A New Musical Challenge
Opera Navarro pays homage to Texas founding father
Composer James Balentine has written musical theater, orchestral and chamber pieces that have been presented at international conventions and festivals. Now, the UTSA professor of music composition and theory can add opera to his repertoire.
Balentine recently composed Navarro, a children’s opera about Texas hero José Antonio Navarro and his fictitious friendship with the young Benito Chavez, son of the head prison guard at San Juan Ulúa in Veracruz. That was the prison where the influential Tejano was actually held after being sentenced to death by the government of Santa Anna for aiding and supporting Texas independence.
The Opera Guild of San Antonio commissioned Balentine to write the 45-minute work for the Opera in the Schools Program, which reaches more than 15,000 elementary students each year. Opera in the Schools is a joint project of the Opera Guild and the UTSA Lyric Theatre. Navarro premiered September 24 at the Navarro House in collaboration with the Texas Historical Society and the Friends of Navarro.
For Balentine, the commission proved to be a delightful break from his usual composing work.
“José Antonio Navarro’s heroic life is a perfect fit with the Opera Guild’s desire to commission an original work that would introduce young students to the world of opera through the story of an important Texas hero.”
Margaret King Stanley, former guild president who, together with McCrary, began the Opera in the Schools program in 2002.
“I love the idea of coming up with my own ideas and collaborating with another artist to create something more than what it would have been had I done it by myself,” Balentine said, adding that the libretto was written by Joe Labatt. “It’s a creative outlet, and the added bonus is we will present it to children, and hopefully they will develop an appreciation for Navarro, drama and music—and opera.”
Because Navarro was Balentine’s first foray into the genre, he faced a whole new set of challenges.
“The hardest part was taking into consideration what the actor is doing physically and what he is doing to convey this message,” the composer said. “Most of my music is for concerts, and there is no dramatic action. You have to think about stage movements and costumes.”
The idea for Navarro was conceived several years ago by Sylvia Tillotson, a descendant of Navarro who was reading a book for young adults, Benito and the White Dove. She suggested to Joan Miller, a member of the Opera Guild, that the story might make a good children’s opera.
William McCrary, director of the Lyric Theatre, then approached his colleague, Balentine, and asked him if he would take on the task of composing the music.
“I’ve been involved in musical theater all my life,” Balentine said. “The difference between musical theater and opera involves whether dialogue is treated musically. In opera, all spoken lines have to be sung, so there have to be melodies for every word in the piece.”
Children will be glad to learn the story has a happy ending. After Navarro teaches Benito to read and write, the young boy changes his preconceived opinion about the captive and writes a letter to Santa Anna, pleading for Navarro’s life to be spared, and gives it to his father to mail for him.
Audiences discover that Benito’s father, who had initially refused to mail the letter for fear of losing his job, mailed the letter after all, and Navarro is released from prison after Santa Anna is deposed. In reality, however, Navarro managed to escape from prison with the aid of sympathetic Mexican army officers, thus being saved from certain death.
“It’s important for children to know about the history of Texas and also be exposed to singing, music and new forms of music,” Balentine said.