007 Spectre, Alejandro Escuer, Ayana Haviv, Conquest by Hugh Thomas, Coyoacan, Eclipse Quartet, Gabriela Ortiz, Gaspar Yanga, Gustavo Dudamel, Hanoi New Music Ensemble, Jonathan Gold, Jordi Savall, Leopoldo Novoa, Los Angeles Master Chorale, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Ludwig van Beethoven, Mexico City, Sergio Vela, Tambuco Percussion Ensemble, Verzcruz, Yanga City
There is only one good way to respond to a great idea coming your way.
Just say “Yes.” And this next step is essential, say that “yes” with immediate enthusiasm. The devilish details will come, one way or the other, as the project develops, but avoid resolving all those difficulties. Focus on saying “yes.”
The challenge? You need to have the experience to be able to distinguish between just a good idea and a truly great idea. Or in the more colorful words of Frank Zappa, “Most people wouldn’t know a great idea if it walked up and bit ‘em on the ass.”
In September of 2014, literally the day before I was to have an exploratory meeting with an influential new presenter in Southern California, I got an email from my friend composer Gabriela Ortiz. She presented me with one of the greatest ideas I’d ever received. Would we be interested in exploring an opera together with her? I instinctively gulped while reading her email carefully.
What followed in Gaby’s email of September 2014 is the subject of this post, as she outlined the compelling story of the 17th century historical events of Gaspar Yanga, an enslaved Prince of Gabon, the African Spartacus of the Americas.
Most successful projects we’ve produced have taken seven years to plan, from the initial spark of inspiration to the final realization of every last detail. At this point in the trajectory for Gaspar Yanga, we are only at Year Five.
So there is still time for more possibility – one never knows what doors will open!
Gabriela explained to me in her email: “Dear Jeff, Here is my idea for a new opera. Gaspar Yanga was a privileged African prince of a royal family of Gabon during the 16th century. His life was violently changed, for he was captured and brought to México as a slave. Facing despair, he managed to escape and lived for over thirty years as a fugitive. During those years he helped others to escape and with all those people he organized constant assaults on Spanish caravans and royal messengers who were transporting goods, particularly gold, extracted from all over New Spain to the port of Veracruz, goods to be sent to Europe for the building of church altars and the opulent and expensive life of the Spanish 16th century Golden Age. All stolen goods were divided among Yanga’s people to survive. Yanga selected his raids strategically and chose not to accept a Spanish promise of exchange for favors, as in being put in direct contact with the crown of Spain. By 1630 the Spanish had had enough of Yanga’s successful revolt. The African Spartacus negotiated an end to his raids with the Spanish, if he and his people were allowed to live in freedom and produce their own goods. That is how San Lorenzo De Los Negros near Veracruz became the very first free from slavery and independent settlement in the Americas. Gaspar Yanga was therefore the first black ruler in the Americas.
“I know this must be my next opera, dear Jeff. I’d prefer to work with you, Jan and your Southwest Chamber Music in co-production with a team here in México on this dream idea. Can we talk more? What do you think?”
I picked up the phone and said “Yes.” We were on to next steps immediately.
First of all, I set off the next day in Los Angeles for my exploratory meeting with a new presenter. He manages a theater complex that has the infrastructure for opera production (those series of meetings I must say followed the usual frustrating pattern of “Yes this is fantastic, we’re all in” to the final result of “Oh no, that’s not possible, we certainly can’t afford to go with you to México for direct meetings” – experience had already taught me that that was absolutely the beginning of the end). Jan drew up a Rockefeller MAP Fund grant (the proposal was a finalist, a good first step for a project under discussion). In discussions with our Mexican colleagues, we designed our July 2015 Los Angeles International New Music Festival at REDCAT in Walt Disney Concert Hall to facilitate more behind-the-scenes Yanga discussions. Finally, Jan and I bought plane tickets for April 2015 to hold in person exploratory meetings in Coyoacán to discuss Yanga, plan our 2015 REDCAT series in detail and meet our potential collaborators in México City. We needed to create a mutual timeline together for a daunting cultural exchange project with our trusted friends in México.
