HGO celebrates the music of Spain with ‘Suite Espanola: Explorando Iberia’

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HGO Artistic Advisor and soprano Ana María Martínez in Houston Grand Opera’s “Suite Espanola: Explorando Iberia”

Photo: Bend Production and HGO

To curate HGO Digital’s latest production, “Suite Española: Explorando Iberia,” all Ana Maria Martinez had to do was jog her memory.

“I thought of some of the most beautiful pieces that I’m familiar with,” says the world-class soprano and HGO’s first-ever artistic adviser. “I mean, I’ve been listening to this since I was in my mother’s womb.”

The Puerto Rico-born singer credits her mother, whom she describes as a “tremendous, tremendous mind and a beautiful artist,” for introducing her both to opera and the spirited form of Spanish musical theater known as zarzuela. Her mother put her stamp of approval on the program, which premieres March 26 — even suggesting the closing number, Ruperto Chapí’s “Guajiras.”

“She said, ‘You have to include that! You have to end with that; that’s a great ensemble piece,’” recounts Martinez.

Even before the pandemic hit, Martinez — who was appointed to her HGO position in early 2019 — and artistic/music director Patrick Summers had been talking about devoting a program to Spanish music. Since travel has been off-limits for most people these long last few months, she pictured a performance that would serve as an introduction to the rich variety of sounds from all over the Iberian peninsula, including songs written in the Catalan and Basque languages. (In Spanish, “Explorando Iberia” means “exploring Iberia.”)

Streaming free for a month on HGO’s website and Marquee TV, “Suite Española” promises to deliver plenty of romance, passion and, indeed, flamenco dancers. Martinez will perform alongside a pair of HGO studio artists, tenor Ricardo Garcia and baritone Blake Denson, as well as guitarist Jeremy Garcia, pianist Kevin J. Miller and HGO orchestra percussionist Richard Brown on castanets.

Pointing to two of her collaborators, native Ecuadorean director Chia Patiño and Cuban-born choreographer Irma La Paloma, Martinez says she hopes the show will highlight the breadth of cultures on display.

“We have different histories, of course; however, what links us is Spain,” she says. “I would love for everyone to come together under that beautiful umbrella.”

Often comedic and topical, zarzuelas appeared in the mid-17th century but truly flourished in the latter half of the 1800s and into the 20th century. Martinez, who trained at HGO Studio in the mid-’90s, has long incorporated them into her concert repertoire, including a string of appearances with Placido Domingo dating back more than two decades. She likens zarzuelas to the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan or Franz Lehar’s “The Merry Widow,” both entertaining and deceptively demanding.

“Some of the stories are really intense, and it gets dramatic,” she says. “A misconception is that people think zarzuela music is easy to sing, and it’s not. It requires just as much technique as opera does.”

Houston Grand Opera: “Suite Española: Explorando Iberia”

When: Premieres 7:30 p.m. March 26

Where: Streaming on houstongrandopera.org and marquee.tv

Details: Free

Besides the handful of zarzuelas, the program will include selections from Isaac Albéniz’s “Suite Española,” whose movements are named after several Spanish cities — watch for projection designer S. Katy Tucker’s graphics, which Martinez says will evoke Google maps at times — and two pieces by the late cellist Pablo Casals, who is revered in Puerto Rico and once counted Martinez’s mother among his students.

Martinez also chose an adaptation of “En Aranjuez, con tu amor,” the second movement of Joaquin Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez — now one of the most recognizable pieces of classical-guitar music — as a tribute to the lives lost during the pandemic. A heartbroken Rodrigo wrote it after the stillborn death of his first child.

“Because of the loss that we’re all experiencing, and the devastating death toll from COVID, I wanted there to be something that honors that,” says Martinez. “Through pain, sometimes, great art is created and can comfort.”

“If this brought comfort to the composer himself, and to his wife, experiencing the most devastating loss anyone can imagine, then, hopefully, that beauty will give comfort to everybody listening,” she adds.

Elsewhere, Martinez says many people should recognize “Duo Pasodoble” from Manuel Penella’s “El Gato Montés,” which is still used at Spanish bullfights to this day. Nevertheless, she insists no prior knowledge of Spanish music, or even Spanish, is necessary to enjoy “Suite Española.”

“There’s so much passion in this program,” says Martinez. “I would love everyone to feel welcomed and included. So if you don’t speak Spanish, it’s OK. Just listen to the music, and let its passion fill you and inspire you. I promise you will be uplifted.”

Chris Gray is a Galveston-based writer.





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