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EXCLUSIVE: Long-Lost Opera ‘Andina’ to Receive Its World Premiere in Chicago, 80 Years Late

By Louise Burton l.burton@classicalite.com on Aug 31, 2015 03:45 AM EDT

An opera manuscript discovered in a basement in Chicago will finally receive its world premiere, 80 years later, at Chicago's Athenaeum Theatre. The opera, Andina, was written by Eustasio Rosales in the early 1930s. Rosales, whose works have been performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, is considered to be Chicago's first Hispanic composer.

The score to his opera lay forgotten in a family member's basement until Arlen Parsa, the composer's great-grandson, discovered it. Parsa, a 28-year-old documentary filmmaker who describes himself as "a naive Millennial who knows nothing about opera," was determined to have the work performed.

"This is my great-grandfather's life work, and with every year, the paper gets a little more fragile and flakes a little bit more," he has said about the ambitious project. "If I don't bring this thing to life, there's nobody left to do it."

With the help of an award-winning conductor, Chris Ramaekers, and composer Pablo Santiago Chin, who digitized the hand-written score, Parsa took on the considerable challenge of bringing the 80-year-old work to the stage. The world premiere of Andina will take place on Friday, September 18 at 7:30 p.m. at the Athenaeum Theatre in Chicago. Ramaekers will lead the Chicago Composer's Orchestra and vocal soloists in the concert production.

Andina is Rosales' second and final opera, the crowning achievement of his life. The action takes place in the foothills of the Andes Mountains, which gives the opera its title. Andina is the story of a young Colombian mountain girl who is caught between two suitors: one, a wealthy don from the city; the other, a simple, local farmhand.

Ramaekers said that much of the opera is written in a classical operatic style, but there is also a strong Latin-American influence. "It's not like the salsa or anything like that, but it's very clearly Hispanic or Latino classical concert music," he said. "There are a lot of folk influences and elements, including guitars at one point... it's definitely influenced by the culture."

Parsa filmed a short video about the opera revival project and started a campaign on Kickstarter in order to compensate everyone involved in the show:

I recently had the opportunity to chat with Parsa about the opera project and ask him what else he knows about his great-grandfather's career.

Parsa told me "He was a musical prodigy--he composed an overture at age 12, back when he was living in Colombia. According to family lore, (we don't know how true this is or not,) he was one of the more well-known composers in Colombia before he left. He wrote another opera while he was living there, called Luck in Dice--his first opera. To our knowledge, no copies of that opera have survived."

Parsa said that his mother recently discovered some YouTube videos of a song that Rosales wrote about 100 years ago, called Bolero. A version arranged for marimba orchestra has proved particularly popular:

Rosales composed a number of works after he came to Chicago, and was just beginning to be recognized as a composer in his new homeland when his career was tragically cut short.

"He died unexpectedly of a heart attack on Christmas morning, 1934," Parsa said. "Just before he died, the year prior to that, he had a bit of a crowning accomplishment: a piece that he wrote, called Three Spanish Dances, was actually performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. So he was just starting to get a little bit of buzz building in the United States, and then, of course, he died without his final work, this opera, being performed."

When the opera premieres on September 18, some 80 years after it was written, Parsa will finally get an answer to a question that has been nagging him this whole time: What does the music actually sound like?

Parsa told me, "I am absolutely thrilled to see this taking shape, and I know my family is as well. I kind of view this whole journey as an adventure. It's been a process of discovery and there's been all kinds of fun little surprises along the way."

Parsa has been documenting the whole process of bringing the opera back to life, and plans to make a documentary film about the project. A sneak peek of the film will precede the opera premiere on September 18.

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TagsAndina, Eustasio Rosales, Athenaeum Theatre, Arlen Parsa, Chris Ramaekers, Three Spanish Dances, Chicago Symphony Orchestra