History of OPERA in Mexico




During the viceroyalty, a new artistic movement involving music and theater landed in the New World. The opera conquered New Spain ears and adhered to their societies. Once Independence was completed, Mexico developed a singular taste: first it adopted the works of the great European composers; then, the Mexicans would begin to think of an opera of their own, to be forged within a national identity. History has recorded several stages of this genre and today there is a concern to rescue and restore the works of national teachers.

In Hellenic times the theatrical performances gave some participation to the music. Musicologists like the German Friedrich Herzfeld give the Greeks the treatment of pioneers who installed the base from which emerged the various theatrical and musical genres that have participated in the evolution of humanity.

Herzfeld indicates that in the last palpitations of the fourteenth century, Euterpe’s art professionals were aware that Greek drama had already associated parliaments and musical notes. What they ignored was the way this ancient society sounded.

With the Renaissance playing at the doors of the cathedrals of art, it became imperative to rescue the Greek aesthetic and composers had no choice but to draw dramas with the scheme inherited from the Mediterranean, but incorporating the music that was made in those days.

The first attempts are dated around 1589. In 1600, Jacopo Peri gave the world the work Euridice, first page that is conserved of a hybrid baptized as drama in music and that, according to the letters of the Catalan Manuel Valls i Gorina, was renamed years later as an opera in music and, finally, it was simplified in opera (Latin voice meaning “work”).

Mexican musicologist Áurea Maya defines her as “a dramatic work that has a series of characters. There is always a climactic moment in which situations play an important role and then go to the end. Everything is sung. “

The lands that gave impetus to this form of captivating the senses of sight and hearing were the small republics that we have long known as Italy. Three artistic capitals were highlighted: Florence, Rome, and Venice.

Geniuses like the composer Claudio Monteverdi perfected and made the opera an imperishable genre. The harmony of the Italian was linked to the Renaissance artistic explosion and the resulting musical current crossed the borders with force; He came to Germany and France, nations that formed their own schools and began to sing the genre with their own languages. England, Russia, and Spain (where zarzuela emerged) tried to keep pace.

/media/top5/OperaMex01.jpgOrpheus and Eurydice , by Frederic Cameron Leighton. 

The co-owners of Miguel de Cervantes brought the opera on this side of the Atlantic. In New Spain, pearl of the Spanish Empire, Iberian politics determined the type of pieces that should be produced and heard in the rooms of the colonial buildings.

“The opera is one of the first global movements. The news that arrives from the European newspapers to America is going to be very important because they are going to constitute themselves as an example to follow “, explains Áurea Maya.

The first European musicians who came to the viceroyalty were noted for their good relations with the Church. The ecclesiastical sector contributed an important quantity of music teachers and the cathedrals served like formative centers where lessons of opera were distributed.

Almost two centuries after the meeting of two worlds, Manuel de Sumaya became the first Creole to compose an opera in New Spain. His work, La Parténope (1711), represents the beginning of a story full of sound.


In 1821 the Independence of Mexico was consummated and the new nation was submerged in extremely volatile times. To understand the face of opera in national territory it is essential to analyze the environment and its social events, something that the French philosopher Hippolyte Taine advises in his work Philosophy of Art: “To understand a work of art, an artist, a group of artists, we must accurately represent the general state of the spirit and the customs of the time to which they belong “.

In that light, and with anti-Spanish sentiment to the surface, the caudillos of the new Mexican art rejected manifestations such as zarzuela; They adopted the opera and made of it a valuable gear of the newly launched social machinery of the country: “It was preferred to represent the Italian opera, which also had a great influence throughout the world. No one wanted to listen to zarzuela, everyone wanted to hear Rossini’s operas, “explains Maya.

/media/top5/OperaMex02.jpgMonument to the zarzuela Pan y Toros premiered in 1864 at the Teatro de la Zarzuela in Madrid, Spain. In the legal sphere, the anti-Hispanic laws of 1829 decreed the expulsion of the Spaniards. In practice, exceptions were made, of these some Iberian actors and singers that were related to the operatic scene benefited.

