Opera lovers and haters alike should love El Gallo: Opera for Actors. This behind-the-scenes play by Teatro de Ciertos Habitantes, based in Mexico City and appearing for the second time in a brief run at the MCA, is so far from stuffy it’s ridiculous. Just imagine a stage crammed with two string quartets, the audience (yes, the audience sits onstage, at least at first), and six actor/singers delivering an invented language. Communication is largely physical: slapstick, mugging, stage combat.
The title says it all. While “gallo” is most familiar as “rooster,” it can also mean “false note” or “squeak.” Company director Claudio Valdes Kuri says, in English that’s 2,000 times better than my Spanish, “We started with nothing. El Gallo is a mirror of things that happened in the process. The actors are exaggerating a bit all these things that happened—but not so big.”
What happened is that Kuri invited British composer Paul Barker to come in and work with his theater company. “There were six artists,” says Kuri. “Two of them had musical training—one was a pianist, one was a tenor. The other four were more actors than musicians. Their musical skills… It was difficult for the composer to make them sing his compositions.”
The resulting 80-minute piece, which features a music director and five singers, recapitulates that process of artists collaborating, producing a lot of frustration on all sides. “The director is just looking at his new composition,” says Kuri. “His singers have other problems, but he sees just the one side of these people. In life, we are like that. We’re missing the person in all its manifestations. What’s in the play is true of all groups, not just artists’ groups: the competition, the envy.”
“The play is a simple structure: an audition, the third rehearsal, a rehearsal in the middle, the last rehearsal, and then the presentation,” says Kuri. “It’s easy to follow what things are happening. But the performers are exposed to a lot of tension. They’re sharing their inner experience—it’s a cathartic process. They are sharing their problems, but they’re using an invented language.”
Who made up the language? “It’s a mixture of all the languages of the company”—which includes performers from Japan, Iran, French Antilles, and Mexico. “Barker [the composer] arrived at it,” says Kuri. “It’s with meaning, not without meaning. Everything means something—it’s not gibberish. It has rules like any language.”
On video, this raucous production looks very funny. But Kuri says, “I never tell the actors genre or style. It’s not comedy or tragedy. But this group, they have a lot of fun. The thing I like in this production, it’s very funny, but some parts are very serious, spiritual. There are all these different moods. You’ll be laughing, and in the next hour crying. Sometimes it’s like a cartoon, sometimes it’s realistic—and I’m not worried about that.”