Alumnus’s ‘Dreamers’ oratorio inspired by Berkeley undocumented students

Berkeley alumnus Jimmy López interviewed undocumented students on campus to help create his oratorio, “Dreamers.” (Photo by Franciel Braga)

The world premiere of composer Jimmy López’s oratorio “Dreamers” — a work informed by interviews with undocumented students at UC Berkeley — will be performed at Zellerbach Hall on Sunday, March 17. López, 40, who received his Ph.D. in music from Berkeley in 2012, recently talked with Berkeley News about becoming a composer, his time on campus and how he created this large-scale composition for orchestra and voices.

Upcoming events related to the oratorio, including the chance this Thursday at noon to hear López talk about his “Dreamers” project, can be found here. Note a link within that document to a New York Times article on López and his visit to campus a year ago with librettist Nilo Cruz to interview student “Dreamers.”

On Sunday, “Dreamers,” along with the rarely-performed complete score of Igor Stravinsky’s “Firebird,” will be streamed live at Zellerbach. Check here for more information on viewing.

Watch the world premiere of the oratorio, ‘Dreamers,’ performed at Zellerbach Hall on March 17, 2019. (Video by ETS)

How did your musical talent surface?

I was raised in Lima, Peru, and started playing the piano at age 5, on an electronic keyboard. I taught myself how to read music. I also listened to records. But it wasn’t until I was 12 that I took music more seriously. I asked my parents — my dad was an architect, and my mom was an elementary school teacher — to find me a proper piano. I discovered the music of Bach, and it had a very direct impact on me. I started to study his Two-Part Inventions. My parents saw my interest in music and hired private teachers and started taking me to concerts. They were very encouraging; I was lucky they approved of what I did and saw my passion.

Then, a very fortunate thing happened to me. In 1994, when I was still in high school, the Lima Philharmonic Orchestra was founded. It didn’t have a place to rehearse, so it chose our high school auditorium. I would stay after school, and the conductor saw me attending all the rehearsals. He said if I was really interested, he could get me involved in the library. I had access to all the scores, and all the orchestra’s materials. It was incredibly educational.

By 16, I realized I wanted to be a composer. A composer needs to learn about the instruments in the orchestra, so I took lessons on the trumpet and also on the violin and clarinet. I wanted to understand how they worked. And after that, I sought more serious coaching from a teacher and was fortunate to find Enrique Iturriaga, the dean of Peruvian composers. I met him when he was in his late 70s. He will turn 101 in April. I always make a point of visiting him.

I applied to the National Conservatory of Peru in 1998 and studied there 2½ years. I didn’t complete my studies, because I felt it was time for me to move on to another musical landscape. I wanted to see things from a different perspective.

Finland came up, as it has one of the most solid music education programs in all of Europe, and its crown jewel is the Sibelius Academy. It’s a super-power in modern music, the place where many famous composers and conductors have trained. All education in Finland is free, and I was there seven years for my undergraduate studies and my master’s degree in music.

López received his Ph.D. in music from Berkeley in 2012 and lived for a year at International House, where says he loved cafeteria conversations with students from many countries and academic disciplines.

López received his Ph.D. in music from Berkeley in 2012 and lived for a year at International House, where says he loved cafeteria conversations with students from many countries and academic disciplines. (Photo by Sidney Erthal)

What did you discover in Finland?

I was challenged there by colleagues and teachers, who asked “What is unique about what you do?” When you come from a different place, you don’t necessarily want to sound like a European composer. Being in Finland helped me find a perspective, being so far away from home and looking back with interest on the native music of Peru and making deliberate attempts to let that inform my music. Now, not all my compositions include a Latin American influence, but when they do, it comes through naturally, the same way that music from Finland makes its way into my musical language. I’m a product of different places — the U.S., Finland, France. All those things have made a dent, left a mark.

And then came UC Berkeley.

After Finland I came to California, in 2007, to do a Ph.D. in music at UC Berkeley. I’d been in Europe so long, exposed to music there, that I needed something different. Being in California was refreshing. What I liked was the creative freedom, and the distance from Europe.

At Berkeley, there is a forward-thinking mentality, a mix of cultures; it’s a real melting pot. I felt immediately welcome. I was in touch with Edmund Campion (UC Berkeley professor of musical composition and director of the Center for New Music and Audio Technologies) from the very beginning. We first got in contact in 2005, and I still consider him my mentor to this day.