Between 1821 and 1831 musical dramas of Italian origin were mounted, mainly those of Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868). The presentation of these shows skyrocketed, with the National Theater as the main stage. In the musical society, a debate arose on whether they should be represented in Italian or Spanish.

In an article by Verónica Zárate Toscano and Serge Gruzinski, included in Mexican history volume LVIII, during the nineteenth century there were 86 active opera companies (most of them European) in its Mexican territory and in its repertoire were the works of Guiseppe Verdi, Gioachino Rossini, Vincenzo Bellini, and Gaetano Donizetti.

The Mexico of the ancestor century, resonate Zárate and Gruzinski, looked close to Europe, but not in the sense that it was a kind of cultural mirror, but as a reality to imitate. The theater became the temple of Mexican art. His parishioners (originally trained only by the upper class of society) came to enjoy the divine song of the opera.

Aurea Maya believes that, in this period, the genre was erected as an instrument capable of demonstrating the degree of civilization that existed in an independent territory.

It should be noted that producing an opera in nineteenth-century Mexico was not cheap. As much as the functions were full, the funds collected were insufficient to cover the assembly. The companies realized that they needed extra capital. This money was provided by the governments in turn. With the help of the treasury, they managed to remain active. The situation was exploited by politicians to legitimize their power through musical dramas.

The anecdotes are famous, there are with Santa Anna and with Benito Juárez, related to opera performances. For example, His Serene Highness used it to show the magnificence of his government. In 1854, they dedicated the opera Belisario de Donizetti and the gala included the appearance of a horse on stage.

/media/top5/OperaMex03.jpgOpera Belisario , based on the life of the famous general Belisario of the 6th century Byzantine Empire. (2010). 

The elite was not the only public that appreciated opera. The researcher emphasizes that during the different war episodes and political instabilities that took place in nineteenth-century Mexico (the invasion by the United States, the French intervention or the Reformation War) the theatrical activities did not stop, but the upper class moved away . “In the case of the American invasion, the theater continued to operate, but now the Yankee soldiers were accompanied by the women of the town. In those difficult times for the country, the elite did not attend the theater. In that time the roles changed, hence the influence of opera is so important in all social strata, “he says.

Also during the French Intervention, with Maximilian of Habsburg at the head of the Second Empire, this sonorous-scenic expression received a lot of support. The genre, says the historian Luis Castillo in his article The Mexican opera authors, had an unparalleled flowering.

Like his predecessors, Porfirio Díaz received and supported various Mexican composers to present their works or study abroad. Not in vain was he known as “the protector of art in Mexico”.

In short, an operatic culture was developed, one that came together with the first generations of Mexican composers.


In the nineteenth century, Italian opera performances were very successful in Mexico, and national creators delivered their scores to the operatic drama.

Composing opera is not a simple task. In addition to the technical knowledge of the instruments, the composer must take into account the textures of the voices and ensure that his sound amalgam fits perfectly with the lines of the script. Not only that, his music must give life to the visual environment, for example, to the stage and the costumes. All this influences that the public enjoys a unique experience. The Mexican composers managed to meet these requirements but, the opera companies did not bet on their projects.

/media/top5/OperaMex04.jpgNational theater. 

Luis Castillo locates the longest score of this genre written by a Mexican in 1823. The work is called Adela or the constancy of the widows and its author is José María Moreno. It is worth mentioning that there is no documentary evidence that the work has been mounted.

In the first decades of the new nation stands out the name of Mariano Elízaga (founder of the Philharmonic Academy). Then, there is a period of musical drought produced locally, the lack of evidence is consistent, what did continue was the import of staging.

In the mid-nineteenth century, the musician Joaquín Beristaín founded, in partnership with the father Agustín Caballero, a music academy. The students of the institution sang operas in Italian and the school could mount a good amount of concerts between 1839 and 1840.

In 1842, Manuel Covarrubias obtained something of fame with Reynaldo and Elina or the Peruvian priestess, work that obtained good critics although Covarrubias always considered itself an amateur musician.

