A native of Mexico City, mezzo-soprano Guadalupe Peraza has performed internationally on opera and concert stages. She has sung with prestigious orchestras such as American Symphony Orchestra and American Classical Orchestra, among others. One of her lifelong passions is to perform and present a wide diversity of music, discovering commonalities between genres, ethnicities, and epochs, honoring the differences, and furthering creative collaborations. Through her artistic concept, Mexamorphosis, Guadalupe Peraza has been transforming her vision into reality by producing concerts that bring together a vast range of international repertoire and performers. She tells us about her work and multifaceted career.
What is your vision for Mexamorphosis?
We are multifaceted people and many aspects of what we are and what we want to do get a little denied according to different protocols, either in social activities or performances. In performance, I feel that sometimes I need room for more of what I want to offer as an artist and as a musician. What I aim to showcase is music from the remote past—Western and Eastern, including polyphony and operatic repertoire—to the closer past, such as the 60s and 70s, and contemporary music, which we’re always creating. Regardless of the style and the hierarchy that has been assigned to all of that by institutions, I want to present them in the same place, when possible and when they have some sort of connection. My goal is to have a high level of musicianship no matter the style, and I think that craft can speak for itself in that sense. And my personal mission in this project is to build bridges and to emphasize that emotion and affect are universal. That is evidenced by diverse works that come from different periods, from very far-away locations. Pieces that we might at first not think of putting together are very close to each other.
That also happens in terms of how we are as people, not only in music. New York is a good place to see that. So, I want to create excellent music and have fun as well as go into deep thought about what we go through together, unite different visions with respect, and find shared aesthetics even if they seem to be very different. I want to step a little bit outside of the box of our habits, of the way we operate, the mindset we have, the cultural background, and invite others inside, and vice versa. It’s a lot harder than it sounds because we are so programmed to what we’re specialized in.
Guadalupe Peraza – Mexamorphosis at Musica Viva NY, 2023 (Photo by Jack Colver)
Do you do these performances mainly in New York City?
So far, we have had the chance to do them here in New York, but I did use the same concept to help with the production of the Saint Patrick’s Day celebrations in Mexico. I worked at the Irish Embassy of Mexico, and they asked me to produce the cultural events for Saint Patrick’s Day. The former ambassador, Barbara Jones, had a wonderful musician in mind: Mick Moloney and the Green Fields of America. Sadly, Mick Moloney passed away recently; we were very close, and I got to learn a lot from him. When the ambassador brought them to Mexico, they asked me how we can make a relationship with Mexico through music. So, I brought in people who play Son Jarocho music and also Baroque music, some of it from Spain, which is part of the roots of what we do in some of the contemporary music in Mexico. Of course, we have roots from Africa and Asia as well. All of that was emphasized through music with the Irish musicians, so it was like some sort of Irish Mexamorphosis, but we didn’t call it that. We did three performances in Mexico with my concept in mind and this helped me get inspired for more. That was in 2018 and 2019, then they reproduced the same show here at Symphony Space and it was sold out. But the first Mexamorphosis concert with this same concept was actually in 2016, although I did do an earlier production in 2014 in Mexico City. That went a little bit too far with what I wanted to achieve so I needed to take some steps back. I mean, I brought rap, rock, Monteverdi, all kinds of things that I didn’t have the craft at that time to mix together. They can be put together, but it has to be with a specific path in mind.
I met you when you were performing in a Baroque concert with American Classical Orchestra. Do you find connections between performing Baroque music and the diverse forms of music you bring together in these concerts?
Yes. In Baroque music there’s improvisation and rhyme. I do love Baroque music and I have performed a lot of it with amazing people who are specialists. It has been an honor to be able to sing with them. I learned a lot from them and that has given me a level of understanding and craft. But the more time passes, the more I become the “master of none”… Yet that is how my brain and my heart work, and I can’t deny them by specializing in something very specific. I try to achieve results with whatever it is that I’m doing, whether it’s opera or Baroque or other types of music. And now that I have also worked with traditional musicians, like from West Africa and from Mexico, especially in the Son Jarocho tradition from Veracruz, I have seen so many similarities between various types of music. The improvisation, and also the temperament has changed. There is not an established, equal temperament in what we know now as early music. That also happens in Eastern music. This is a very long topic, but just to explain: if the scale is divided in twelve equal half steps, like you see on the piano keyboard, there are still many notes in between that you can use.
That’s when you hear the subtle sliding between the pitches…
Exactly. For Westerners, some of the sounds seem in between, but that music also has its own definition of where it lives. It lives in a place that we’re not used to, because we’re so used to equal temperament in the Western universe. Our ears have been trained that way, not only in terms of tuning but also in terms of rhythm. I’m actually working with an amazing organist and music director, David Enlow, and he has been showing our ensemble some of the nuances of early music. He just sent me an article about “inégal” – this French word means uneven or unequal in terms of rhythm. Within beats, there can be differences in how you divide them, so everything you do rhythmically is different, but it fits, and you never interpret it the same way again and again. And when there’s no recording then that was it in that moment. That happens in a lot of traditional music; it’s a huge thing in Son Jarocho music or in salsa, where you feel like you’re kind of flying in time and space and then you come back. The magic is the jump, and then it comes together again in the next beat, and it fits, like a union of many universes. The same happens with affect. I initially got inspired because of affect. You find songs from the 1500s that have the same exact lyrics like a salsa song.
