Above: Look for Ultima's owl in a new opera. (This image won first place in our 2017 photo contest.) Photography by Dennis Dusenberry.
ONE LOOK AT the New Mexico landscape confirms that this is a place that lends itself to high contrasts, complex histories, and stories that stretch to mythic proportions. So it was only a matter of time before the quintessential New Mexican novel, Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima, burst into song. Opera Southwest debuts its original production February 18–25 at the National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque.
In Bless Me, Ultima, a six-year-old boy’s grandmother, who’s a mysterious curandera (folk healer), comes to live with his family amid their village’s battle between good and evil. The boy, Antonio, faces the reality that moral conclusions often run in gray scale. “The subject matter in and of itself is totally operatic—you’ve got the curandera, this coming-of-age story, you’ve got love, you’ve got religion, death, drama,” says Denise Wernly of Opera Southwest. “We thought it would be a pretty perfect fit.”
The role of Ultima is played by Kirstin Chávez, a New Mexico State University alum renowned for her portrayal as the title character in Carmen. El Dorado High School student Daisy Beltran portrays Antonio, continuing an operatic tradition of casting mezzo-soprano females in male roles.
The cultural center’s art museum also features roughly 40 pieces of artwork inspired by Bless Me, Ultima. Curated by Augustine Romero, it reprises a 2006 exhibit from the South Broadway Cultural Center. Expect to spot familiar images and scenes from the novel, like Ultima’s powerful owl and the elusive golden carp.
“There is a magic here in the light and in the blending of traditional lives and contemporary lives, the deep roots in history, identity, and culture, and the sense of place,” says museum director Tey Marianna Nunn. “Bless Me, Ultima is just one of those books that gets it. If you have any connection to New Mexico, if you’ve been or you’ve traveled or you’re from here, there’s something from the book and something in the exhibit that will resonate with you.” (505) 724-4771; nmmag.us/UltimaOpera