The official story gives Luis Baca the honor of being the first Mexican teacher to try to present his own opera once Independence is complete. In 1848, the Duranguense wrote a work in two acts entitled Leonor, whose libretto belonged to the Italian Carlo Bozzetti. Later she composed Juana de Castilla, with the same structural characteristics as her predecessor. Regrettably, neither could be released either in Mexico or in Europe. His desire was to take them to Italy, but death, which came to him in 1855, prevented him.

Who did get his works come alive was Cenobio Paniagua. The Michoacán premiered in September 1859, after a period of composition that spanned 14 years, in the now defunct National Theater, Catalina de Guisa, sung in Italian. The function was dedicated to interim president Miguel Miramón.

Paniagua was the first national composer to devote himself to opera scenarios. The disdain that the companies made to the national composers focused on shaping the first Mexican opera company.

/media/top5/OperaMex05.jpgRomeo and Juliet (1884) by Frank Bernard Dicksee. 

In 1868, he staged a second opera: Pietro D ‘Abano, this in the framework of the first anniversary of the triumph of the Mexican troops over the French army in Puebla. However, he did not have the same fortune as in his debut. The criticism pointed to his deficient script and his evident political charge in times when imperialists and republicans scolded everything. The teacher moved to Córdoba, Veracruz, and there he composed El Paria, which was not represented.

In national musicology, there is consensus to place Paniagua as the starting point of the generation of Mexican composers that came to light in the nineteenth century. His influence aroused in his students an impetus to create original works.

Melesio Morales was one of Paniagua’s pupils. We speak of a virtuoso who at nine years of age began to receive a chair from Agustín Caballero, also a teacher from Michoacán. In 1856, the capitalist musician composed his first opera called Romeo y Julieta. However, Morales encountered several difficulties to bring it to the stage and did not premiere until January 1863. In July of that same year, Octaviano Valle presented his Clotilde de Cosenza, which was unsuccessful due to political and social factors. of the instability of the nation.

Back with Morales, he did not throw the harp. In December 1865 Ildegonda premiered at the renowned Imperial Theater, with the voice of Angela Peralta and under the protection of a Maximilian of Habsburg who, as a good politician, offered to cover the deficit resulting from the tickets.

The newspapers of the time narrate that Ildegonda obtained enormous success in Mexico. Morales decided to leave for the Old Continent to expand his knowledge and perfect his composition techniques.

In four years of European adventure, Morales composed Carlo Magno and Gino Corsini. In 1868 he presented his Ildegonda at the Teatro Pagliano in Florence. In 1869 he returned to the country where he was received as a winner and parties were offered in his honor.


Presto to take advantage of his advantageous position, Morales mobilized to release the two operas he made in Europe. He presented his creations in 1877, at the National Theater. These days, his good relationship with liberal politicians was already in the public domain, he had the support of Benito Juárez.

His last work was Cleopatra, whose first performance was recorded in 1891. Polish tenor Giacomo Rawner and Italian baritone Mario Sammarco participated. After that, Morales gave himself up to teaching and no other work of his was known until after his death when two unpublished creations came to light: The Tempest and The Wandering Jew.

While Melesio Morales reached the peak of national music, Miguel Meneses followed the legacy of Paniagua and premiered in 1864 his opera Agorante, king of Nubia in honor of Maximilian of Habsburg. In 1866 he moved to Guadalajara and there he played his anthem Benito Juárez at the Teatro Degollado. Three years later, Atala, the queen of the fairies, took to the stage a tragedy in three acts. There is also an unfinished opera that dates from 1878, which is titled The Fairy of the Lake and the Woman of the Forest.

Meneses was another Mexican composer who traveled to Europe. There wrote and staged Luisa de la Vallière and Judith. His talent, essentially melodic, received praises in Italy and Russia. Then he went to India, the mystical land where he died in 1892.

Paniagua, Morales, and Meneses were the visible heads of the operatic movement, but there were more composers who are also worth mentioning.

The efforts made by Ramón Vega in 1863, 1864 and 1866 to finance and present his operas Adelaida and ComingioLa Reina de León and El Grito de Dolores, respectively, did not succeed and failed to release any. The libretto of the latter is considered a pioneer of the arguments based on an ideology of national identity.

