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Camelia la Tejana: Long Beach Opera tells brings famous narcocorrido to life

A still from the Mexico City production of Camelia la Tejana
A still from the Mexico City production of Camelia la Tejana
Courtesy Ruben Ortiz Torres

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Making its US debut in Long Beach this Sunday, March 24th, is an opera called Camelia La Tejana. Composed by Gabriela Ortiz and written by Ruben Ortiz-Torrez, her brother, it has all the making of a classic opera: love, death, music. But the opera's story has roots in contemporary life, as Off-Ramp producer Kevin Ferguson explains. 

The idea for Camelia La Tejana started with a song from 1971 called "Contrabando y traición,or "Contraband and Betrayal." The traditional Corrido told the story of Camelia la Tejana: a drug smuggler from Texas who shoots her male partner and takes off with the money.

The corrido became one of the most popular songs of its day, inspired several movies, and launched the career of Los Tigres del Norte, the band that recorded it. Gabriela Ortiz, the opera's composer, remembers the first time she heard it. A Polish theater professor played during a class.

"He said this corrido is like a whole story. You could do a movie, you could do an opera from the corrido, because a corrido has all the archetypes of an opera," said Ortiz.  "It's like a Carmen--a  modern Mexican, Norteño Carmen."

Ortiz says she revisited the song when she began working on a project with her brother, artist Ruben Ortiz-Torres. To find story ideas, they looked in Alarma - a Mexican tabloid. "We found this article in the Alarma magazine, and we saw the picture of Camelia la Tejana," said Ortiz. "So we thought, oh, maybe she's from the corrido? Is she alive?"

They started investigating. They found another article, this one about a different Camelia. And another. And another. The person who wrote the song said she was fake, but all these other stories insisted she was out there.

The original story might've been like Carmen, but now the gray areas were taking over. An opera began to take shape, part documentary, part video... not about the song so much as the mythology behind Camelia. "This is what the opera is all about," said Ortiz. "About how this myth becomes real in the minds of Mexican people. And why she's so famous, and why many people think that she's alive.

At a rehearsal in Downtown Long Beach,  you can see the story come to life. The music reaches across genres: classical opera, norteños, cumbia--you see television crews, dance parties, a shooting--all in the first 20 minutes.

Enivia Mendoza performs Camelia in the opera, she's fascinated by the character. "Camelia's a woman that constantly dominates," said Mendoza. "She likes to have control of men, control of narcotráficos. And that's a challenge. Because as a woman dominating the opposite sex--you need a lot of strength. I'm really happy with this role because aside from being seductive, she's strong and dominant at the same time. "

The Long Beach Opera presents Camelia la Tejana: Only the Truth, through Sunday March 30. For tickets information, go to the Long Beach Opera's website