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Emotions of mariachi find place on opera stage

Renat(CeciliDuarte) Laurentino (Octavio Moreno) celebrate their wedding “Cruzar lCarde lLuna” featuring Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlan (background). Lyric Operis presenting this

Renata (Cecilia Duarte) and Laurentino (Octavio Moreno) celebrate their wedding in “Cruzar la Cara de la Luna,” featuring Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlan (background). Lyric Opera is presenting this mariachi opera in five performances at three different ven

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♦ 3:30 p.m. Sunday, Lyric Opera of Chicago (sold out)

♦ 7:30 p.m. April 19; 2, 7:30 p.m. April 20, Benito Juarez Community Academy (sold out)

♦ 7:30 p.m. April 21, Genesee Theatre, 203 N. Genesee, Waukegan; tickets, $5-$18

Updated: May 8, 2013 6:17AM

Each fall, millions of monarch butterflies fly south to Michoacán in central Mexico. In “Cruzar la Cara de la Luna,” the patriarch Laurentino recalls how the monarchs would fill the sky, even at night, so that they would “cross the face of the moon.”

Then in the spring, the butterflies again take flight, “not knowing their destiny.” The butterflies serve as a central metaphor for “Cruzar la Cara de la Luna” (“To Cross the Face of the Moon”), symbolizing the immigrants who come to the United States and then return to Mexico to rejoin their families. Billed as the world’s first mariachi opera, “Cruzar” blends ranchera — the quintessential Mexican song form — with European classical music tradition.

The brainchild of Anthony Freud, general director of Lyric Opera of Chicago, “Cruzar” received its world premiere in 2010 at Houston Grand Opera during Freud’s tenure there. Sung in Spanish and English, the opera chronicles three generations of a Mexican-American family straddling two cultures and confronting divided loyalties. After sold-out runs in Paris two years ago and in San Diego and Houston this winter, Lyric is presenting “Cruzar” in five performances beginning Sunday.

The work features Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlan, founded in 1897 and now guardians of the mariachi legacy. In 2006, Freud “was blown away” when he happened to attend a Mariachi Vargas concert presented at HGO’s Wortham Theater Center. “The opera house was packed with people I didn’t recognize, and the concert itself was an absolute revelation because Mariachi Vargas are 13 extraordinarily virtuosic musicians and singers. I thought, this is vocal, emotional, this is immediate, this is accessible, this is so operatic — why hasn’t anyone ever made a connection between mariachi and opera before?”

Freud set off to make that connection, also in the hope of extending HGO’s reach into the Latino community and in the knowledge that 2010 was a key anniversary in terms of Mexican independence (200th) and the Mexican Revolution (100th).

Then, “having ascertained that Mariachi Vargas was the world’s greatest mariachi, I thought, why not start at the top?” he said. So he flew to Mexico City to meet with Jose “Pepe” Martinez, the group’s musical director. “I think he thought I was crazy. It took me a year of ongoing dialogue to let him know that all I want was to do what he had spent his life on — and that was writing great mariachi songs.”

Cecilia Duarte, who sings the role of Renata in “Cruzar,” stresses it’s an honor to perform with Mariachi Vargas. “The sound that comes through all their years of experience, the way they sing, the way they play their instruments — it’s so big. We always get goosebumps. They’re like rock stars.” (Note: Mariachi Aztlan plays at the April 19-21 dates.)

After signing Martinez, Freud recruited Leonard Foglia, a Tony Award-winning director, to write the book, stage the production and work with Martinez on the lyrics. “When Anthony pitched me, I knew it was a good idea because mariachi deals with emotions of the heart and is very theatrical,” Foglia said. Martinez agreed, since mariachi and opera are “joyful, also sorrowful, and full of emotions best expressed through music.”

Initially, Foglia thought he could direct “Cruzar,” but that “a Mexican or Latino should write it.” Freud wanted the work to have a universal perspective, however. “You can’t write universal,” Foglia said. “The more specific it is, the more universal it is. That’s why, say, ‘Death of a Salesman’ works all over the globe.”

Foglia also lived in Mexico for seven years. “I’ve been to Michoacán several times, I’ve seen the butterflies,” he said. “I hope it’s not too obvious a conceit. They fly freely and people can’t.”

The project clicked when Foglia realized his father had experienced his own version of “Cruzar.” “I thought about his sense of displacement when he came here from Italy. He stayed around people who spoke Italian and never really felt comfortable here. That was my window in.”

What strikes Freud, Foglia and Duarte is how “Cruzar” resonates with all audiences. “When I hear the sobs after the show and then people tell me, ‘you told my story,’ it’s good to know that there’s such an emotional part to this whole immigration experience,” said Duarte, a native of Chihuahua. “I’m very proud as a Mexican, as a Latina, to be portraying such a role.”

Freud believes “Cruzar” will attract newcomers to opera: “I find these kind of reactions incredibly touching because that is the sort of universality that any of us in the business of producing performances longs to hear.”

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