchestra.
“It’s been an honor to play alongside these musicians and learn from them. My teacher is actually playing cello alongside me, so he’s there to coach me through it. This is a totally new experience for me, and they’ve been super helpful,” Rivera-Felix said.
After this performance, Felix plans on going on tour with this and his other work, bringing the opera to the exhibit when it opens in San Antonio later this year.
“La Malinche: Traitor | Savior” can be seen for free at the Albuquerque Museum at 1 p.m. on July 24.
Spenser Willden is the culture editor at the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at email@example.com or on Twitter @spenserwillden