Reinventing classical music in the digital age

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As a classical musician of color, Hector Armienta has made his living creating his own opportunities. The COVID pandemic was his new obstacle. And he came up with an unexpected solution: an animated opera for the digital age.

That Hector did unconventional opera during the pandemic isn’t entirely surprising. After all, his classical music journey began in a somewhat unexpected place: the corner grocery store.

“They actually had the records, the LPs, when you walked in, right next to the kind of candy and stuff…And I was just buying them while I was learning the piano,” he recalls with a laugh.

It was in the 1970s in the MacArthur Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. His introduction to grocery shopping was nurtured by the free music lessons offered at his local public school – programs he told me he no longer saw, especially in communities of color.

In college, Hector knew he wanted to be a composer. He eventually headed north to San Francisco for his graduate school and tried to break into the classical music scene – buying his compositions for residencies and grants. Hector identifies as Chicano and he says it wasn’t easy.

He explained, “At the time, even before 2008, you didn’t see works by Latino or Latino composers or by black composers or Asian, Asian-American composers. It was just non-existent.”

By the time his first major play was stagedHector understood that if he wanted to ensure lasting opportunities for himself and other Latinx artists, he had to create his own space. In 2008Hector founded Opera Cultura in San José.

The community, says Hector, was ready for a Latin opera company.

“In San Jose, there are a lot of different communities. And the Latino community is quite large… And there are different generations, you have generations of Latinos who have been here since the 1800s, you know, and then you have recent people who have recently come from Central and South America.

This presence, he observed, translated into support for the arts.

“Our audiences who come to see our work are mostly all Latinos,” he told me.

A few years ago he did a piece called Bless Me Ultima, based on a novel by Rudolfo Anaya. And he said people came from Fresno, Modesto and even Reno.

But like many people – in March 2020, things took a turn for Hector. Opera Cultura planned to create a production of Frida, a frequently performed classical opera by Mexican-American composer Robert Rodriguez. But when the pandemic arrived, they had to close.

Without a program or a scene, Hector went back to the drawing board. “As a hobby,” he told me, “I was interested in making a video game about a Mexican character or story.” So he started playing with animation software used to video games and TV shows like Mandalorian.

And an idea began to sprout: a new type of digital opera for pandemic times, something people could watch from home. He originally envisioned a sort of hybrid production with green screen background, simple animation, and live singers in a room together. But time, budget and social distancing put a damper on that idea.

It was then that Hector realized that everything had to be animated and that he had to be the one to do it, despite the fact that he had almost no animation experience.

I asked him how his friends and colleagues first reacted when he told them about his new plan.

He laughed, thinking, “Well, part of it was why. Part of it was, do you have the skills to do it?” Still, he said, others were excited. “A lot of opera companies, performing groups, you know, they didn’t know what to do.”

Just as he did in 2008 – when he founded Opera Cultura – he found inspiration in his community. He decided to write a new opera about the experiences of Latinx farmworkers during the pandemic.

To learn how to translate his ideas to the screen, he started taking multimedia production course at MACLA, a Latin arts organization in San Jose.

Hector said the creative process was unlike anything he had done before. Even the composition of the score – one of the most familiar parts of the project – presented new and unique challenges.

“I had to create a digital instrument-specific orchestration” – because of COVID, he recalls, he didn’t want to bring in live musicians to play alongside the vocalists in the studio. “So [the singers] I had to listen to a sync track, which was another learning curve for me.”

In June 2021Opera Cultura created the project as “Mi Camino”, a one-hour digital opera.

Watching it is a surreal experience. Everything is meticulously animated – down to the individual leaves of the trees.

The viewer glides over recognizable local landscapes: the shores of Half Moon Bay and the vast ranches of the Central Coast. The animated workers of this virtual world work to the pulse of the score as the projected video of the three lead singers comes and goes. The end product is something between a movie, a live performance, and a video game.

Innovating under pressure, Hector said, was nothing new.

“I had thought that in the long run, these kind of art forms, they had to think in a more revolutionary way.”

He added: “And I think people who haven’t always had certain opportunities available to them have a choice. Either they give up and accept or they create their own path. And I had to do that the most my life. So that’s one more thing I had to do.

Opera Cultura should finally premiere Frida in April. But Hector says he’s not interested in leaving his pandemic plans in the past. He recently started a fellowship at Stanford experience storytelling in virtual reality. And he builds “La Escuela”, his training program for local youth of color, focusing on music, technical theater and the new virtual production skills he learned during the pandemic to keep Opera Cultura alive.

He shared, “It’s emotional for me. They inspire you. Young people really inspire you. And I hope that somehow I can change the lives of young people in a substantial way.”

It teaches them that innovation and inclusion go hand in hand.

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