The Conquest of Mexico or the discussion at the opera house

By César Octavio Moreno Zayas

500 years ago, on April 22 Hernan Cortez arrived to Veracruz to start what is called the conquest of Mexico. Centuries have passed and still, we don’t see a 100% serenity in the environment of all the parts.

For example, recently the president of Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has sent, via the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Mexico a letter to the government of Spain, particularly the King. He asked for an official apology for the issues caused by the conquest. The letter and the rejection of it by the monarch have caused clashes and reactions on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Intellectuals of any type discussed and argued the pros and cons of that diplomatic movement. Some have agreed about the need for an apology, while others voted for a peaceful silence for the best of the mutual respect. The upheaval even moved scholars to dig into the archives, where they spotted a peace treaty between Mexico and Spain signed back in 1836.

«Fernand Cortez ou la conquête du Mexique : sept pl. de costumes.» Source / Bibliothèque nationale de France.

The turmoil, diplomatic and on the media, is not new and it shows that there is still too much to work on. Some weeks ago the Mexican streaming platform Claro Video has released the documentary Malintzin; Marina, Malinche o Malintzin was the interpreter of Hernan Cortés. Via Marina, the Spaniard conquistador was able to understand and communicate his desires and plans to his allies and enemies in central Mexico. Marina is, then, considered as a traitor by some people, even the word “malinchista,” is often heard among Mexicans, who refer to the person who prefers foreign (people or goods) to Mexican ones. But, this story has another interpretation, which is highlighted in the documentary, that she did not betray her people because the Mexica people were not her people; they were in fact her enemies. In consequence, she acted according to her beliefs for the best of her community. The debate seems, then, to lie on the alliance despite inner conflicts with other cultures or segregation because of those conflicts.

Marina, Cortez, and Emperor Moctezuma are of course very polemic, and their story, as it has been said, had inspired different reactions. Different media and artistic genres have approached the subject and opera is one of them. Opera has  experience at putting on a large scale stage the most interesting representation of social, political or moral issues. For example, the love adventures of Nero depicted in L’Incoronazione di Poppea by Monteverdi, the class distinctions that appear in Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, the famous love story of a courtesan in La Traviata by Verdi, public opinion against one man in the dramatic Peter Grimes composed by Britten, or even a terroristic attack as it appears in The Death of Klinghoffer by Williams. Then, opera in more than 400 years has had the time to describe stories, conflicts, traumas, achievements, as well as real, ideal, sad or funny stories. The Conquest of Mexico and its characters, of course, have been in the opera as early as 1733 when Vivaldi composed his Moctezuma

«Fernand Cortez ou la conquête du Mexique : sept pl. de costumes.» Source / Bibliothèque nationale de France.

The subject of the conquest has appeared several times through the history of opera, and one good question is: how to depict that cultural clash in opera? Because, it is not easy to display a conflict like this on a musical drama. I will try to approach to this matter by mentioning two brief examples: Graun’s Montezuma and Spontini’s Fernand Cortez

Carl Heinrich Graun premiered his Montezuma in Berlin in 1755. The libretto was written in French by the same King of Prussia, Frederik II the Great; the text was then translated into Italian by Giampietro Tagliazucchi to be sung in the usual language of the opera in those years. Ramón Jauve-Martín considers that this work does not present the conquest as a triumph of Europe, moreover, it criticizes it and takes side with the Aztec Empire, particularly it reprimands catholic southern Europe. Thus, Frederik and Graun’s approach seems to highlight the differences between Catholic and protestants, and as Marina, they prefer to follow the attraction of the unknown culture of the Americas, rather than accept the well-known political problem in Europe 53 years after Graun’s work, another opera appeared to display a spectacle that will shake the Spanish Empire.

Fernand Cortez, ou La Conquête du Mexique composed by Gaspare Spontini, with a libretto written in French by Etienne de Jouy and Joseph-Alphonse Esménard. The opera tells a story of the conquest, which includes a love story between a daughter of the emperor Montezuma and Cortez. The work finishes with the rendition of the emperor, a peace agreement and also the Aztec monarch gives the hand of his daughter to Cortez. The work, as explained by Sarah Hibberd, reflects the political context of its premiere. It was commissioned by Napoleon I as propaganda after his invasion to Spain in 1808. The conquerors were conquered and the kings were overthrown in both cases. Then, Spontini’s conquest display not just a religious or political conflict in Europe, rather it uses a story of the past to propose or anticipate a future. The problem for Spontini and Napoleon is that this future is not going to happen, because the invasion did not increase the territories, in fact, it encouraged the separation and future creation of new countries, like Mexico. 

The conquest of Mexico in conclusion cannot be labeled  solely as an entertainment, but it is a complex sign made by different readings. Some of those of those readings are still present, for example in the discussions of the letter to the king. However, let’s move to Madrid, maybe we can find some ideas for a truce of this half-millennium conflict. In 2013 the Teatro Real presented a new production of Wolfgang Rihms’ Die Eroberung von Mexiko. The opera, premiered in Hamburg in 1992, has a libretto written by the composer, based on Antonin Artaud, it also includes works by Octavio Paz. The finale of this work is different, and it walks in another direction. In words of Gerard Mortier, Rihm’s opera shows that cultures must understand each other, and their encounter must conclude in harmony, not in blood. Then, we may listen to the opera, is an old genre, it has experience, and it has seen many things of the world. We might learn something from it, and find a peaceful resolution.

César O. Moreno Zayas is a Ph.D. Candidate in Music at The University of Nottingham, United Kingdom. He is carrying out a research on opera audiences and management. His main research areas of interests are opera history, sociology of opera, and opera production. He has recently collaborated with publications for Opera Wire, Mexican Cultural Centre and Las Nueve Musas Magazine. The production of opera is another important part in his expertise, he has produced in 2015 the premiered of the opera Eugenia by the Mexican composer Armando Ortega. Now he is working for a project of Acis, Galatea and Polyphemus by Handel for the City of Orizaba. He has presented papers at specialized congresses and institutions on music, media studies and opera at UNAM, University of Copenhagen, CENIDIM, University of Veracruz, Sibelius Academy, Lund University, and at the University of Nottingham. He is currently collaborating on a research project on independent theatre at the Mora Institute in Mexico City, and he co-coordinate at 17, Critical Studies Institute the Certificate on Contemporary Views in Semiotics: Art, Society, and Digitality. 

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