In the last decade of the nineteenth century, there was an intense festive and musical activity thanks to the Porfiriato. In that stage, the Colón operas in Santo Domingo (1892) by Julio M. Morales (son of Melesio Morales), Keofar (1893) by Felipe G. Villanueva, and Atzimba (1900) by Ricardo Castro premiered. The latter left unused Don Juan de Austria, written in 1893.

/media/top5/OperaMex07.jpgCleopatra (1966). 

Of that time the case of Yucatan stands out. There an important school was installed during the Porfiriato hand in hand with an economic bonanza. This favored the appearance of a musically dilettante audience. In this context, Domingo María Ricalde Moguel composed the operas Lucia di Lammermoor (1894) and La Cabeza de Uconor(1898).


The history of Mexican opera, considered Áurea Maya, is made up of cycles, of temporary lapses where sound-dramatic activity increases and its intensity decreases. If you compare the peaks reached by the genre during the nineteenth century with the activity of the next century, the record of the latter is much smaller.

The figure of Ricardo Castro continued shining during the last years of the Porfiriato. His influence was such that it motivated Gustavo E. Campa to write and to release in the Main Theater the opera El Rey poeta, in 1901, during the celebrations of the Second Pan-American Conference. The libretto was based on the life of the pre-Hispanic monarch Nezahualcoyotl.

To perfect his musical knowledge, in 1903 Castro traveled to Paris. In 1906 he concentrated on composing the opera La Leyenda de Roudel. When concluding it returned to Mexico and worked so that it was released in the Abreu Theater, in November of that same year.

Another consented composer of Porfirismo was Julián Carrillo. On the occasion of the centenary of Independence, he composed Matilde or Mexico in 1810, which is characterized because in its scaffolding it mixes sonorities of the Mexican National Anthem and La Marseillaise. Its presentation in society was postponed due to the outbreak of the Revolution.

When the revolutionary conflict ended, a new trend that advocated the promotion of a national identity displaced the foreign tendency.

/media/top5/OperaMex08.jpgOpera L’italiana in Algeri , by Rossini. 

“The change that happens in the postrevolutionary Mexico line is very important and one of its first lines is Carlos Chávez. He will seek to detach himself from the predominant aesthetics of the 19th century; then, the group that was attached to Chávez pointed out that the operas of the nineteenth century were simple imitations, copies that were not worth it and that they were going to do something new, that they were going to take the popular songs, “explains Maya.

A new break with the past was attempted. The approach was similar to the idea of the nineteenth century to get away from the Spanish influence and try to forge a Mexican current and as it happened in the nineteen, in the twenties the Mexican opera was not a beneficiary and the presentations of Italian opera. The researcher emphasizes that in the decades after the revolutionary triumph, very few Mexican operas were composed. These include La mulata de Córdoba (1948), by José Pablo Moncayo; Tata Vasco (1941), by Miguel Bernal Jiménez; Carlota (1947), by Luis Sandi, and Elena (1948), by Eduardo Hernández Moncada.

Antagonist to Chávez’s group, José F. Vázquez composed a considerable number of works in a post-romantic musical language; His repertoire included both Spanish and Italian. An outstanding work is Citlali (1922). Despite the presence of Vázquez, in the first half of the last century, opera became a forgotten genre. The majority of the composers preferred to follow other types of expressions like the music of the camera.

It was until the eighties that the musical dramas made in Mexico experienced a resurgence thanks to the scores of Federico Ibarra and Mario Lavista. “They are the composers who are going to revitalize the genre, in the sense that their students, and those who are not their students, will want to compose opera to demonstrate the use of their musical language,” says Maya.

Ibarra contributed to that small reborn Leocio and Lena (1981) Mother Juana (1993) and Alicia (1995). Lavista was successful with Aura (1989), based on Carlos Fuentes’s self-titled book.

Eduardo Contreras Soto, in his article An opera for our time: four proposals, published in 1993 in the journal Heterophony, coincides with Maya. He states that between 1989 and 1991, four operas containing new musical proposals were composed. Along with Aura, highlights the cases of Ambrosio (1989), by José Antonio Guzmán; The daughter of Rapaccini (1989), with scores by Daniel Catán; and La sunamita (1991) by Marcela Rodríguez.

