The year was 1962. The place was the Teatro Juarez, a tiny, century-old jewel of an opera house in the colonial Mexican city of Guanajuato.
On leave from my first Foreign Service posting as vice consul in industry-rich Monterrey, I had set out to see the “real Mexico.” At the recommendation of several Mexican friends, I put Guanajuato, a hidden gem and, in its day, the source of more than half the world’s silver, at the top of my list. As the guide proudly showed us the gold-leaf and red-velvet richness of the Teatro, he noted sadly that it now remained dark most of the year. He added, however, that the following day would bring an opportunity to see the theater come to life, for three young opera singers from Mexico City’s Conservatory were coming to give a one-time concert.
I almost didn’t go. My vacation time was limited, and my appreciation of opera nearly nonexistent. And I thought, in my gringo complacency, how good could three unknowns from Mexico City be? How good indeed! The performance the following day was spectacular!
During the first, and for me the best, part of the recital, each of the three took turns at the piano while one or both of the others sang from a generous selection of the best known arias and duets in the popular repertoire, including much of the first act of “La Boheme,” the glorious duet from “The Pearl Fishers,” and many, many more. And the voices! I had never heard such singing! No one was protecting their voice or giving a minimal effort to a provincial audience. To the contrary, they sometimes put the crystal lamps at the rear of the auditorium at serious risk. The atmosphere in the theater was electric. For over two hours the public and performers fed off each other. The three artists were obviously enjoying every moment, and we in the audience were ecstatic. After intermission, they staged—in its brief entirety—Gian Carlo Menotti’s “The Telephone.” The standing ovation at the end was long and heartfelt.
After the show, I wandered around the Jardin Unión, the triangle-shaped plaza adjacent to the Teatro. As I passed the theater, the three singers emerged together from the front entrance. Reflexively, I checked my shirt pocket. Yes, the concert program was still there. It would be easy to walk up and ask the three to autograph my program. But wouldn’t that be a bit undignified? I was a vice consul of the United States, for God’s sake. And wouldn’t I be invading their privacy? So I walked away. Big mistake!
I wondered then, and for a couple of years thereafter, if what my untrained ears had heard that day was really as good as I thought. I decided I would commit the performers’ names to memory, just in case one of them might some day make it to “the big time.” One of the three, Javier (stage name “Franco”) Iglesias, was from Monterrey, and thus already familiar. The name of the other male singer, the one I thought was perhaps even better than Iglesias, would have been harder to remember, but luckily I noticed it could—by stretching a point—be translated into English as “Peaceful Sunday.”
That day in Guanajuato introduced me to a world of musical pleasure that has brightened the subsequent 40 years. And although I don’t have an autographed program to show off to friends, I do have one helluva good cocktail party story and the knowledge that I was one of the very first Norteamericanos to be enthralled by the voice of Placido Domingo.
Republished by permission from the Foreign Service Journal, July/August 2003.
Jack St. John began his Foreign Service career at Monterrey in 1961, and retired as director of Mexican Affairs in 1989. He also served in London, Managua and Geneva, and held two office directorships in the Economic Affairs Bureau.