Parsing the myths of Pancho Villa
By Jeanne Claire van Ryzin, Writer-in-residence
The life of Pancho Villa is a naturally occurring opera.
Myth surrounds the iconic Mexican Revolutionary bandit-general. His story is slippery, contradictory, far-fetched and fascinating.
Beyond the details of his birth — he was born José Doroteo Arango Arámbula in 1878 to poor sharecropper parents in the Northern Mexico state of Durango — historians quibble over many details of Pancho Villa’s life.
He was enormously popular as a champion of Mexico’s poor, a symbol of the common people and their struggle against the vastly powerful hacienda owners. And he remains revered today.
Pancho Villa likewise became something of a folk hero in the United States. The Mexican Revolution was, after all, among the first media-ized wars, its events and its principal players popularized in newspapers and early silent newsreels.
Villa shrewdly participated in his own media myth-making, at time consciously performing his life. Hollywood filmmakers and newspaper photographers flocked to Northern Mexico to record his battles. Villa, whose army controlled areas near the U.S. border, inked an agreement with Mutual Film giving the newsreel company privileged access.
That slipperiness between the fact and the fiction of Villa’s story proved inspiring for composer Graham Reynolds.
“Pancho Villa From a Safe Distance” is Reynold’s chamber opera about the life and death of the folk hero.
“Pancho Villa is a puzzle — he’s iconic and during his lifetime he was larger-than-life to people on both sides of the border,” says Reynolds.
Co-commissioned by Fusebox and Ballroom Marfa, the opera is the final installment of The Marfa Triptych, Reynold’s musical exploration of the shared history and culture of the Texas-Mexico border region.
Reynolds and his partner and collaborator, director Shawn Sides, traveled to El Paso and stayed at the El Comino Real Hotel where during the Mexican Revolution, people would gather on the rooftop and watch the battles play out below — the grand theater or warfare.
“It really came together for me when we were in El Paso,” says Sides, a co-producing artistic director Austin’s famed Rude Mechs theater collective. “The mythology around Pancho Villa, how people were watching this battle and its violence as if it were some distant happening.”
As Villa’s life is a composition of shifting narratives, so is the opera’s libretto. The non-linear narrative is collage of texts culled from historical documents.
Reynolds called on Luisa Pardo and Gabino Rodriguez of Mexico City-based theater company Lagartijas Tiradas al Sol, to create the libretto.
Two years ago Lagartijas brought the mesmerizing “El Rumor del Incendio” to Fusebox. Using a blend of documentary footage and sound recordings of oral histories, performers used toy figurines and miniature table landscapes to retell the story of young Mexican activists in the 1960s.
As with “El Rumor,” Pardo and Rodriguez see their Pancho Villa libretto as an attempt to connect the history and heritage with the nuanced viewpoints of the present.
“Sometimes we need to explain to ourselves what happened in the past to understand our present,” they said in an email.
Hence the word “distance” in the opera’s title functions on multiple levels. We often keep history, its contradictions and complexities, at a safe distance from our present. Ditto America’s relationship with Mexico, the country south of the border always politically and culturally distanced and categorized as “other.” And yet for the border region history and culture are inextricably linked and impossible to disentangle.
Performed by two singers — mezzo-soprano Liz Cass and tenor Paul Sanchez — who are accompanied by an ensemble that includes Grammy Award-winning producer Adrian Quesada on guitar, “Pancho Villa From a Safe Distance” is a musical kaleidoscope typical of Reynolds’ work. Mexican corridos, Tejano tunes, alt classical, American country western, and art song fuse in the 80-minute work that’s performed in concert style against a screen of projected images and footage.
Though Reynolds and his collaborators started working on the opera before news about a border wall emerged and before deportations of immigrants escalated, “Pancho Villa” nevertheless took on a timeliness when it premiered in Marfa just days after the November presidential election.
“I didn’t intend it to be so timely but it is,” he says. “I wanted a borderless conversation about the shared history between Mexico and Texas.”