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Taking Opera to the Streets

Tenor Jónathan Cebreros on turning the highbrow art into an inclusive community celebration.

It’s a balmy night as Jónathan Cebreros glides across the outdoor stage to the dramatic pulse of Verdi’s La Traviata, joining two elegantly dressed sopranos, his own smooth, powerful tenor building, rolling, and reaching over the swelling audience in Italian. Ah, yes! Let’s enjoy the wine and the singing, the beautiful night, and the laughter. Let the new day find us in this paradise, he sings.

And the joyous night does feel like a kind of paradise, albeit an unexpected one. This alfresco opera is not being held in an arts epicenter like Rome, New York, or Paris, but along the California-Mexico border in rough-edged Tijuana. There are no elevated boxes for VIP guests, no black-tie-preferred dress code, no ornate auditorium filled with red velvet seats. Here, locals young and old, families and students, fill rows of red plastic seats on one of Tijuana’s wide streets, spilling over onto the sidewalks, mesmerized by the grand voices booming from the stage as they put their arms around their abuelitas or niños and sip slushy granitas or beer. This is the 12th year of Opera en la Calle, Tijuana’s free Opera in the Street festival, held every year in one of the oldest, working class neighborhoods in Tijuana: Colonia Libertad. The hilly neighborhood is nestled alongside the border, its dense streets jam-packed with small houses, some boasting quaint gardens, some with protective spikes, and some sporting both. It has been the home of boxers, gangsters, mayors, artists, and immigrant smugglers—but Tijuana’s notorious narrative of drug violence and crime has waned over the past decade, making way for Tijuana’s growing middle class to enjoy an increasingly sophisticated nightlife. Just seven years earlier, rampant violence infiltrated bars and cafés, seeping onto the streets. Today, there are an estimated 12,000 Tijuananese from all over the city gathered to observe Italian opera with a side of tacos de mariscos.

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