/media/top5/OperaMex09.jpgÁura de Lavista. 

In the final stretch of the twentieth century, Aurea Maya and other Mexican musicologists were given the task of rescuing the scores of the great national authors of the nineteenth century. The understanding of these documents was difficult since some of them had no key at the beginning of the score. The researchers had to decipher its contents and pass them to a music editing program.

In 1994, Maya participated with Eugenio Delgado in the recovery of Ildegonda, of Melesio Morales. Once the work was finished, the work was presented at the National Arts Center in November of that year and later it was recorded on a compact disc.

In June of 1996, Maya, Verónica Murúa and other research team entered the Cenobio Paniagua archive. They found it messy, neglected and in poor conditions of conservation. In the classification works, they found the manuscripts of Catalina de Guisa and Pietro D’Abano. The scores of the orchestration of the first act and the accompaniment of the second act were missing from his debut opera. Fortunately, the analyzed documents provided the opportunity to replenish the lost data to reconstruct the missing harmonies.

That same year, Claudia Perches returned to the lecterns the score of Reynaldo and Elina by Manuel Covarrubias. It was in the library of the then National School of Music of the UNAM, today faculty. His presence had already been reported in the eighties by Dr. Malena Kuss of the University of North Texas.


The new millennium opened its arms to the Mexican opera represented by the sounds of Julio Estrada. In May 2006 he premiered his work Murmullos del páramo in Madrid and four months later he presented it at the University Cultural Center of Mexico City. In it recreates the sound environment of the town of Comala described with literary magic by Juan Rulfo in Pedro Páramo.

Estrada claims to have a unique connection with the work of the Jalisco author; He conducted an in-depth investigation of the acoustic aspects of the book. Knowing Rulfo beyond his epidermal layer helped Estrada to have a clearer idea about the path of his composition.

/media/top5/OperaMex10.jpgÓpera Cuatro Corridos by Jorge Volpi. 

Murmurs of the páramo began to take shape in 1991. It is a work with complex characteristics, a puzzle similar to the novel that inspires it. It breaks with the traditional scheme of the opera: it respects the silence of the text and the voices of its singers simulate the sorrows that the inhabitants of Comala confess once turned into ghosts. Due to his laborious conception, Estrada’s opera shares that Rulfian validity that shapes it as a key piece of the Mexican repertoire.

There are other projects in which Mexican composers have allied with talents from other disciplines and foreign collaborators. An example of this is Cuatro Corridos, with a libretto by Jorge Volpi and music by the Mexican Hilda Paredes, the Uruguayan Hebert Vázquez, the Chinese-American Lei Lang and the North American Arlene Sierra. This musical drama is about the trafficking of women in Tlaxcala. The list of Mexicans who have premiered operas in the 21st century includes names such as Federico Ibarra, Gabriela Ortíz, Marcela Rodríguez, Alfonso Molina and Diana Syrse. There is also an opportunity for echoes of the past. In 2010, Matilde or Mexico in 1810, was released in San Luis Potosí more than a century after its author finished it.

According to Áurea Maya, the main difficulty facing these current dramas is not very different from the one that predominated in the past.

“As in the 19th century, the problem is the representation of these operas. They have a high production cost and there are no longer itinerant companies that can convince, the Government is making these efforts. Another difficulty is that sometimes people also do not attend, so it is still preferred to present Italian opera to ensure somehow the economic success, although the tickets of the Palace of Fine Arts do not cover even the production of the works presented there There are always missing. “

However, the interest persists. Students of the Faculty of Music of the UNAM prepare the assembly of Catalina de Guisa de Cenobio Paniagua. In May of 2019, his notes will fill the Carlos Lazo Theater of the Faculty of Architecture. In addition, the group of researchers, teachers and novice musicians involved intends to take it to the Palace of Fine Arts.

“25 years after starting this project, with the participation of the teacher Verónica Murúa, we will be able to listen Catalina de Guisa in a montage with students. A very important point, because if our students do not know the Mexican works, how will they turn to see these works and how will they be promoted when they become great artists? “, Reflects the historian.

By Saúl Rodríguez

The Mazatlan Post