”Jeff and Jan, let’s make a short road trip for our big upcoming project about Gaspar Yanga,” said our friend Ricardo Gallardo. “There is a town called Yanga on the road to Veracruz, and we can enjoy some great seafood, too!” The involvement of his Tambuco Percussion Ensemble was obvious from the start, and Jan and I were staying in his Coyoacán apartment for this April series of meetings. We also determined early on to work with Colombian composer and music scholar Leopoldo Novoa and his group Tembembe. Leopoldo happens to also be the right hand man of Jordi Savall regarding music from the Americas. And Gaby was in touch with the noted Mexican historian Antonio Díaz de Leon to guide her research.
Historical discovery was going to be front and center for Gaspar Yanga!
“I haven’t been there since I was a kid,” said Ricardo, “but I remember a huge statue of Yanga in the middle of the highway – we should do our research early and go see what’s in the town, and from there we can also easily visit Veracruz and also tour Antigua, the base camp of Hernan Cortés and the Spanish conquest of México.”
Ricardo was right – there always remains a memory in the area of historical events. When we finally arrived in the city of Yanga, it was clear the impact of the 16th century revolt of the enslaved Prince of Gabon was everywhere. We’d hit proverbial research gold, beyond all of our imaginations!
Ricardo believed that these street names were from the recent past, probably from the Portillo presidency, but you can imagine our excitement at finding all of these African echoes as we were exploring the spirit of Gaspar Yanga.
”But where is the statue I remember as a kid?”
A puzzled Ricardo asked around the town square, and easily got the news that the statue had been moved a little out of town, into a park with a mural depicting Yanga’s successful revolt against the Spanish. So we got into the car and drove just a little further from the city center, still heading toward to Veracruz.
What we found contained personal synchronicities for Jan and me that remain astounding, so please keep reading!
The synchronicity of the information contained in this inscription remains powerful to us all. The engraving says that “the City San Lorenzo De Cerralvo, today Yanga” was founded on October 3rd, 1631. As Jan read the inscription, she burst out in surprise, as October 3rd is the birthday of her late father, Martin Karlin. And then we were surprised a second time. Could it be? The contemporary inscription was put up on August 10th, 1976 – August 10th is my birthday.
Both inscribed dates personally synchronous? Our project felt under very auspicious signs from both the present and the past. You can’t make this up!
As we were absorbing the city of Yanga and its park, Ricardo, Jan and I were getting more and more curious about everything surrounding the history of Gaspar Yanga. I wondered aloud where the original Spanish 16th century documents might be found. Ricardo conjectured Sevilla, as the expeditions into the New World were tightly controlled by the Spanish crown, and more or less came and went between Veracruz and the Andalusian port city. For example, there still exist exhaustive written records, with extremely detailed information, of all the participants of Cortés’s Conquest of México. These documents are found in the University of Sevilla’s rare book library. The letters and lengthy reports of the Spanish crown’s scribes were the 16th century version of CNN live video reporting. (Should you be interested to learn more, I’d recommend you read Conquest by British historian Hugh Thomas, according to all my Mexican friends the definitive history on the Spanish Conquest. Thomas’ book includes mind blowing historical research well worth your time and investment).
We got back into the car and headed on towards our destination of Veracruz and a well deserved seafood lunch. As we rounded a corner in the road, Ricardo spotted a very humble looking building, but realized it was the city’s history museum.
He was right, we’d better take a look. OMG! OMG! OMG!
We were simply put stunned to read the original Spanish documents, which Ricardo translated for us to be certain we understood every word. We knew right then and there that Gabriela’s Gaspar Yanga opera was a truly great idea, a story that needed to be told. Ricardo, Jan and I got back into the car and drove on to Veracruz, each in our own way quietly in touch with an important piece of the history of freedom in the Americas.
Upon return to México City, there were more meetings to be had. The essential one was with Sergio Vela, who had served as México’s Minister of Culture and was now in charge of the Centro Historico Festival. Gabriela arranged a breakfast at the San Ángel Inn, where we pitched Yanga to Sergio. He was immediately enthusiastic, and we set about discussing the most essential issue, the need for a libretto. Vela put Gabriela in touch with Spanish author Santiago Martín Bermúdez, who lives in Madrid, as he believed Santiago would be an ideal person to approach to write a libretto. In addition, Sergio’s concept was to stage Gaspar Yanga in an 16th century Spanish building in the central district of México City, and then adapt the production to our interested Los Angeles presenter. Mario Espinosa was set to be the stage director and already on board, as he had directed Gaby’s opera Unicamente La Verdad in México City in 2010.
