Sandra Cisneros’ book The House on Mango Street, the award-winner, the “line leader,” the work that put Cisneros on the map, is the one everyone wants to talk about.
Since it was published in 1984, it has sold over six million copies, has been translated into over 20 languages, and is required reading in elementary, high school, and university curricula across the nation.
It’s the one everyone wants to talk about. Except for Cisneros.
“When you have been reading and discussing your own work for over 30 years, you grow tired of it — I was tired of it,” Cisneros said. “It was a shot of penicillin for me to look at the book in a brand new way and to reexamine the characters I discovered when I was in my 20s. The
‘Mango Suite’ brought me back to my roots.”
Roots. That’s what composer Derek Bermel’s “Mango Suite” has in Chautauqua. The commission of the piece was underwritten by Chautauquans Francis and Cindy Letro in honor of Tom and Jane Becker for their dedication to inter-arts programming; it was commissioned jointly along with two other orchestras led by CSO Music Director Rossen Milanov: the Columbus Symphony Orchestra and the Princeton Symphony.
In 2017, Bermel, the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra, Chautauqua Theater Company, Chautauqua Voice Program and the Charlotte Ballet combined their artistic efforts for the suite’s world premiere, which Daily guest critic Tom DiNardo said created a “powerful, lasting impression.” For the final Cocktails, Concerts and Conversations of the 2020 season, Vice President of Performing and Visual Arts Deborah Sunya Moore decided to bring it back.
Cisneros and Bermel will be joined by Moore and Director of Literary Arts Sony Ton-Aime at 5 p.m. EDT Thursday, Aug. 27 on the CHQ Assembly Video Platform to show and discuss selected excerpts from the premiere, as well as how the collaboration has continued to influence the duo’s work and develop into new projects.
“This feels like a real finale for the summer season,” Moore said. “This is what I love most about our work — this is an original commission and a world premiere that had a life after Chautauqua. I think our sweet spot in the arts is about fostering new work and nurturing artists in that process.”
When Bermel began looking for a text that would work across multiple art forms, he initially set The House on Mango Street aside, thinking a more poetic style of writing would work better with musical accompaniment. But after spending several months reading epic poems by contemporary American Latino poets, he came back to Cisneros.
According to Cisneros, the partnership “feels just like playing.”
“We’re just like kids,” she said. “There is a generosity of spirit in him that is educational, but fun for me. Derek and I find ourselves talking about our pasts a lot, about our own coming-of-age. I don’t know what it’s like to be anyone but me, but his insight allows me to see beyond myself and my story.”
The House on Mango Street, a 2017 Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle selection and a 2017 CLSC Young Readers pick, tells the coming-of-story of a young Mexican-American girl named Esperanza Cordero through 44 self-contained episodes. The account, as described by Cisneros, details a year in Cordero’s life after she moved to a house on Mango Street in a barrio of Chicago, struggling with assimilation and marginalization simultaneously.
“It challenges us because it’s about finding one’s voice,” Moore said. “It’s as relevant today as it was when she wrote it.”
In each of the vignettes that make up the 50-minute piece, Cordero is portrayed by dancers, actors and vocalists. Other aspects of the story are told through choreography by Charlotte Ballet Associate Artistic Director and Resident Choreographer Sasha Janes, who worked closely with Chautauqua Theater Company’s Artistic Director Andrew Borba to coordinate the movements.
“This isn’t a sequel, this is a reimagination,” Cisneros said. “I’m 65, but I feel like learning something new and going into other fields is keeping me young and keeping me creative. I simply hope to never grow old.”
Cisneros is already working on adding another field to her expanding catalog. Bermel and Cisneros are currently on the sixth draft of turning “Mango Suite” into an opera. It’s one of Cisneros’ most personal projects yet. Her mother, who passed away in 2007, loved opera and Cisneros said she knows her mom is guiding them “through every step of the way.”
“I feel her presence all the time,” Cisneros said. “I can’t wait until the pandemic has passed and we are listening to it in some big beautiful room somewhere with a full orchestra. I know my mom will be there, her spirit lighting the stage.”