Pancho Villa from a Safe Distance: An Opera Without Borders, About Borders
An experimental opera tells a 100-year-old story.
Pancho Villa From a Safe Distance (On the Boards, Nov. 16–19, 2017) is an experimental chamber opera about the life and death of Pancho Villa. Commissioned by Ballroom Marfa, with libretto by Mexico City-based theater collective Lagartijas Tiradas Al Sol, the project is the third installment of The Marfa Triptych, a trilogy of musical performances by composer Graham Reynolds.
The opera is an examination of the Mexican and Mexican-American impact on the culture and politics of West Texas, contributing to the current and timely conversation about borders and the limitations of the concept of delineated states.
We spoke with Graham to learn more about this genre-hopping show that will keep you on your toes as rhythms surge and shadows loom large.
LMP: This isn’t a typical opera. What should audiences expect?
Graham Reynolds: To me, it’s more of a collage of scenes from Pancho Villa’s life. The text is found text of the time, combined with newly-created text. The influences range from a lot of Mexican and Tejano (especially northern Mexican styles) to classical, chamber, and opera music — and then rock, and punk rock, and influences from that side.
LMP: How did the project come about?
Graham: We were working on a triptych, all explorations of West Texas. [Director] Shawn Sides and I were in El Paso — far, far West Texas, right on the border — and stayed in this hotel where Pancho Villa lived at the beginning of the [Mexican] revolution. We had been searching for an operatic figure, and Pancho Villa was by far the most operatic figure we had found in West Texas.
LMP: If you had to pick one show to see this weekend, why would this be it?
Graham: It has an immediacy to it. The subject is so important in the moment. It’s a piece about something that took place 100 years ago or so, but with countless parallels to what’s going on today. The show has become more timely since we conceived it three or four years ago. It’s a lot about the border, and the border is such a prominent issue today. It’s an important subject to have dialog about.
Musically — artistically — we’ve tried to build doorways in, so the arty-est art person has a doorway in, someone who likes beautiful melodies has a doorway in. Somebody who’s a Spanish speaker has a doorway in. It’s mostly in Spanish, but there are supertitles and it’s a bi-lingual opera. We’ve tried to make it so that everyone has a way to access it without it pandering or speaking down at anyone. It’s pulling from many sources and then synthesizing them together the best we can.
LMP: Seattle is the seventh stop for Pancho Villa. Has anything changed throughout the tour?
Graham: We change it a bit every time. Each time, it gets a little closer to not changing, but we experiment with different refinements, or different ideas, each time. Also, each room and each audience is different. The first three places we did it were in Texas. Texas and Pancho Villa go together in a way that other states don’t as much. Seattle is the furthest from the border with Mexico that we’ve ever done it, so I’m curious how some of the issues translate.
LMP: Are there any final thoughts you’d like to leave us with?
Graham: The Mexican revolution is such a complicated, confusing war. It went on for 13 years; there were many different presidents and shifts of power. Pancho Villa is such a complicated, contradictory figure throughout West Texas. Everybody’s got a personal story: “My grandfather rode with Pancho Villa” or “My grandfather’s fields were burned down by Pancho Villa.”
It has a personal immediacy that I didn’t expect when we set out to do this, in that he’s closer now to our contemporary time than I ever realized. So it’s fun to meet those people, and interesting how they react to the piece. I don’t imagine in Seattle we’ll run into anybody with those kind of personal stories, but it happens at every performance in Texas and Los Angeles.
Catch “Pancho Villa from a Safe Distance” (Pancho Villa Desde una Distancia Segura) Nov. 16–19, 2017 at On The Boards in Seattle. Tickets & more info at ontheboards.org.
All photos by Shaya Bendix Lyon.