Tuesday, November 12

UCLA’s Valenzuela brings fresh approach to well-known opera

UCLA’s Valenzuela brings fresh approach to well-known opera

By John Mangum

Jose Luis Valenzuela doesn’t work with clay, but could be called
a type of sculptor.

Instead he transforms an untouched opera into something that an
audience can interpret and make its own.

Valenzuela, a professor in UCLA’s theater department, tackles
opera for the first time with the L.A. Opera’s production of
"Journey to Córdoba."

Valenzuela, whose reputation derives from experience on the L.A.
stage, takes a fresh approach to production.

"Music inspired me in a different way than a written text does,"
Valenzuela says, "because it has a totally different movement, and
the images that come to you as a director are totally

With his experience in theater and film, Valenzuela can
recognize the differences. His work with the Latino Theatre Lab at
the Mark Taper Forum earned him two Drama-Logue Awards. He also
directed the award-winning film How Else Am I Supposed to Know I’m
Still Alive for Universal’s Hispanic Film Project.

Valenzuela recognizes the similarities of the media he works
with, giving him a perspective to approach his first opera
production. "There are a lot of things that are different," he
says. "But at the end, you’re still telling a story.

"The difference is, I think, opera allows you to have a bigger
concept. The difference between a new contemporary play and an
opera is incredible."

Valenzuela’s chance to come up with a bigger concept came when
L.A. Opera invited him to direct its production "Journey to
Córdoba." The opera, with music by Lee Holdridge and libretto
by Richard Sparks, premiered at the Luckman Fine Arts Complex at
Cal State L.A. on Feb. 11. It comes to the Veterans’ Wadsworth
Theatre Saturday, March 4.

The opera weaves the Latin-American folktale of "La Mulata de
Córdoba" into the conflict between Miranda and her parents and
grandmother. The subject matter excited Valenzuela because it
raises the issue of the Latin-American community in Los

"I think it makes a statement form the point of view that it’s
not stereotypes about Latinos," Valenzuela says. "These people are
not peasants or cholos from a gang. It has a totally different feel
to it."

Valenzuela has long thought about working on an opera. The
involvement in the project of his friend and associate Gronk, an
artist whose work has been displayed in major museums, made the
idea even more attractive.

"Gronk, who had been the designer I worked with the most for the
last 10 years, with the exception of two plays, has done all my
other pieces. We are like an artistic team ­ he designs and I
direct," Valenzuela says.

"It’s been kind of a very wonderful relationship that we have,
working in the theatre. But we always said, ‘Let’s do an opera. We
have to do an opera somehow, even if we do it in our

Valenzuela’s enthusiasm for the project compelled him to become
entirely involved. He watched over all the details, even working
with the chorus of students from L.A. County High School for the

"I wasn’t supposed to work with the chorus, but it was kind of
difficult for me to think that they’re going to be in my work, and
I’m not going to work with them. No. I had to work with them, but I
can not give them four weeks, you know." Valenzuela says.

"I put them together, and I direct them, and I stage. I tell
them what the idea is, what the conflict is, where the focus is,
what the behavior should be, what the characters should be doing at
that moment. I do that. I wouldn’t give it to anybody else. I would
be very nervous."

Valenzuela laughs, bringing out a down-to-earth, approachable
side of his character that he gives to his production of

"Everybody thinks an opera is an elitist type of art form. The
advantage of doing what I’m doing is that I’ve brought it to a
level where everybody can have a relationship with it. I’ve tried
to work in comedy, not take it so seriously, because, from my point
of view, you shouldn’t. Maybe if we turn it into a more popular
art, people will understand how wonderful and incredible it

OPERA: L.A. Opera’s production of "Journey to Córdoba."
Presented by UCLA Center for the Performing Arts. At the Wadsworth
March 4, 11 a.m. TIX: $22, $19, $8 for ages 16 and under. For more
info call (310) 825-2101.

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