Skeleton keys

A four-part Día del los Muertos-themed opera uses multimedia, music, dance, art—and, of course, bones—to unlock a cultural understanding of the dead

Songs about the dead should always be played in B minor chords.

Songs about the dead should always be played in B minor chords.

photo by gordon Huang

Imperial Silence: Una Opera Muerta, 7 p.m. Sunday, October 28; $12-$35. Three Stages at Folsom Lake College, 10 College Parkway in Folsom; (916) 608-6888;

Three Stages at Folsom Lake College

10 College Pkwy.
Folsom, CA 95630

(916) 608-6888

If the fat lady sings at this opera, her bones will rattle.

That’s because John Jota Leaños’ Imperial Silence: Una Ópera Muerta (“a dead opera”), which will be presented for performance at the Three Stages at Folsom Lake College on Sunday, October 28, makes use of the traditions of Día de los Muertos—Day of the Dead—and images popularized in the work of Mexican artist José Guadalupe Posada.

Short form: It’s got lots and lots of calaveras, the familiar skulls and, occasionally, full-size skeletons that represent the dead in celebrations for the traditional November 1 Mexican holiday.

Imperial Silence comprises four acts, made up of mariachi music, animation and dance. While each act has its own style, each is also linked by how it represents our cultural understanding of death.

“We call it an opera—a dead opera—to offer a commentary about elite cultural expression,” said Leaños, a Bay Area artist whose works have been exhibited at the Sundance Film Festival; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. Leaños is currently an assistant professor of social documentation in the Film and Digital Media department at UC Santa Cruz.

It’s important to remember, he adds, that opera was once popular culture, consumed by the working classes when they had leisure time.

“It was the equivalent of people going to the movies today,” Leaños said. “Then, over the years, it developed into the elite form we know now, where many of the opera houses produce work from previous centuries over and over again.

“It’s work, sometimes, that’s kept alive in a petri dish.”

Since the opera’s so close to dead, why not invite the dead into it? One possibility for making opera accessible is to introduce the incredibly popular cavaleras figures from the Day of the Dead to reinvigorate the genre. So Leaños—and his collaborators in Imperial Silence, choreographer Joel Valentin-Martinez; deejay and composer Cristóbal Martinez; and Los Cuatro Vientos, a Tucson, Ariz., mariachi ensemble—created a mixture of animation, music, dance, and visual spectacle.

This is what’s called “social art,” and, in this case, it’s a multimedia extravaganza. It is, Leaños said, “cultural and creative activity intended to comment on the world, to witness with the hope that personal and social transformation will occur through it.”

And social art bears a close relationship to guerrilla theater, agitprop, and such diverse pop-cultural phenomena as street art and graffiti. But it’s also an opera—of the dead.

<i>Imperial Silence: Una &#211;pera Muerta</i> incorporates dance, music, art, and costumes to tell its story of death, dying and the ones who are left behind.

photo by Gordon Huang

It really does go back to Posada. A century ago, he made cartoon-style drawings of skeletons that are still widely used and imitated in Mexican and Mexican-American folk and popular art.

Posada printed “broadsheets that had stories and images of calaveras, these skeletons who were always making fun of the living and offering social commentary,” Leaños said.

One of the most famous is “La Calavera Catrina.”

“She’s wealthy, upper class, one of those ladies who thinks she’s better than everyone else. Of course, the reality is that she’s dead. There’s no one left to be better than.”

It’s this funny, satirical approach to death that makes the subject tenable for us, Leaños said. He noted the irony in having a cultural obsession with death while remaining unable to discuss it.

“Cornel West says we’re death denying and death defying, refusing to come to terms with death,” Leaños said. All this, he adds, even as we’re fascinated by video games, movies, television shows and music in which people die constantly and gruesomely.

“We’re blowing up people in fantasy, but we can’t face the reality of death,” Leaños said. “We can’t see the coffins coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan; we can’t look upon what our fascination with violence does; we can’t see too much reality.”

Enter the calavera. And the cartoon.

One act of Imperial Silence is titled “Deadtime Stories With Mariachi Goose and Friends,” and the animation, songs and stories in this section derive from familiar childhood rhymes. These stories, Leaños said, “originally had some indigenous European meaning.” For instance, the Humpty Dumpty story may have been about a large cannon that fell from a damaged wall and could not be remounted.

But the story has “no meaning to us any longer,” he said. “It has become kind of a hollow story, a dead story, and in the second act, we use animation and music to till this open field.

“We’re using this hollow, open space of children’s rhymes and stories to tell a new, more engaged story.”

It’s a reminder to the audience that although we live in a media-saturated time and place, we are also capable of producing and reproducing our own stories using that media.

<i>Imperial Silence: Una &#211;pera Muerta</i> incorporates dance, music, art, and costumes to tell its story of death, dying and the ones who are left behind.

photo by Gordon Huang

“As artists, our obligation is to comment on society, to offer alternatives to corporate media. So we’re getting at the idea that our culture is our own to make,” Leaños said.

Imperial Silence makes use of animation, mariachi music, folkloric dance (baile folklórico), drums, and what Leaños calls “hybridized flamenco and modern dance.”

“We’re putting in everything,” he said.

The first act is “Los ABCs ¡Qué Vivan los Muertos!” (“The ABCs: How the Dead Live”), in which animation and music are used to explore issues of war, colonialism and the acquisition of empire. The second act is made up of the reimagining of nursery rhymes.

In “¡Radio Muerto!” the third act, the scene is ever changing, but the channel isn’t. “Imagine that you’re sitting in the back of a car, and you don’t have control of the radio,” said Leaños. “It’s a long road trip, which is the story of the American West.”

¡Radio Muerto!” simulates a road trip, he said, and “there are certain things to deal with. It’s the coming of age.”

The final act, “DNN: Dead News Network,” depicts the calaveras taking over the newscast and putting their own unique spin on current events.

“[It’s] more adult—not in the R-rated sense, but in the sense of being an adult,” Leaños said.

The big advantage to such a multilayered, multimedia approach to art is the accessibility it grants to both artist and audience. Using animation in addition to other art forms is a big plus, because who doesn’t love a cartoon?

“You can build audiences in various different circles,” Leaños said. “This piece has been shown in film festivals. The animation is online and can be downloaded to your iPhone. It’s been shown on public television, and it’s to be shown in the theater as well.”

(The installation aspect of Imperial Silence, unfortunately, won’t be at the Three Stages production. It’s a car, El Muertorider [“the death rider”], and it can be seen on Leoñas’ website.)

And, while the multimedia aspect might be new, the idea of art as a social agent is as old as—well, as bones in a crypt.

“People have been practicing it for many years,” Leaños said. “The Mexican muralists, the indigenous potters who embodied their cosmology in their work, or even contemporary social action like the Occupy movement—it’s all a legacy of art as a catalyst for social change.”

It’s a tradition that Leaños finds possibilities in, and, he said, he hopes people will recognize “how the Day of the Dead—Día de los Muertos—has crossed the border and inserted itself into theater and art.”

“It is a live tradition—no pun intended. It is this undying tradition of undying death.”