A Night at the Opera… and Mazatlán’s Cultural Appeal

By: Lisa Coleman

I have been lucky to have travelled enough of Mexico to have experienced some pretty extraordinary things. But spending an evening at the opera in Mazatlán certainly ranked among the top. Olivia Gorra was born in Coatzacoalcos, Veracruz has been distinguished by the Mexican Critics’ Union for Music and Theater as Mexico’s most important soprano. She debuted as  Liù in Turandot at the Metropolitan Opera in New York and last month she took the stage at the famed Angela Peralta Theater in Mazatlán’s charming city center. And I got to be there! What an amazing evening…

 We were in town for the Gran Fiesta Amigos de Mazatlán celebration hosted by the Mazatlán Hotel Association. Everything was perfect, as usual, but the invitation to the opera was an unexpected surprise. The performance took place at the remarkable Angela Peralta Theater, which has been restored in recent years to its European-style grandeur. Originally named the Rubio Theater, the structure was built in the 1870’s. In 1883, the famous Mexican opera singer, Angela Peralta (known as the Nightingale of Mexico), arrived in the city for a performance. The people of Mazatlán were so enamored of this songbird that the name was changed in her honor. The colorful interior is perfectly resurrected and true to the architectural influences of the period. In addition to countless scheduled events throughout the year, the theater is open daily to the public for tours.  Yes, first-class theater and fine arts do exist in Mexico!

Ms. Gorra sang to a full house and tears flowed openly as she stood on the stage with only her maestro and the grand piano to join her. Her dress depicted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and she was completely flawless. The show was filled with traditional Mexican favorites elevated to a new level with her pitch perfect voice. She rounded out the evening with pure operatic pieces from a number of well known shows. I was completely awe-struck and so honored to have witnessed such an event.

After the show, the “in” crowd heads to Pedro + Lola, a hip restaurant with live jazz that sits catty corner to the esteemed theater. It’s a measure of Mazatlán’s laid-back appeal that after the sold-out show, the undeniably gorgeous Ms. Gorra joined the stream of opera-goers for a late night dinner without a retinue or a handler, and graciously posed for pictures with strangers.
It proves, once again, there’s more than meets in the eye in most of Mexico’s beach towns.

Often called the “Pearl of the Pacific,” Mazatlán is one of Mexico’s oldest and most popular beach resorts. Though it has grown considerably over the past decade, it is certainly not as commercial as its booming coastal counterparts. Residing on the coast where the Sea of Cortez meets the Pacific Ocean, this is one of the closest major Mexican resort to the United States and Canada.

 As with most beach resorts, the beauty of the culture and the depth of the people can only be experienced when you step back and discover that it’s the time away from the beach that really introduces you to the heart and soul of a city. Mazatlán isn’t a manufactured resort community; it is “real” Mexico. The people are warm and welcoming and the city is steeped in more history than any other destination along the Pacific coast. The Spanish began to establish settlements here after gold and silver were discovered in the nearby Sierra foothills. From there, Colonial-era coastal development began to prosper and the port of Mazatlán served as both an export hub and provision station for the Spanish Galleons returning from Asia with spices, silks and other exotic goods. The result: a cultural and historical gold mine.

Often overlooked by tourists, the center of the city is referred to as “Old Mazatlán.” This spotless 20-block salute to history is a surprise to say the least. The government has worked very hard to restore the area to its original splendor and charm, and I think you’ll be very impressed with what they have accomplished.

“Old Mazatlán” has maintained its 19th century ambiance and will give you the sensation of being taken back in time. I would suggest getting up very early and beginning your trek towards old town by taking a stroll along the Malecon (the palm-lined waterfront promenade). Almost immediately you will begin to feel that you have left tourism behind and embarked on a day of discovery and history.  This seaside walk will take you by the local fishermen sorting through their morning catch, past quaint restaurants, shops and eventually into the heart of “Old Mazatlán.” The renovated city center still has all the style and magic it did centuries ago. Shady trees, iron benches, and beautifully restored buildings surround the Plaza Marchado (old town square). It’s something you wouldn’t expect from your average beach town. (Note:  There are also several fascinating stores in the area that specialize in Mardi Gras masks for the city’s pre-Lenten Carnival celebration in late February or early March. Dating back to 1898, this Mexican Mardi Gras is one of the largest in the world.)

A few blocks away, palm trees and more colonial buildings surround Mazatlán’s renovated (and more modern) Main Square and Plaza Revolución. Usually bustling with people, this popular gathering place is also adjacent to one of the region’s most striking cathedrals. Construction began on the basilica in 1856 and was completed in 1899. This fascinating Moorish church has twin blue and gold spires and a gilded ornate triple altar. Also nearby is the city’s spectacular mercado (market), a true Mexican experience and a must for anyone interested in immersing themselves in the local culture. Hundreds of brightly colored fruits, vegetables, chilies, and flowers make for a visual feast. And, in a town whose lifeblood revolves around the ocean, the displays of fresh fish and shrimp are seemingly endless (and the prices are fantastic too).  The sights, sounds, aromas and character of this marketplace truly express the magic of the people and passion they embrace in their everyday lives.

Yes, it’s true, Mazatlán is indeed a thriving beach resort, but next time you plan to visit, take some time to glimpse into the heart of the culture. There’s a whole new world on the “other side” of this pacific gem.