Off the Wall

One-act opera is every bit as didactic as the mural from which it takes its title, but lacks the same punch

At the start of composer David Conte's new chamber opera, America Tropical, the renowned 20th-century Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros contemplates the creation of his masterpiece political fresco, La América Tropical, in downtown Los Angeles in 1932. Figures from the city's distant past and future glide in and out of the artist's mind as he considers what message he wants to communicate with airbrush and paint. When one of these ghosts, an 18th-century Mexican peasant by the name of Maria Soledad, asks the painter, "Do you make walls?" Siqueiros responds, "I make walls speak."

By bringing art into the public sphere, murals have perhaps a greater ability to convey a direct political or social message than any other art form. From the partisan wall paintings of Northern Ireland to the quirky, anti-authoritarian musings of the currently über-trendy British graffiti artist Banksy, the immediacy of art painted on bricks and cement has inspired a vast range of reactions from the reverential awe of passersby to condemnation from authorities.

Like many public artists before and after him, Siqueiros, who was one of a trio of Mexican mural masters (alongside Diego Rivera and Jose Clemente Orozco) popularly known under the moniker "Los Tres Grandes," liberally communicated his militant political views through his artwork. La América Tropical is the second and most famous of three murals created by the artist during a six-month sojourn in L.A. following his expulsion from Mexico for radical actions that included, among other things, attempting to assassinate Leon Trotsky. Featuring a Mayan pyramid overrun by vegetation, armed peasants, and the image of an Indian slave crucified on a double cross capped by an American eagle, the allegorical wall painting made a potent political statement about the oppression of the worker by U.S. imperialism. Shortly after completion, local authorities uncomfortable with the work's anti-capitalist message ordered it to be painted out. Forgotten for decades, the fresco was rediscovered in the late 1960s when the whitewash began to peel. Since then, L.A.'s downtown community has worked to restore the mural to its original state.

Too many story lines, too little time.
Seth Dickerman
Too many story lines, too little time.

The fascinating story behind Siqueiros' mural demonstrates the power of public art in shaping civic sentiment. But despite the opera's subject matter, America Tropical sadly doesn't delve into Siqueiros' richly lived life or fractious body of work. It does, however, pick up on the painter's belief in art as an instructional tool. Focusing on history's never-ending cycle of ethnic oppression — specifically, the racial tensions that have shaped the development of L.A. — America Tropical is every bit as didactic as the mural from which it takes its title. But it doesn't quite have the same impact.

Thick Description's ambitious, world-premiere production attempts to weave together three disparate narratives in an exploration of L.A.'s fractious history. The first plot follows Siqueiros' creation of his fresco. Performed with emotional nuance by baritone Mark Hernandez, the character of Siqueiros mulls over the significance of his work of art and interacts in a dreamlike way with characters from the past and future. The second and most prominent narrative strand brings the people depicted in the muralist's artwork — the Mexican Pobladores who traveled thousands of miles to found the city of L.A. circa 1781 — to life. In this story, a rich Spaniard, Lara (played by the up and coming young Mexican tenor Eleazar Rodríguez with a ruthlessness that belies the performer's cherubic demeanor), reasserts his community's stifling caste system. Lara forces the black carpenter Moreno (tenor Antoine Garth) to work, while he and his blue-blooded Spanish brothers carouse and pray to the Virgin Mary. Meanwhile, Moreno's devout wife Maria (soprano Sibel Demirmen), tries unsuccessfully to intercede on her husband's behalf. The third story in America Tropical takes a leap forward some 210 years. This part of the opera concerns George Holliday (baritone Chad Runyon), a plumber who achieved instant media attention by capturing one of the most infamous acts of police brutality in contemporary history — the 1991 beating of L.A. cab driver Rodney King — on his handycam.

With its stylized mise-en-scène, contrasting characters, and strong, allegorical message, the opera is a living political mural of sorts. Conte's score, with its hints of George Gershwin, Kurt Weill, and the chamber music of Dmitri Shostakovich, is as colorful as anything painted by Siqueiros. The composer's use of glittering flute scales when the iconic figure of The India (the goosebump-inducing mezzo-soprano Sepideh Moafi) wakes up on the cross above the stage, cuts across the work's overall brooding texture, enthralling the listener with its beauty and hope. Meanwhile, director Tony Kelly's staging, with its echoes of Communist-era constructivist paintings, speaks of the thankless nature of daily life. In one of the most evocative moments, the cast, in the guise of factory workers, sings a plodding song in close, stifling harmony about daily toil while performing machinelike actions with blank expressions on their faces. Set and lighting designer Rick Martin's reconstruction of Siqueiros' mural in chalk behind criss-crossing scaffolding bars and frowning lights underscores the brooding mood with suggestions of darkness and imprisonment.

Yet despite the strength of the performances, the ingenuity of the staging, and the lushness of the music, America Tropical doesn't pack the same political punch as its painted namesake. Running at just 60 minutes, the opera simply tries to tell too many stories in too short a timeframe. It's difficult to follow what's going on, even with the benefit of a synopsis in the program. One moment, we're trying to grasp the relationships between the 18th-century characters Lara, Moreno, and Maria, and the next we're wondering what prompts Siqueiros to make a pass at Maria. And while it's easy to understand the link between the artist's story and that of the characters in his fresco, the link between these two narratives and the Rodney King plotline is more obtuse. The compactness of the work is further responsible for the lack of variety in the overall mood. A heavy-handed earnestness prevails throughout because there's no time for humor, a change of pace, or even simple character development.

America Tropicalmay aim to educate the theatergoer. But unlike the best political murals — and operas for that matter (a category that includes John Adams' Nixon in China, Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro, and Anthony Davis' The Life and Times of Malcolm X, to name a few) — its teachings are exhaustingly unappealing. If only Conte and his cohorts had mined Siqueiros' life for meaning and dropped the Pobladores and Rodney King from their musical fresco completely. There's enough in the artist's own story about the fight against oppression and redemption to fill a full-length opera. In drawing attention to Siqueiros' recently rediscovered mural, such a work would also literally make the walls speak.

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