A tragedy of family separation told in powerful opera ‘Zavala-Zavala’ at GALA

With compelling performances, the fine work recalls and reflects on the disastrous Trump-era Zero Tolerance immigration policy.

There is something that makes sense about setting the story of an immigrant family coming to the U.S. during… well, any period of recent history… as a tragic opera. The disastrous 2017 policy of separating children from their families, established during the Trump presidency, showcases some of the ugliest acts of what American policymakers were willing to consider when it came to preventing people from seeking a better future.

GALA Hispanic Theatre’s latest presentation, Zavala-Zavala, a chamber opera composed by Brian Arreola with a libretto by Anna Deeny Morales, stands as a poignant exploration of the human cost of American immigration policies. The opera, which ran from June 21 to June 23, 2024, stars the remarkable baritone Efraín Solís in a gripping lead performance that anchors this deeply moving production.

Abraham Latner (Niño) and Elizabeth Mondragón (Natividad Zavala-Zavala) in ‘Zavala-Zavala.’ Photo by Camilo Montoya.

Zavala-Zavala delves into the harrowing story of Natividad Zavala-Zavala, a Honduran woman separated from her seven-year-old grandson after crossing the Rio Grande in 2017. This narrative is not only a tale of personal loss and resilience but also a powerful commentary on the fragility of juridical systems under the Zero Tolerance policy. Morales’ libretto expertly captures the emotional and legal tumult that ensues, making the audience keenly aware of the real-world implications of such policies.

The opera takes place over five cuts, viewed through the lens of a lawyer (Efraín Solís) defending Natividad. Solís as Sergio García delivers a performance that is both vocally and emotionally compelling. His dynamic stage presence and powerful baritone perfectly convey the despair and determination of a character caught in the complexities of the immigration system. Sergio sets the scene, starting with the difficult decision of Natividad Zavala-Zavala (Elizabeth Mondragon) to cross through the border at the Rio Grande with her grandson (a wonderful Abraham Latner).

Mondragón brings to the role a rich mezzo-soprano, imbued with both strength and vulnerability. Her aria describing the crossing of the Rio Grande, “The river swallows everything, except the pain,” stands out as one of the most emotionally powerful moments of the opera. There are no doubts for the audience that this is a tragic story. (To this day, many of the families separated have not been reunited.) Solís and Mondragón’s duets have some of the strongest moments of depth and pain as they recount the journey, only to be cruelly separated by border patrol with the promise that Natividad would not see her grandson for a long time.

The opera is fairly exceptional at telling this part of the story. Clocking in at under an hour, the production has hopes of launching from GALA to a tour, highlighting the importance of this message during an election year. To this production, the stories of these individuals are considered by American policymakers as a political point instead of a matter of humanity.

Where the production falls short is when we move away from the humanity of Natividad. The second, third, and fourth cuts all take place in the courtroom, with Solís and the U.S. Government prosecutor (also wonderfully played by Judy Yannini) arguing in song to the court about the legal framework of the crime. Although the cast’s performances and skills are strong, choosing to set the opera in a courtroom feels like a detour from the drama that flows through the opera. I had trouble not considering these sections as what it would look like if you tried to make a musical out of the Law & Order TV show. (Wait, that already happened? Yikes.)

TOP LEFT: Elizabeth Mondragón (Natividad Zavala-Zavala) and Efraín Solís (Sergio García); TOP RIGHT: Elizabeth Mondragón and Judy Yannini (Sara Morales); ABOVE: Abraham Latner (Niño), Elizabeth Mondragón, and Efraín Solís with the orchestra, in ‘Zavala-Zavala.’ Photos by Camilo Montoya.

However, ​​the creative team behind Zavala-Zavala is impressive. Librettist Anna Deeny Morales is a seasoned writer with a deep understanding of Latin American issues. Her previous works, including Las Místicas de México and La Paloma at the W/all, have established her as a formidable voice in contemporary opera. Composer Brian Arreola, in his operatic debut, demonstrates a keen ability to fuse musical and dramatic staging to create a powerful and evocative score during the aforementioned moments.

The lighting is simple yet powerful. Shadows of trees during the river crossing movements are eventually replaced with what appear to be prison bars during the later scenes. The juxtaposition shows how Natividad and her grandson seem to be trapped from the beginning to the end of the production.

Adding depth to the performances, GALA Theatre offered post-show talk-backs with experts in Latin American issues and immigration. These discussions, featuring Morales, Arreola, and various specialists, provided audiences with insights into the real-world contexts of the opera’s themes.

Zavala-Zavala is a fine work that attempts to show the power of opera to address critical social issues. With its compelling performances, narrative, and community engagement, GALA Theatre and the production try to present a work that resonates with contemporary audiences and provokes a meaningful reflection from the opera-viewing audience.

Running Time: One hour no intermission.

Zavala-Zavala plays through Sunday, June 23, 2024, at GALA Hispanic Theatre, 3333 14th Street NW, Washington, DC, one block from the Columbia Heights Metro station on the Green and Yellow lines. Parking is available at a discount in the Giant parking garage off Park Road NW. Single tickets are $48. Senior (65+), student, and military tickets are $35. Purchase tickets online or call 202-234-7174.

Zavala-Zavala is performed in Spanish with English subtitles.

COVID Safety: All performances are mask-optional. See GALA’s complete COVID-19 Safety Policy.

Zavala-Zavala

CREATIVE TEAM
Director: Corinne Hayes
Librettist: Anna Deeny Morales
Composer & Conductor: Brian Arreola

CAST
Sergio García: Efraín Solís (Baritone)
Natividad Zavala-Zavala: Elizabeth Mondragón (Mezzo-Soprano)
Sara Morales: Judy Yannini (Soprano)
Niño: Abraham Latner (Soprano)

ORCHESTRA
Violin 1: Kari Giles
Violin 2: Alice SIlva
Viola: Marcus Pyle
Cello: Mira Frisch
Bass Clarinet: Jessica Lindsey
Oboe: Elizabeth Sullivan
Bassoon: Lynn Moncilovich
Horn: Pat Furlo
Harp: Zoe Coppola
Piano: Emily Baltzer

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