Let’s face it: jazz opera? This could easily become a train wreck in the hands of lesser artists. At one point in the recording process of Nora La Bella, the musicians listened to the playback of the tricky Afro-Cuban, “Ernesto In The Tomb,” with Gian-Carla Tisera shooting her opera vocals high above the notes. Surprised and impressed, they blurted, “Wow, it works!”
Whatever Bolivian opera singer Tisera’s doing on this 13-track jazz opera album, as impossible as the two disparate fusions may seem, works. Her classically trained opera voice is lightning on the tracks, wherever they roam in her favorite mix of Latin American folk and jazz improvisation, with a healthy undercurrent of social conscience.
Nora La Bella came out on August 19, Tisera’s first major album and quite possibly a game-changer. The opera singer lives and works in New York, sings in several languages — on this album she sings in four, including Quechua from South America’s Andes region, and surrounds herself with some of the best, in order to work the impossible. She has Grammy-nominated, Cuban pianist Elio Villafranca right by her side as co-producer, both steeped in the jazz-friendly improvisation of the Baroque style (how they first met), along with guest artist, five-time Grammy-winning bass player John Benitez, trumpeter Diego Urcola, and — just to make it truly authentic — Reinaldo de Jesus on congas, bongo, djembé, cajón, castanets, and minor percussion, and Yayo Serka (drums, bombo legüero, ch’askas, cajón).
Tisera doesn’t just roar as an opera singer. She responds to the musical environment working underneath her, as a kind of jet propulsion feeding her passions, spiriting her away to ethereal heights and primal lows through original compositions inspired by her Bolivia homeland’s folklore (“Señora Chichera” and “Cueca Lejanía”) and retouched covers of classical music (Giuseppe Verdi’s “Don Carlo,” Giulio Caccini’s “Le Nuove Musiche”) and the Latin American Songbook (“Alfonsina y El Mar,” “Mujer, Niña y Amiga”).
“I had this idea for a new kind of opera, something different, accessible and fresh,” Tisera explained. “I love opera and that’s my training, and while I am not a jazz singer or a traditional folk singer, both genres have been an integral part of my life and my musical experience. And I also thought: how can I express my immigrant experience? How can I speak of my perspective as a Bolivian woman, as an American woman looking back at my country from a distance? All of that came into play when working on Nora La Bella.”
When you think about her role as an opera singer for so long, it made sense that she would want to bust out creatively. After performing formally in the role in the U.S. and Bolivia, with the L.A. Philharmonic, the National Symphony Orchestra of Bolivia, and the Pasadena Symphony, touring for five years with the Bolivian Baroque Project — breathing life to 17th century music discovered in Jesuit missions from the Bolivian jungles — a detour into the improvisational freedom of jazz made perfect sense.
“I moved to New York in 2008, and I arrived here as an opera singer and with the dream of being an opera singer. That was it,” she explained. “I’ve loved Latin American folk music all my life, I’ve been intrigued and inspired by jazz and I’m very socially conscious. But as a musician, my choice had always been opera and the classical stage. That was my posture for my first three years in New York and, frankly, I started to feel empty. In the opera world it’s very hard to have your own project and your own ideas. There is a repertoire, you are a performer, and that’s that.”
She began to bust loose with visual artists and jazz jam sessions. An opera singer venturing into the world of jazz standards? Hard to believe for a lot of entrenched players. But she proved them wrong, using her ability to improvise with boleros, taking it from there.
On this album, she manages to revitalize opera, raising its staid, old folks reputation into the present. She does this by refusing to dim down opera’s brash, over-the-top, take-no-prisoners magnitude. Instead, she makes friends with Afro-Latin rhythms, the spoken word, Bolivian folk, and in a broader sense, jazz’s improvisational complexity. Somehow, her brand of opera feels right at home with jazz, as both are fully represented without compromise, both stand upright, side by side, in a strangely cohesive parallel of universes.
In “Alfonsina Y El Mar,” Tisera’s vocal tendons snap in straight lines with only a bass and the remnants of a fluttering, polyrhythmic percussive death spasm — a fearless stripped-down show of bass-voice in a straight-ahead opera. One false move, one strident waver, and it’s all over.
“Señora Chichera” eases the opera-averse into Tisera’s universe in great, big dollops of warmly lit, two-toned jazz in the melodic clave of the piano and the burnish of the glorious salvation of the horns. When she abruptly cuts into a horn finish at the 4:02 mark, all magnetic frenzy, dark angels trailing her, you can’t be mad at the disruption, you can only welcome it entirely, and you can’t help but admire her bravado. This is Gian-Carla Tisera’s jazz opera, and it is righteous.
“La Llorona” allows Tisera to tear through ancient repertoire in her own hotly sensual calligraphy of unctuous strokes and guttural, savage outbursts in a highly aroused Tourette’s. Traditional opera tends to be all technique, full volume, and exaggerated emotion. Here, she exaggerates the emotion to compelling, scary effect — as if she’s literally being smothered to death in ecstasy, penetrated through the physical into a spiritual core — whipping out that classical control for an uncontrollable release. She uses the jazz tools at her disposal, the scatting intro, the startling laugh that makes its own song, the lifts and sharp lyrical crescendos, the waiting in voluminous silence between the beats, and that amazing vocal range which can switch hot and cold in an instant as if possessed by a hundred different singers up and down the scales.
“The People United” is her social contribution. Tisera knows of revolution and sings in this album of Che Guevara and a call to her people to unite for the right to live freely. Appropriately, this call to unite must resort to a musical avant-garde chaos, threatening to dismantle her control. The musicians bash up against one another, her spiritual possession egging them on as their piano and horn and the slash of random cymbals flee in separate directions. But she waits, softens her voice, straightens the nervous breakdowns, lets the music run its course before calling the fallen back home, letting each individual instrumentalist take hold, as the bass grounds out first. As the musicians get a hold of themselves, Tisera advances on the vision of unity in the midst of civil unrest and ruin in a dual-citizenship of vocal supremacy, at turns plaintive as a child’s plea for more water, and as a royal shedding her queenly skin. Heady stuff.
For those lucky enough to be in her company, Gian-Carla Tisera tries out her vocal stature at New York’s Joe’s Pub this Thursday, 7:30 p.m., with pianist Elio Villafranca, bassist Edward Perez, drummer Franco Pinna, and percussionist Paulo Stagnaro.
Artist quotes pulled from a press release provided by DL Media.