West Edge Opera explores the life of Dolores Huerta
Dolores Huerta’s life could certainly be described as “operatic.” At age 91, the co-founder of the United Farm Workers of America is still an activist, still fighting for just representation of Latinos and all women, and fighting against discrimination and exploitation.
Huerta’s story, and in particular, the 24 hours following the assassination of Bobby Kennedy in Los Angeles, are now the fabric of Dolores, an opera commissioned by East Bay company West Edge Opera, after it became the winner of WEO’s “Aperture” residency program for composers and librettists last year.
Dolores Fernandez was born in Dawson, New Mexico, to a farmworker father who eventually became a state legislator. Her parents divorced when she was three years old, and her mother moved with her children to Stockton, Calif., where she worked as a waitress and cannery worker until she was able to buy a small hotel and restaurant.
As a schoolchild, Huerta endured accusations of cheating because her essays were too well-written. Her brother was attacked and beaten for wearing a zoot suit. These incidents motivated Huerta, more than ever, to succeed. She graduated from college with an associate teaching degree, married twice, had seven children and then, in 1955, co-founded the Community Service Organization, leading voter-registration drives and fighting for economic justice.
Through CSO, she met César Chávez, and in 1962 they founded what became the United Farm Workers of America. Huerta helped organize the famous Delano grape-workers strike and led nationwide grape boycotts that eventually resulted in the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975, which allowed farm workers to form unions and bargain for better wages and conditions.
On March 10, 1968, Huerta brought Sen. Bobby Kennedy to the UFW’s property west of Delano to meet with Chávez, who had just completed 25 days of a water fast. Farm workers clamored to meet the senator. Days later, Kennedy announced his candidacy for president.
Huerta was present at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles just after midnight on June 6, 1968, where Kennedy and supporters were celebrating his win in the California primary. He was shot by Sirhan Sirhan and died later that day.
Composer Nicolas Lell Benavides is Dolores Huerta’s third cousin and has known her all his life. He explained his decision to focus the new opera on that moment in her life this way: “My [Millennial] generation was desolated by the election of 2016. But I thought, ‘No, people have gone through great losses and recovered. When we lose our heroes, what do we do? We go on.’”
So, when completed, Dolores will be a tragedy—“Opera is about loss,” Benavides said—yet it will also illuminate Huerta’s strength in the face of that tragedy. Huerta herself is an American hero, he said.
Librettist Marella Martin Koch, with whom Benavides has partnered on several previous projects, said her notes include this observation: “Many forces, large and small, are in play that, if we are not careful, write the scripts of our lives for us, restricting our potential through abuse, exploitation, or indifference. Despite all of this, Dolores has spoken loudly and clearly. Now, she will sing.”
She pointed out how rare it is in opera’s standard repertoire “for a woman to be the leader, and not in a place of victimization.”
Although Huerta’s story is part of his own family’s history, both Benavides and Martin Koch have also done extensive research, creating a plot that is largely factual but focuses on just a few people out of a cast of hundreds. Dolores will have a cast of seven. Part of the narrative is Huerta as a woman—and a woman of color—in a room full of white men, “but I need to look for ways to include characters with different voice types,” Benavides said. “So who gets to have a voice?”
Jazz, Latin dance music, syncopated rhythms and other influences will play a part in the opera’s score. “We live in a time, artistically, of great abundance,” Benavides said. Huerta, he said, loves jazz, salsa and Big Band swing, “and that will all come out in the score … moments of joy to show the person she is.”
Martin Koch noted that she and Benavides, who have now worked together for several years, had a piece presented in WEO’s “Snapshot” series in 2020, when the call came for submissions to the new Aperture program. She had long considered Benavides’ idea for an opera based on Huerta to be inspirational. “[The RFK assassination stopped] what could have been an incredible moment of change,” she said. “She could have seen the dream she had fought for all those years just disappear. But she went on.”
She was able to interview Huerta through Zoom, and observed how “vital, direct and light she is. She is a strong, vibrant energy.” Interviews were also conducted with many of the people of that era who are still alive, and will be part of the libretto as it develops. Creating a full-length opera is a long process, and a draft libretto won’t be ready for Benavides to begin composing music to until February 2022.
Being chosen for Aperture was, in many ways, ideal. WEO General Director Mark Streshinsky described Aperture as an online program invented for the pandemic. WEO also wanted to shake up the “gatekeeping model” deciding what is chosen for presentation, he said. Four WEO staff members, joined by arts leaders—who were also people of color—together assessed the 80 submissions.
Ultimately, they selected Dolores to move on as an awarded commission, with a staged concert performance to follow as part of the 2023 season. “We were excited that the final selection was a piece by and about a person of color,” Streshinsky said.
During the concert performance, “We will be able to hear and see what works and what it needs to make it better,” Benavides said. From there, Dolores will be considered for a full WEO production in 2024, though both he and Streshinsky emphasized there are no guarantees.
“We would love to see it done in California first,” Martin Koch said.
Streshinsky noted that WEO’s 2022 season, July 29–Aug. 7, will include Handel’s Julius Caesar, featuring Shawnette Sulker as Cleopatra. Symbolist opera Ariane and Bluebeard is by Paul Dukas, best known as the composer of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and the season’s contemporary opera, Coraline, is based on the darkly comic children’s book by Neil Gaiman. Bulrusher, a workshop concert performance and a postseason add-on, is based on the play by Elsa Davis, who is co-librettist.
WEO’s 2022 home will be Oakland’s Scottish Rite Center. “It was built in 1927 for un-amplified Masonic rites,” Streshinsky said. Familiar with the space, he hadn’t considered it for WEO until this year, when he and staff members tested the acoustics. After “sitting in the space and doing some dreaming,” the decision was made, he said. WEO will build out a stage in the middle of the center, with a “proper orchestra pit,” he said.
The site’s larger audience capacity will enable WEO to offer some seats for as low as $10. This is vital, as opera, along with other classic performance forms, re-envisions itself for new and younger audiences.
Benavides understands this. “I’m someone who didn’t know classical music until I was 19,” he said. “What pulled me in was beginning to see stories about the American experience.” And beyond that, American stories which have begun to incorporate and see as heroic all Americans, he added.
Dolores Huerta received the Eleanor Roosevelt Human Rights Award in 1998, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012. Now Benavides and Martin Koch will celebrate her in opera.
Her first name means “sorrows” in Spanish. But it is her ability to transcend great sorrows—to find the strength to move forward and bring others with her, to never stop finding joy—that makes her the fitting subject for what may be a great American opera.
For updates on the progress of “Dolores,” and more information about West Edge Opera’s 2022 season, visit www.westedgeopera.org.