The roots of Mexican ranchera can be found in Italian opera The influence can be traced back to the 1800s when opera companies and their star singers traveled from Italy to perform across the country.

How Italian opera influenced Mexican ranchera

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What do the arias of Puccini and Bellini have to do with Mexico's ranchera music? As Betto Arcos reports, the roots of ranchera are found in Italian opera and song.

JAVIER CAMARENA: (Singing in Spanish).

BETTO ARCOS, BYLINE: It's a full house at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in downtown Los Angeles at a recital for the LA Opera. Mexican tenor Javier Camarena sings “Serenata Huasteca,” composed by Mexico's king of cancion ranchera Jose Alfredo Jimenez. Camarena's recital is a mix of Italian and French arias, Spanish and Mexican songs. After the concert, I meet him backstage to talk about the connection between opera and Mexico's cancion ranchera. Camarena says more than opera, the biggest influence on Mexican music is Italy's Neapolitan song.

CAMARENA: But I can imagine Italians coming to Mexico and saying, yeah, listen to me singing (singing) "O Sole Mio," you know (laughter)? And I can imagine the Mexicans and the composers saying, OK, so let's sing our music like that.

ARCOS: Camarena says the connection between the two seemingly different singing styles makes sense. During the first half of the 20th century, Mexican composers wrote songs for educated singers.


PEDRO VARGAS: (Singing in Spanish).

CAMARENA: We have Agustin Lara - he wrote his - many of his songs for a tenor, who was Pedro Vargas. We had Maria Grever, who actually wrote a couple songs for Jose Mojica, another tenor.


JOSE MOJICA: (Singing in Spanish).

ARCOS: It's midnight at Plaza Garibaldi's bar El Tenampa, downtown Mexico City. El Tenampa is a sort of cathedral of Mexican popular music. The walls are covered by murals with famous singers of rancheras - Pedro Infante, Aida Cuevas, Jose Alfredo Jimenez, Chavela Vargas, Juan Gabriel. Tonight, singer Alvaro Hurtado is doing the rounds with a mariachi group. During a short break, I sit down with Hurtado for a brief conversation. I'm curious if he knows about the connection between Mexican rancheras and Italian opera.

ALVARO HURTADO: (Speaking Spanish).

ARCOS: Hurtado admits he doesn't know much about opera but says Luciano Pavarotti sang with a lot of feeling. Then Hurtado adds, "If Pavarotti sang Mexican rancheras, he would have been very successful, like Jorge Negrete."


JORGE NEGRETE: (Singing in Spanish).

ARCOS: Negrete studied bel canto and started his career in radio in the early 1930s, not singing rancheras, but operatic works. His story is not unusual. The Italian influence on Mexican music can be traced back to the early 1800s, when opera companies and their star singers traveled from Italy to perform across the country. Dan Sheehy is an ethnomusicologist with expertise in Mexican folk music.

DAN SHEEHY: It was like a parade, you know? People would welcome them in the streets of Mexico City. You know, the word would spread, and people would come out in droves and watch the carrozas - you know, the floats or the wagons carrying the opera singers and all the hanger-ons (ph), you know, all the groupies of the day - following the arrival of the Italian opera singer, whether it be a soprano or a baritone or whatever.

ARCOS: Sheehy says in Mexico, Italian opera in the 1800s was more grassroots. People from all walks of life went to the shows. Eventually, opera became a high-priced form of entertainment, accessible only to the elite.


AIDA CUEVAS: (Singing in Spanish).

ARCOS: That's Aida Cuevas, who is considered the last of the great singers of the ranchera style of her generation. A few years ago, Cuevas worked with an opera singer who said this to her.

CUEVAS: (Through interpreter) I don't understand how the singers of rancheras can sing. I don't know how you don't end up hoarse - without a voice. What you do is a superhuman effort. Well, I said, thank you.


CUEVAS: (Singing in Spanish).

CAMARENA: I'm sure this influence from opera, from Neapolitan songs - it was this that made our singers to perform our music in that way.

ARCOS: Tenor Javier Camarena.

CAMARENA: And giving the music that we know as the Mexican soul for the songs - and that is what makes difficult to sing Mexican music and rancheras - because they need the Mexican soul.

ARCOS: Camarena says he always likes to include Mexican songs in his recitals.

CAMARENA: (Singing in Spanish).

ARCOS: Dan Sheehy says the natural result of marrying two singing styles together is like a hybrid fruit.

SHEEHY: You actually graft one plant onto another and you create this new - you know, this new fruit.

ARCOS: The new fruit born in Mexico is the cancion ranchera style of singing.

For NPR News, I'm Betto Arcos.


ROSY ARANGO: (Singing in Spanish).

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