Latinx Voices: Octavio Cardenas
It’s Latinx Heritage Month! All month, we’ll be highlighting the incredible artistry of the Latinx singers and directors in our community as well as uplifting local Latinx organizations that need your support. Recently, we sat down with several Latinx members of the MN Opera family to talk about how their Latinx identities have impacted their opera careers and what they would like to see change in the opera industry with regard to Latinx representation.
Stage Director Octavio Cardenas is a native of Guadalajara, Mexico, who’s familiar to MN Opera audiences for his incredible work directing 2018’s La Rondine as well as 2017’s La bohème. Recent projects include La bohème for Des Moines Metro Opera, Madame Butterfly with Opera Santa Barbara, and the world premiere of the children’s opera Frida Kahlo and the Bravest Girl in the World for Fort Worth Opera. An alum of our Resident Artist Program, Mr. Cardenas is currently the head of the directing staff at Des Moines Metro Opera.
In what ways has your Latinx identity impacted your career journey in opera?
The answer to this question could be too long because I don’t think there is a singular voice or narrative to explain the Latino culture. But let me elaborate by saying that I grew up in a Latino environment surrounded by its music, history, art, colors, food; such an array of elements I try to incorporate in my work if the opportunity arises.
I think the element I took most from my culture is the human connection (I never heard the term “personal space” until I traveled outside of Mexico.) I was born in a family where human interaction was very important. There was always love, hugs, music, food, friends; this need for human connection and family is something I try to establish with all the characters in the stories I get the pleasure of working on.
Also, dance and movement were always part of my upbringing; salsa, merengue, folkloric, etc. Even though I am not a trained dancer, I am able to be comfortable in my own body and I have a facility to use that when I direct or teach body movement.
Sometimes I feel like I am part of two worlds. Because I immigrated to the USA at a very young age, I was able to assimilate both cultures and hopefully recognize their strengths and weaknesses, and in terms of languages appreciate the richness of both English and Spanish.
Did you have any Latinx role models or mentors when you were starting your career? What qualities did you admire about them?
Interestingly, I never had that many personal Latino mentors in my career. However, there have been many Latin artists whose work has influenced me. I grew up in Guadalajara, where some of the greatest muralists have their work in display: Jose Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera, Gabriel Flores, Alfaro Siqueiros. They say: “If the walls could talk”, well, these murals tell powerful stories without words. The visual impact those murals had on me as a kid influence some of the imagery I use sometimes in my work, especially the use of solid and strong colors.
I also grew up watching the movies of Pedro Infante and Jorge Negrete, masters of romance, humor and elegance. (Yes, nobody can wear a Mariachi suit as good as those two. A mariachi can be one of the most incredible musical and visual experiences if it’s done correctly.)
Agustin Lara, Maria Grever, and Jose Alfredo Jimenez also taught me about passion, love, despair, sadness, and humor through their music and lyrics. The stories they tell are so operatic, and they teach you how to use the language to convey an emotion. There is no way to fake them, if you don’t feel what you say, it becomes very obvious and it doesn’t work.
What changes would you like to see in the opera industry, specifically in relation to the Latinx community?
I consider myself fortunate, that I don’t think I have ever been discriminated against in my operatic career because of my heritage. But I recognize there are a lot of negative stereotypes, and discrimination exists. I remember in my days as an actor, always being cast as a drug dealer, a gang member, or a convict.
I would like to see more productions that explore cultural themes besides immigration. Ours are more than just immigrant stories. I would love companies to explore the many stories, characters, and music that too often goes unrecognized.
I am glad to see productions like the Mariachi operas being done, but there is still so much more unexplored repertoire. Our history provides worlds and landscapes that could serve as settings besides the classical Roman, Greek, and Egyptian, commonly used in opera.
“Nella dolce carenza” from 2018’s La Rondine, directed by Octavio Cardenas