Unproduced opera, composed by Lesa Lea Ortega in 1988.
Ortega was born in Holbrook, Arizona in 1961 and lived a mostly
uneventful childhood, broken only by her unexpected musical skills.
Though her parents were mostly uninterested in any music, Lesa proved
to be a prodigy with most woodwind instruments (preferring the
clarinet and saxophone in band) and displaying modest talents in
vocal music. She earned a bachelor's degree in music performance from
the University of Arizona, then received a Master's degree in music
performance at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. She decided to stay at UNM to get her doctorate in
composition and started work on her thesis, an opera about the legend of
La Llorona is a very old folk tale, common in the American
Southwest, about a married woman who falls in love with another man. He
tells her he can never be with a woman who has children, so she drowns
her two children in the Rio Grande. Then he admits
that, no, he never really loved her, and he'd never be with her anyway.
Distraught, horrified, she flees back to the river and drowns herself,
either in a case of simple suicide or in a misguided attempt to
rescue her dead children. And ever since, the legends say, la Llorona,
the Weeping Woman, has prowled the river looking for her children --
and drowning any other children she comes across.
So Ortega started hardcore research into Hispanic folklore and
musical styles as she began work on what she was calling "La pasión de
la Llorona." She had composed a short, very traditional operetta as
her Master's thesis, but had decided to make her new opera something
unique. She worked to combine Italian opera with traditional
Mexican folk music, Spanish guitar, mariachi performers,
and even modern Tejano music. The lyrics combined English and
Spanish languages in an attempt to approximate how Hispanic
populations in the Southwestern United States often speak to each other.
Ortega's initial drafts earned high praise from her thesis advisor
and from her friends in the department who'd heard it. The artistic
director for the nearby Santa Fe Opera made inquiries about it, too,
raising the possibility that "La pasión de la Llorona" could be Ortega's
ticket to superstardom, at least within the classical music
But Ortega was having some significant personal problems that were
interfering with her work on the opera. Both of her parents and her
grandmother died mere months apart (grandmother of old age, mother in a
car accident, father of a sudden heart attack), and the stress was
hampering her studies. In addition, she began having trouble with
insomnia and unusually vivid nightmares, dreams about drowned
children, about being trapped by a rapidly rising river, about being
stalked by la Llorona herself.
And on top of all that, her apartment was also suffering an unusual
number of broken light bulbs, leaking faucets and plumbing problems,
and aggressive mildew. Her landlord called in a host of plumbers and
electricians, but despite replacing pipes and wiring numerous times,
they were unable to make any real progress on fixing the problems.
Strangely, the maintenance difficulties in Ortega's apartment were not
being seen anywhere else in the complex. Her neighbors also told her
they thought someone had broken into her
apartment, because they could hear a woman crying inside when
wasn't at home.
A couple of Ortega's more superstitious friends worried that the
Weeping Woman really was after her, but she dismissed their concerns,
joking that she'd make sure to avoid streams and rivers.
One particularly odd thing about all of this is that other people who
had read her composition -- her advisor, a few music professors, some
friends, and a local guitarist who'd given her some tips about
composing for Spanish guitar -- began having dreams similar to Ortega's.
One of her professors had a backyard swimming pool, and the dreams
made him so nervous, he had it drained -- what if one of the grandkids
came over and fell in? Or was pulled in...?
By the time Ortega got the composition completed, she was getting
about two hours of sleep a night, thanks to the nightmares. She took the
musical score to her advisor, turned it in to him for a final check,
then went home, expressing the hope that, with the project finished,
much of her stress would disappear so she could, as she said, "sleep for
a week." Unfortunately, the next morning, the students living
downstairs from her apartment found water leaking through the ceiling.
They called the landlord, who unlocked Ortega's apartment to find that
the spigots on the kitchen and bathroom sinks, in the bathtub, and on
the water heater had blown off overnight and flooded the entire
Lesa Ortega was nowhere to be found, and she's never turned up since, alive or dead.
"La pasión de la Llorona" is still around, but it's never been produced or performed. It probably never will be.