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COVID-19 fundamentally changed how we work. In our series "At Work," we hear from folks in the Bay Area about how what they do has changed.

Reinventing classical music for the digital age

Promotional artwork for Mi Camino by Elba Raquel.
Elba Raquel
Promotional artwork for Mi Camino by Elba Raquel.

As a classical musician of color, Hector Armienta has made a living creating his own opportunities. The COVID pandemic was his newest hurdle. And he came up with an unexpected solution: an animated opera for the digital age.

The fact that Hector made an unconventional opera during the pandemic isn’t totally surprising. After all, his journey to classical music began in a somewhat unexpected place: the local grocery store.

"They actually had the records, LPs, as you walked in, right next to the sort of candies and everything…And I would just buy them as I was learning the piano," he remembered, chuckling.

This was in the 1970s in the MacArthur Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. His grocery store introduction was nurtured by the free music classes offered at his local public school – programs he told me he just doesn’t see anymore, especially in communities of color.

By middle school, Hector knew he wanted to be a composer. He eventually headed up north to San Francisco for graduate school and tried to break into the classical music scene – shopping around his compositions for residencies and grants. Hector identifies as Chicano and he says it wasn’t easy.

He explained, "Back then, even before 2008, you didn't see work composed by Latino or Latina composers or by Black composers or Asian, Asian-American composers. It just was non-existent."

By the time his first major piece was staged, Hector had figured out that if he wanted to ensure sustained opportunities for himself and other Latinx artists, he’d have to create his own space. In 2008, Hector founded Opera Cultura in San Jose.

The community, Hector says, was ready for a Latino opera company.

"In San Jose, there's a lot of different communities. And the Latino community is pretty large...And there are different generations, you have generations of Latinos who have been there since the 1800s, you know, and then you have, recent people who've recently come from Central and South America.

This presence, he observed, has translated into support for the arts.

"Our audiences that come to see our work, primarily they're all Latinos," he told me.

A few years ago, he did a piece called Bless Me Ultima, which is based on a novel by Rudolfo Anaya. And he says people came from Fresno, from Modesto, and even from Reno.

But like many people – in March 2020, things took a turn for Hector. Opera Cultura was planning on premiering a production of Frida, a classic, frequently-performed opera by Mexican-American composer Robert Rodriguez. But when the pandemic happened, they had to shut down.

Without a program or a stage, Hector went back to the drawing board. "As a hobby," he told me, "I was interested in doing a video game on a Mexican character or story." So he started playing around with animation software that's used for video games and TV shows like the Mandalorian.

And an idea began to form: a new kind of digital opera for pandemic times, something people could watch from home. He originally imagined a kind of hybrid production with a green screen background, simple animation, and live singers in a room together. But time, budget, and social distancing put a damper on that idea.

That’s when Hector realized, the whole thing would have to be animated and he’d have to be the one to do it, despite the fact that he had almost no experience with animation.

I asked him how his friends and colleagues first reacted when he told them about his new plan.

He laughed, reflecting, "Well, some of it was why. Some of it was, do you have the skills to do it?" Still, he said, others were excited. "A lot of the opera companies, performing groups, you know, they didn't know what to do."

Much like he had back in 2008 – when he founded Opera Cultura – he found inspiration in his community. He decided to write a new opera about the experiences of Latinx farmworkers during the pandemic.

To learn how to translate his ideas to screen, he started taking media production classes at MACLA, a Latino arts organization in San Jose.

Hector said the creative process was unlike anything he had ever done before. Even composing the score – one of the most familiar parts of the project – presented new and unique challenges.

"I had to create an orchestration specific to digital instruments" — because of COVID, he recalled, he didn’t want to bring in live musicians to play alongside singers in the studio. "So [the singers] had to listen to a sync track, which was another learning curve for me."

In June 2021, Opera Cultura premiered the project as “Mi Camino,” an hour-long digital opera.

Watching it is a surreal experience. Everything is meticulously animated – down to the individual leaves on trees.

The viewer glides above recognizable local landscapes: the shorelines of Half Moon Bay and vast central coast ranches. Animated workers in this virtual world labor to the pulse of the score while projected video of the three lead singers cycles in and out of view. The final product is something between a film, a live performance, and a video game.

Innovating under pressure, Hector said, was nothing new.

"I’d thought that in the long term, these sort of these art forms, they need to think in more revolutionary ways."

He added, "And I think people who have not always had certain opportunities available to them, they have a choice. They either sort of just give up and accept, or they create their own path. And I've had to do that most of my life. So this is one more thing I had to do."

Opera Cultura is scheduled to finally premiere Frida in April. But Hector says he’s not interested in leaving his pandemic projects in the past. He recently started a fellowship at Stanford experimenting with virtual reality storytelling. And he’s building out “La Escuela,” his training program for local youth of color, focused on music, technical theater, and the new virtual production skills he learned during the pandemic to keep Opera Cultura going.

He shared, "It’s emotional for me. They inspire you. Young people really inspire you. And I hope that in some way I can change the lives of young people in a substantive way."

He teaches them that innovation and inclusion go hand in hand.

I am a researcher and writer from Oakland, CA. I cut my teeth in radio at my college station and since graduating, I’ve worked as a paralegal, arts administrator, maritime historian, and most recently, a fellow at WorldAffairs, a global politics radio show and podcast co-produced with KQED. In my work, I am interested in the intersections of race, climate, and labor rights as well as place-based narratives of marginalization and the relationship between local history, public space, and identity formation, especially among queer and BIPOC communities. I am also passionate about drawing on the performing arts—particularly theater and music—to develop interview/storytelling practices grounded in mutual repair and community-building.