Article by George Varga, San Diego Union-Tribune
UC San Diego music professor Susan Narucki really, really dislikes text messaging.
That is why this acclaimed opera and chamber music singer belatedly learned about the Latin Grammy nomination for Cuatro Corridos (translation: Four Songs). She commissioned, championed and is the sole vocalist on this provocative, bi-national chamber opera about human trafficking.
And that is why UC San Diego adjunct faculty member Pablo Gomez, who plays guitar on the 2016 album version of Cuatro Corridos, had to ditch texting Narucki in favor of a more visceral form of communication.
"I was coming from a meeting in late September at the university for one of the committees I work on, and I got a text from Pablo. I ignored it, because I ignore all text messages," Narucki recalled with a chuckle.
"Someone told him I was in the music building, so he ran up to my office, knocked on the door, and said: 'Susan, Susan, Susan! We got a Grammy nomination!'"
The nomination, for Best Classical Contemporary Composition, is for "Azucena," whose music was written by Hebert Vazquez and references corridos--the Mexican folk tradition that translates as "stories in songs."
"Azucena" is the first of four acts in this challenging but richly rewarding opera, which Narucki has tirelessly spearheaded since 2012.
Four acts by four composers:
Each act chronicles a different woman caught up in the web of human trafficking. Two are victims forced into prostitution, one is a Mexican-American policewoman and one is a former prostitute who became a pimp.
Each act is sung by the multi-talented Narucki, who made her debut at the 1986 Ojai Music Festival with conductor Kent Nagano and members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
For "Cuatro Corridos," she collaborated with Gomez, librettist Jorge Volpi, and four composers.
Two of the composers -- Vazquez and Hilda Paredes are Mexican -- while the other two -- the London-based Arlene Sierra and Narucki's fellow UC San Diego music professor, the Chinese-born Lei Liang -- are American.
Each wrote the music for one of the four acts in "Cuatro Corridos." Apart from a single chat on Skype early on, the four did not communicate until the chamber-opera debuted in 2013 at UC San Diego.
"I was surprised it worked so well," said Vazquez, who is a professor of music at the state university in Michoacan, Mexico.
"From a dramatic point of view and the continuity of the work, I felt it worked and I really liked it. I had been extremely nervous, since we only had that one Skype conversation and I didn't have any notion of what the other composers doing. It was almost miraculous, to me, that it turned out so well."
The nomination for "Cuatro Corridos" makes this labor-of-love work the first opera about human trafficking to make the Latin Grammy ballot. By vividly chronicling young women forced into prostitution in Tijuana to service undocumented field workers on nearby strawberry farms around San Ysidro, "Cuatro Corridos" is even more resonant and emotionally wrenching.
Fearless and challenging
"Susan is fearless!" said UCSD music professor Aleck Karis, who plays piano on the album and is the university's Associate Dean of the Division of Arts and Humanities.
"You have to be fearless if you're doing a lot of contemporary music, like she is, and be ready to tackle whatever is thrown at you. But Susan is really going out of her way to challenge herself and her audiences."
"Susan worked and worked on this project -- not just from a musical point of view, but from an organizational point of view," he said.
"She was really devoted to the whole thing and did a spectacular job, from all perspectives. 'Cuatro Corridos' is a very difficult work to do. It's long, it has different styles with very difficult passages and vocal registers, and a challenging rhythmic relationship between her voice and the instruments."
Challenging music is a welcome way of life for Narucki, who has performed more than 100 world premieres over the course of her career. She has at least four upcoming San Diego performances between now and January, including as a soloist for the La Jolla Symphony & Chorus' Dec. 9 and 10 "Concentric Paths" concerts at UCSD's Mandeville Auditorium.
Narucki was featured singing on George Crumb's "Star˜hild," which won the 2000 Grammy Award for Best Classical Contemporary Composition. Her next chamber opera, "Inheritance," which features music by Liang and will debut in 2018, addresses guns and gun violence.
"Susan doesn't shy away from addressing, and sometimes confronting, these issues," Liang said. "We had a great time working together on 'Cuatro Corridos'."
Narucki's devotion to making music that matters and engages its audiences is unmistakable.
Yet, when asked if she had an epiphany that inspired her to conceive, commission and perform socially charged musical works that tackle controversial issues, she smiled and shook her head.
"I wish there was, but there wasn't," she said. "That's why I'm doing this now. During the bulk of my career, there was a pretty broad barrier between those two things.
"I have always loved, and still love, music for its own sake. It gives us such an insight into what it is to be a human being. ... But it seems like there was a limited range of subjects people were bringing into classical music. Now there's a broader range and I'm happy about that."
From screenplay to opera Volpi's libretto for "Cuatro Corridos" was born from a screenplay he wrote in 2008. That was the same year Narucki accepted a teaching position at UCSD, after deciding to put the rigors of international concert touring as an in-demand soprano behind her. She and guitarist Gomez were both drawn to the vivid portraits Volpi painted in word. The input of all the composers and musicians helped further elevate "Cuatro Corridos." It has now been performed more than a dozen times, including in three Mexican cities where the audiences had intensely visceral reactions.
"It's very easy to avert our eyes from things that are overwhelmingly tragic. But I don't think that gets us anywhere," said Narucki, who may not be able to attend Thursday's Latin Grammy Awards ceremony in Las Vegas because of a recording commitment.
"As artists, we use our voices to address issues in the hope we create dialogue. A thousand people attended our performance of 'Cuatro Corridos' in 2015 at the Guadalajara Book Fair -- the largest book fair in the Spanish-speaking world -- and 200 stayed for the post-concert discussion.
"Somebody, who was pretty angry, said: 'You're bringing this piece to our attention. What do you expect us to do about it?' I replied: 'Human trafficking is not a Mexican or American problem. It's a global problem. And what we expect you to do is talk about it in a public place.' To have that conversation is huge."
18th annual Latin Grammy Awards:
When: 8 p.m. Thursday
Channel: Univision, channels 17 and 51
La Jolla Symphony & Chorus Concentric Paths
When: 7:30 p.m. Dec. 9 and 2 p.m. Dec. 10
Where: Mandeville Auditorium, Ε00 Gilman Drive, UC San Diego, La Jolla.
Phone: (858) 534-4637