They express the same emotions…
Sometimes they actually read exactly the same. Poetry has similarities, also in how it’s set to music. There are so many things that we think as different but that are actually so close.
And we have a habit of separating, of putting things in categories so sometimes it’s harder to see the connections…
Separating has its advantages too. But it’s important not to ignore the connections.
Guadalupe Peraza with Victor Murillo on double bass – Mexamorphosis at Musica Viva NY, 2023 (Photo by Jack Colver)
How does all this diverse music that you aim to share reflect your sensibility as an artist who hails from Mexico?
My own Mexican sensibility is different from other Mexican sensibilities. Diversity runs in every circle, even in the family. I have found Mexican music styles that I love, and I’d like to promote them. I’m far from being a specialist in any of them, but I have tried to learn more about them, like for example, the Son Jarocho style. I’m fascinated by it. I had misconceptions about a lot of the styles growing up, and lately I’m just realizing more things about that too. Also, being from Mexico City, what gets to us is not exactly what happens in the villages. It’s important to open your vision to other places in your country. I started singing some of this music in New York. I found some very good knowledgeable people here who came from Mexico, and that took me back to Mexico.
It goes beyond music, it’s cultural, but in my case cultural from a very specific social place in Mexico City, because there is such variety there. The reason this show is called Mexamorphosis is not only because it changes all the time and because I have some sort of Kafkian idea of how things go sometimes, but also because my vision, whether I make European, African, or Mexican music, is that of someone who grew up in Mexico City. That gave me a view of the world and a perspective I cannot deny. That’s what makes me unique. It’s hard to tell what indigenous music was like because there is no record of it that I know of in Mexico. Oral tradition is important. I think Western music has tried to teach us that only notation matters but it is oral tradition that will rescue indigenous music. It still happens and it’s important to perpetuate that, which is also what we tried to do in these shows.
Guadalupe Peraza (Photo by Elizabeth van Os)
What would you like to accomplish with Mexamorphosis in the next five years?
My dreams have been there for quite a long time, so I’m getting a little closer to making them true. Some of that happened in this last concert on October 29. I’m eternally grateful for the members of Musica Viva who invited us and hosted the show. The Artistic Director, Alejandro Hernandez-Valdez, embraced this concept and brought it into their venue; they were amazing and welcoming, even though it was risky. I am grateful to them for taking this risk. The response was good.
Also, dreams transform. One thing is what people, throughout your career or through your process, tell you that you’re supposed to dream of accomplishing as a person and as an artist. Like being in big opera houses… that’s supposed to be your dream. I mean, I would love it if that happened, of course I would embrace it, but it’s not the goal. It’s the goal that a lot of people have placed in me; they have taught me that I am supposed to want all of that. I’ve discovered lately, as I’m getting older, that it’s not necessarily what I want even though I would love it.
It’s the same with writing. Sometimes writing for certain magazines that you’re “supposed” to aim to be published in, means that you have to let your voice be altered to fit the style of that magazine.
You’re bringing up a very important thing. The dream is to have your own voice, and what does that mean? This voice that I have is multifaceted. I was so happy to be singing beautiful early music as I was happy to be singing salsa and to be dancing.
You want the freedom to express yourself…
Yes, freedom! But there’s a level of craft that you have to achieve for that freedom to be organized, to be presentable and not just a mess, and to be enjoyed by other people. I learned that in 2014 when I tried everything at the same time. As much as I hate structure, I realized that I do need structure and I need to organize my thoughts to get from one point to another. I love comedy and parody and one of my dreams is to do parody. Comedy is difficult to achieve because that takes craft. My favorite cartoonist, the late Argentinian Quino could tell you so many things about the world with one image, and how tragic and funny that can be at the same time. Through cartoons he showed the tragedy of the world. That is so deep and amazing, and I want to do that through music. He has achieved it with a skill that doesn’t need words. With music, I also need more interaction with the audience; without the audience no show is going to happen.
You did that in the American Classical Orchestra’s Chaconne program, which was so much fun and refreshing, because this kind of interaction with the audience doesn’t usually happen in a Baroque music concert.
I hope it wasn’t a sacrilege.
I think it broke perhaps what is a misconception about witnessing a performance of that type of music, a certain demeanor.
Yes, I mean if you read the words of some of that music, they are not stiff or rigid, some of them are very daring. When you look at the roots of it you might be scandalized. You can see a reggaeton song being no different in what it’s expressing than a Renaissance song. We’re human!
What message do you have for your audiences?
I don’t like to see a separation between performers and audiences; they are part of the performance. I want them to know that they’re all invited and included. In this last concert, I liked that we had children present, and we heard some voices of the children in the middle of the concert. I didn’t mind. I loved how they interacted with the instruments. The obvious part is the internationalism of what we do, but inclusion goes beyond that. Diversity goes beyond the way we look and the countries we come from; diversity in all of its definition is welcome, including all ages. Part of my dream is also to have a series because it’s hard to do everything in one concert. I would love to have a production company. That needs funds and we appreciate any collaboration and cooperation from anyone. I’d like to have a company that can produce more than one-offs, to have an actual season. We need more resources and more people, so I invite people to come and see if this is something they’d like to get involved in.
Top photo: Guadalupe Peraza (Photo by Matt Dine)