For weeks prior to the show’s opening, the city of Madison was abuzz with anticipation about Esperanza, a professionally mounted opera that had its world premiere August 25, 2000 at Old Music Hall on the University of Wisconsin campus. An opera premiere is unusual enough for Madison, but Esperanza has also attracted a unique level of interest across several generations of the city’s left-wing political spectrum. The opera is based on the controversial 1954 film Salt of the Earth, the true story of a New Mexico zinc miners’ strike told from the perspective of the Mexican-American mine workers and their wives. The movie has gained legendary status over the years because it was made outside of the Hollywood studio system by blacklisted filmmakers. Carlos Morton’s libretto for Esperanza closely follows the narrative of Salt of the Earth and creates musical settings for portions of dialogue from Michael Wilson’s screenplay.
Playing to sold-out crowds and standing ovations, Esperanza is unquestionably a hit with Madisonians. Whether this will translate to success in other cities remains to be seen. The Madison cast is headed by two nationally recognized and appealing singers, soprano Theresa Santiago in the role of Esperanza, and baritone William Alvarado as Esperanza’s mining husband, Ramon. Also deserving of praise is Jeffrey Picon, a tenor with the Lyric Opera of Chicago, who plays Ramon’s earnest friend, Vicente. As a rule, secondary roles in regional productions are not strongly cast, and Esperanza for the most part is no exception. A more serious disappointment is the sight of Anglo performers playing characters meant to be of Hispanic heritage (which is the case, unfortunately, with the otherwise exceptional Jeffrey Picon).
New York composer David Bishop’s beguiling score is the best argument in support of the opera’s future prospects. Uncluttered and melodic, its blend of bedrock Americana and Mexican folk music recalls the work of Aaron Copland. There are echoes of Leonard Bernstein in the score’s playfulness and wit. Arias and duets, even when sentimental, never sink to the maudlin, and the rousing choruses never rise to bombast.
Among many highlights is the enchanting duet between Esperanza and Ramon in scene three of the first act, when they sing to their soon-to-be-born son, "We wait for you, we welcome you, we live for you." William Alvarado is given a luminous climactic aria in the final scene when Ramon feels remorse after an argument with Esperanza and he sings movingly of "something she said, something she said to me." The orchestra performs competently under conductor and artistic director Karlos Moser, an emeritus professor of music with the University of Wisconsin. Moser, along with Kathleen McElroy, originated the project and raised the funds to stage Esperanza from more than 500 individuals, labor organizations, and state arts councils.
The opera is not without humor, most of which derives from gender-role reversals. A court injunction prevents the miners from picketing, so their wives take over the picket line while the men stay home with the laundry and the children. After a taste of washing clothes, the miners come to appreciate why their wives wanted hot water added to the list of strikers’ demands. Ramon — dressed in an apron several sizes too small — sings a show-stopping duet with Vicente in praise of "hot running water." The production on occasion strains too hard for laughs. Stage director Norma Saldivar has engineered some unfortunate slapstick during a confrontation between the picketing women and two sheriff’s deputies that seems altogether out of place in the show.
Scenic designer Joe Varga has created a multi-level clapboard set with an overhanging backdrop of blue New Mexico desert sky and a blazing sun (which doubles as a lustrous moon for nighttime scenes). With minor adjustments of props by cast members, sections of the stage are effectively transformed into a union hall, a barroom, a mine shaft entrance, or Esperanza’s kitchen.
With the stain of Red-baiting long since vanquished, the themes expressed by Salt of the Earth and Esperanza seem remarkably innocent today: racial and gender equality, workers’ solidarity, and corporate accountability. However, this is a story that succeeds on the strength of its innocence and idealism. The strike has mythic overtones because the miners and their wives experienced their struggle in mythic terms. Esperanza has reached back across the decades and reclaimed a measure of dignity for an honorable motion picture that was sucker-punched by McCarthyism.