'Florencia en el Amazonas' has made its way to the Metropolitan Opera : Deceptive Cadence Florencia gives star Ailyn Pérez a rare chance to sing in Spanish. As the bilingual daughter of Mexican immigrants, she learned early on that language had the power to shape her experience and voice.

Finding a place at the Met, this opera sings in a language of its own

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A night at the opera might mean a fancy theater, a cast of booming voices, songs in Italian or French or English. But what about the second-most-spoken language in the U.S.? Spanish has long been underrepresented in the world of opera. NPR's Luis Trelles brings us the story of a recent premiere that is bucking that trend.

JORGE ZHUNIO: (Speaking Spanish).

LUIS TRELLES, BYLINE: Jorge Zhunio's connection to the opera is all about proximity.

ZHUNIO: (Speaking Spanish).

TRELLES: Zhunio has served coffee and quesadillas out of his tightly packed pushcart for the past 15 years. It's parked just a block away from Lincoln Center, home of the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.

ZHUNIO: I could say, like, 70% of the people who come here - they speak Spanish.

TRELLES: Up on the Met stage, it's a different story. There hasn't been an opera in Spanish there in almost a hundred years until now.


MATTIA OLIVIERI: (As Riolobo, singing in Spanish).

TRELLES: "Florencia En El Amazonas" premiered at the Met recently. Set in the early 20th century, the story follows Florencia Grimaldi, a famous soprano who has conquered European audiences with the power of her voice. In this new staging, Ailyn Perez takes on the title role.

AILYN PEREZ: She's a mysterious woman, an Amazonica woman who has been given a gift of singing, realizing that she got caught up in the journey and never went back home.

TRELLES: Florencia split up with the love of her life on her way to stardom, and now she's back in South America trying to recapture what she lost. It's a tropical journey that takes her down the Amazon River on a steamship. Along the way, she meets characters trying to rekindle a fading sense of love, while other passengers are searching for their true desire. The project originally came together in the mid-'90s. It was a vision driven by Mexican composer Daniel Catan.

MARCELA FUENTES-BERAIN: Daniel was completely obsessed to put our language in another level, to put our music, our cultural world, in operas.

TRELLES: Marcela Fuentes-Berain was also part of the creative team. She's a Mexican screenwriter, a craft she learned from Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the Nobel Prize winner from Colombia. It was Garcia Marquez who approached her with the idea of writing an opera inspired by his novels. Her first reaction...

FUENTES-BERAIN: An opera - how can I do that? And I said, so sorry. No. I cannot write an opera. And he said, yes, you can. I will teach you how. OK.

TRELLES: Garcia Marquez brought Catan and Fuentes-Berain together, and they dove into the project, wanting to capture the way Spanish is spoken in Latin America except for one word.


TRELLES: It comes up in a key moment in the story, as the steamship that Florencia is traveling in is swept and shaken by a storm.


OLIVIERI: (As Riolobo, singing in Spanish).

TRELLES: A character called Riolobo is the spirit of the river.


OLIVIERI: (As Riolobo, singing in Spanish).

TRELLES: And he tries to calm the waters as he sings. Over the years, "Florencia En El Amazonas" has been staged in the U.S., South America, Europe. And Fuentes-Berain says that each time, she gets the same question from directors.

FUENTES-BERAIN: Marcela, what's that?

PEREZ: You know, yoruras, I looked it up.

TRELLES: Soprano Ailyn Perez was also curious.

PEREZ: I don't know if it exists.

TRELLES: Fuentes-Berain made it up, but not before getting her mentor's blessing.

FUENTES-BERAIN: And I said, Gabito, I invented this word. Is it all right? Yes, you invent whatever you want.

TRELLES: In September of this year, a full production of "Florencia" was staged in Mexico City for the first time. It served as a posthumous tribute for Catan and Garcia Marquez, who both died several years before. And now "Florencia En El Amazonas" has made its way to the Met. This is Ailyn Perez's first time in the role, and it gives her a rare chance to sing in Spanish. As the bilingual daughter of two Mexican immigrants, she learned early on that language had the power to shape her experience and her voice.

PEREZ: In my youth, my mom would be very hurt that she thought I was yelling or talking back to her, but actually, I was taking the tone of English and using that in Spanish. So it sounds brusque. It sounds brusco, you know. It sounds like you're yelling at someone.

TRELLES: Perez has had a distinguished career singing classics, mainly in Italian and French, but it's different this time.

PEREZ: There's a language barrier sometimes for new opera composers to have that platform, because you have to have a sense that it's going to sell and it's going to connect. And how do you know until you invest in it? You don't. So as we continue into this 21st century, I think that we're realizing that, in an opera repertory house, we're learning how enriched we all become when we do something new.


OLIVIERI: (As Riolobo, singing in Spanish).

PEREZ: (As Florencia Grimaldi, singing in Spanish).

TRELLES: As she steps onto the stage to play a famous soprano trying to find a way back home, she's also finding a new sense of belonging.

PEREZ: When you speak your native tongue, you feel - I feel like my whole sense of self shifts, and I feel anchored in knowing who I am, my value.


PEREZ: (As Florencia Grimaldi, singing in Spanish).

TRELLES: Outside Lincoln Center, the feeling described by Perez resonates deep within Jorge Zhunio's pushcart.

ZHUNIO: I think a lot of the communities who speak Spanish or people from South America, they never lose the hope. Do you want to come back to your country because you still love your country?

TRELLES: He says that the important thing for him and for so many of his customers is to keep the connection between language and identity alive. Luis Trelles, NPR News.

SUMMERS: "Florencia En El Amazonas" is playing at the Metropolitan Opera through December 14. It will be broadcast live in HD in movie theaters throughout the country on December 9.

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