I had insisted on Tambuco returning to Los Angeles for our 2015 Los Angeles International New Music Festival. In April, Ricardo and I outlined a long term plan to present music from all of Latin America, with July 2015 being a starting point. We presented together what remains the most compelling exposure of composers from Latin America in recent Los Angeles memory (yes, there are composers in Uruguay, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Chile, Ecuador, Perú, Cuba, Argentina, Venezuela and Colombia). To continue our commitment to Gabriela’s music, I also included an evening of three of her string quartets, brilliantly played by the Eclipse Quartet, with soprano Ayana Haviv, who mastered singing in Mayan for Gaby’s haunting Baalkah. All of this covered for more discussion about Gaspar Yanga, and Leopoldo Novoa of Tembembe made a surprise appearance in Los Angeles as well (a piece of his was on Tambuco’s program).
The next important milestone was easily reached, as fantastic news came in early summer 2015 that playwright Santiago Martín Bermúdez would finish the libretto by August and was able to travel from Madrid to México City for discussions. Would I be able to come to Coyoacán to go to the next steps? Absolutely! (However our interested Los Angeles presenter balked at the price of an airline ticket, which I knew was the beginning of the end. Sometimes you have to be in the room to create trust, that’s a fact.)
Gabriela and I had covered a lot of ground for Gaspar Yanga in less than a year. But experience is a great teacher. It’s better to let go with grace than hang on with a tight grip. What happened?
For starters, Sergio Vela’s Centro Historico Festival ran into financial problems that made the ambition of Yanga risky. Donald Trump was elected, which brought the curtain down on our ability to, with any confidence, green light a major exchange with México. Visa applications would surely be an epic venture. Our Los Angeles presenter, even with a completed libretto months ahead of schedule, didn’t quite understand cultural exchange next steps adequately enough to help us proceed with assurance (their organization needed somebody to have been in the dinner photo above – bold cultural exchange projects are about building trust. I felt at a distinct disadvantage being the lone gringo in Coyoacán in August 2015).
And then, in retrospect almost on cue, arrives Gustavo Dudamel.
Gabriela received a commission for Teenek, which is now included in upcoming 2019 Los Angeles Philharmonic tours to México City and London this November. She then received a Green Umbrella commission, which she used to honor the memory of the beloved Angeleno food writer, Jonathan Gold. Jan and I headed off to begin the founding of the Hà Nội New Music Ensemble in Việt Nam, so we were not necessarily right around the block anymore. Tambuco touched pop-culture gold contributing the music and appearing significantly on film for Spectre, its mammoth Day of the Dead sequence being the most expensive opening in the history of the 007 James Bond franchise. And to top all of this off, Gabriela receives another orchestra commission from Dudamel, for a new piece including choir, to be played with the Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in October of 2019, the capstone to the orchestra’s truly impressive centennial celebrations.
In other words, we all got busy at the same time.
”Jeff, can I take you to lunch tomorrow? I really need to talk to both you and Jan,” said Gaby as she hugged me at Café Tacuba last November, where we were all celebrating the 25th anniversary concert of Tambuco at the Bellas Artes. (You can search an earlier blog post from December 12th, 2018 about that concert, if you’re interested).
We arranged to meet at an old México City restaurant for a long Sunday lunch, the legendary El Cardenal. Gaby had indicated to me after the hug you see above that she was almost facing writer’s block about finding a text or subject for the Dudamel commission for Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. She needed a lifeline, so to speak.
Let that sink in. Imagine, for a moment, that you are a composer.
You dream of your music becoming heard, cared about, important. So now you’ve been asked to have a piece of yours answer the Beethoven Ninth. By the most important conductor of our generation, in the most prestigious new hall on earth, with the resources of a great orchestra and chorus, for the most impressive centennial celebration of any orchestra on the globe. On a weekend of performances by Esa-Pekka Salonen, Zubin Mehta, and then Gustavo Dudamel gives your piece it’s world premiere.
Good luck with that, amiga!
