It’s a packed house at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in downtown Los Angeles where Mexican tenor Javier Camarena performs a mix of Italian and French airs, Spanish and Mexican songs in a recital for the LA Opera.

During the 19e century, Italian opera was very popular in Mexico. Italian companies have traveled there to perform operas by Donizetti and Bellini as well as the latest works of other composers. The influence of Italian opera helped create the Mexican ranchera genre.

“I can imagine Italians coming to Mexico and saying, yeah, hear me sing O Sole Miosays the Mexican tenor Javier Camarena. “And I can imagine Mexicans, composers saying ‘Okay, so let’s sing our music like this.'”

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

Recently, during one of my trips to Mexico City, I went to the “El Tenampa” bar in Plaza Garibaldi, a sort of cathedral of popular Mexican music. The walls are covered with murals with famous ranchera singers: Pedro Infante, José Alfredo Jiménez, Chavela Vargas and Juan-Gabriel.

Singer Alvaro Hurtado does the trick with a mariachi. During a break, I ask him about the link between Mexican rancheras and Italian opera. Hurtado says he doesn’t know much about opera but Luciano Pavarotti is his favorite singer. “If Pavarotti was singing Mexican rancheras, he would have had a lot of success, like Jorge Negrete,” he says.

Negrete studied beautiful canto and began his career singing not rancheras, but operatic works. Negrete’s story is not unusual. ethnomusicologist Dan Sheey points out that in the early 1800s opera companies and their star singers came from Italy to perform across the country.

“It was like a parade, people were welcoming them in the streets of Mexico City,” he says. “The news was spreading and people were coming out in droves and looking at the carrozas, the floats or the wagons, carrying away the opera singers and all the parasites, all the groupies of the day, they followed the arrival of the Italian singer of opera, whether soprano, baritone or otherwise.”

At the time, Italian opera in Mexico was more popular. People from all walks of life went to the shows. Eventually, opera became a high-priced form of entertainment, accessible only to the elite.

In the 1930s, new popular music began to spread through radio and record companies promoted it throughout the country and beyond Mexico’s borders. As “canción ranchera” emerged as one of Mexico’s popular song styles, a greater launching pad for mariachi music and “canción ranchera” singers took off: the golden age of cinema Mexican.

Sheehy says most of the movie singers who portrayed and idealized Mexican country music on the big screen were from the city. Many of them have studied the singing style of Italian opera. “And they became actors. And so you look at all the biographies of almost all the great ‘música ranchera’ singers and composers to some degree, and actors, if you list what their occupation was: songwriter, singer, actors. hand in hand with the film industry in Mexico.”

John Parra

/

Getty Images

Aida Cuevas has been affectionately referred to as the “Queen of Mariachi”.

Aida Cuevas is considered the last of the great ranchera singers of her generation. A few years ago, Cuevas worked with an opera singer who told him this: “I don’t understand how ‘rancheras’ singers can sing. I don’t know how you don’t end up hoarse, speechless. What you are doing is a superhuman effort.

Camarena says Mexican singers have something special. “And that’s what makes it hard to sing Mexican music and rancheras because they need the Mexican soul.”

Copyright 2022 NPR. To learn more, visit https://www.npr.org.