As Jan and I were getting ready to go to El Cardenal, I said “Jan, it’s absolutely obvious to me what Gaby’s solution should be to her very real Beethoven Ninth angst. She needs to go back to all previous planning work we did and present Gaspar Yanga as a mini-cantata with choir, include Tambuco as the drums of freedom blowing the roof off of Disney Hall, and tell Dudamel it’s her response to the commission so she can get to work composing the damn thing. She has no more time left for meetings and back and forths determining a text or subject – not composing is itself making her crazy, I suspect. Do you agree, sweetie?” Jan looked at me and said “Crystal clear obvious to me, Yanga is a slam dunk idea, but she can’t see it right now I’m sure. Let’s see if she’s receptive but go for it as your best suggestion. She might respond to the focus the idea brings with it.”
We got to El Cardenal for lunch early but once seated, almost as if a director had said “Action!” Gabriela let her hair down and admitted, shaking a bit, “I’m basically freaking out about this piece, Jeff and Jan. What do you think? Do you have any suggestions? Can we talk about it?” I asked what she was considering. She then outlined a not very convincing concept that was more a hope than a new piece, to my way of thinking.
Then she asked me again what I thought. So I looked at her and slowly said two words.
”G a s p a r. Y a n g a.”
Gabriela stared back in amazement, focusing on me with those deep and piercing Mexican eyes of hers. I could see her physically release and start to relax and calm herself. “Dios mio you’re right Jeff,” she said quietly. “Please go on.”
”Just dream and imagine the impact on an audience – and the players,” I said. “They will all be stunned learning about Gaspar Yanga, the 16th century African Spartacus of the Americas, tormenting the Spanish for thirty years until the Spanish surrender to Yanga and establish the first free city in the Americas. You already have the text, maybe just ask Santiago for a poem or to telescope for you a compendium from the existing libretto. Tell Dudamel that his three commissions have put this very important opera project on your back burner. Offer it to him if you want. Use this amazing commission as a scaffold to get the opera written and produced – whether I’m involved or not isn’t important to me anymore, but the idea of an opera about Gaspar Yanga is gold, and that doesn’t happen all the time. And to answer the Beethoven Ninth you can’t find a more ideal Old World/New World subject matter. Because what could possibly be a better subject, from the Americas and from México, to answer Beethoven’s call to freedom and joy but a story of true liberty that reaches deep into the 16th century history of México and is a story that very few people know? I urge you to have Tambuco drum the place into an overwhelming expression of freedom for a finish, they can leave no doubt about Yanga’s victory with the audience. An explosion of Beethovenian freedom from México. Isn’t that a message we all need right now? What do you think?”
”Listo, dear Jeff, listo. My God, I didn’t see it, Yanga is so obvious to me now, I’d lost that thread. You are always, always, so clear, thank you, thank you, it’s now so easy for me, even right now, to dream and hear the music and get to work!!!!!!”
And sure enough, Gustavo Dudamel signed on immediately!
Ideas often need to find their moment, their time. Nothing is random, and if I turned back my clock to September of 2014 and Gaby’s initial email letter asking me if I’d be interested in Gaspar Yanga, I would do everything again. Where it goes from here is anybody’s guess – perhaps other doors will open?
But, just perhaps, Gaspar Yanga has already found his home with Gustavo Dudamel, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Master Chorale and our best musical friends, the Four Horsemen of this Apocalypse of Freedom, the incomparable Tambuco Percussion Ensemble of México City? Time will tell. It always does.
We need to always question the works of Beethoven, just playing them and listening to them is not enough for the 21st century. We also must answer Beethoven and truly move beyond his 19th century world, which we do everyday anyway, and in the process open up the concert halls of the world to the 21st century.
And I believe that my dear friend Gabriela Ortiz is the woman to lead the charge.
Something tells me you should truly get ready for the stampede of Yanga’s horses of freedom. They will break loose from the confines of the Disney Hall stage, crossing the victory line of freedom in our hearts and minds around the world. Yanga’s story will put Ludwig van Beethoven, certainly our universal musical patron saint, into a shared and new context, lead by a woman who composes alongside his iconic status.
New music is what old music needs to survive. I rather suspect Beethoven himself will be paying attention that Sunday afternoon. I know that’s how Gabriela has felt for a very long time.
Jan and I will see you at 2 PM on Sunday October 27th at Walt Disney Concert Hall for the world premiere of YANGA by Gabriela Ortiz, and we are honored to be a part of its life.
Viva Gabriela! Viva Yanga! Viva Tambuco! Viva Dudamel! Viva México!
Best, best, best,