I also loved living at International House — I was there for just one year, 2008 to 2009 — and loved interacting with students from different backgrounds and fields. They came from countries like Chile, Finland, Colombia, New Zealand and Germany and were studying physics or law or finance or biology or chemistry. It was stimulating having discussions in the cafeteria. Every day was a different adventure.

Librettist Nilo Cruz wrote the text for "Dreamers."

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Nilo Cruz wrote the libretto for “Dreamers” and welcomes the public to a 1:30 p.m. read-through of it at Zellerbach Playhouse before Sunday’s performance. (Photo by Todd Rosenberg)

What inspired you to do an oratorio about young immigrants known as “Dreamers”?

Former Cal Performances director Matías Tarnopolsky wanted to work on a project with me and to apply for Hewlett 50 Arts Commission funding. There were two main guidelines — the artist, in partnership with community, should make a piece relevant to our day and also to Berkeley and the Bay Area. I researched a little about Berkeley and found it was the original U.S. sanctuary city. Vietnam War dissidents would come here and wouldn’t be turned in. Later, the sanctuary movement expanded to immigration. Berkeley always was at the forefront. UC Berkeley has about 500 “Dreamers” on campus.

Cal Performances and UC Berkeley facilitated interviews for me and “Dreamersoratorio librettist Nilo Cruz with undocumented students on campus.  They were privately recorded, all done in confidence. We kept our word. All we wanted was to have them share their stories. The interviews have now been destroyed.

No one prepares you to hear these stories. It was very moving, hard to keep composed. You have to be sensitive, ask the right questions, only ask far enough to get answers and be respectful of boundaries. Those stories are the basis for the libretto.

Meeting them opened my eyes. First of all, I realized that “Dreamers” are not a monolithic group of people who are all the same. All were born abroad, but some have siblings that were born here and enjoy the privileges of citizenship, while they do not. Some families were fleeing war. Some were escaping poverty or the drug trade. Some came here as babies so they have known no other country or language. Some speak Spanish, some are not fluent. Some only found out while in college that they are undocumented because their parents never revealed it to them, and for some, it crushed their dreams.

"Dreamers" will be performed by the Philharmonia Orchestra, London, and conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen.

“Dreamers” will be performed at Zellerbach Hall this Sunday at 3 p.m. by the Philharmonia Orchestra, London, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen. (Photo by Felix Broede)

How did you develop the oratorio, and what is it about?

An artist expresses feelings in different ways — music, words, painting. I express myself through sound.

This piece is born out of an inner necessity to create empathy in people who have not had the experience of really interacting with undocumented people and hearing their stories in person. I wanted to write music that would elicit the strong, stimulating emotions in other people that were elicited in me.

It was a very intense period of time; there was no summer for me. I was immersed. I worked in my studio at home, which is my little sanctuary. My neighborhood is quiet, and it’s just me and my husband here. We met in 2010. I work every day until around 6 pm. I have a keyboard next to me, and two large screens and a printer, pencil, paper, everything at my disposal.

There are six movements and many stories within those movements. The fifth movement is in Spanish. We are lucky to have a wonderful singer, soprano Ana María Martínez, whose voice was heard on the Emmy-winning Amazon series Mozart in the Jungle, and who herself is of Hispanic background, speaks Spanish and is a force to be reckoned with.

One of the stories focuses on crossing the border, with a dialogue between mother and child. Another is a “Dreamer” coming to this country and focusing on the study of language as a way to shield herself. The first and last movements are all-encompassing, stating how migration has been a part of us for time immemorial. The second movement is more about the artificial concept of boundaries and borders. The oratorio makes kind of an arc, from the grand and general to the particular and then on to our hopes for the future.

Soprano Ana María Martínez performs in “Dreamers.” In the Amazon series “Mozart in the Jungle,” the voice of character Alessandra, an opera star, was actually that of Martínez. (Photo by Tom Specht)

What’s it like, anticipating the world premiere of your work?

I’m thrilled. By the time you reach the performance, when it’s been rehearsed so many times, the excitement mounts. Every performance is unique, but bringing it to life for the first time has special qualities to it. Rehearsals are discovery, more fascinating to me than the concerts themselves. But when the connection to the audience happens, and I’ll be sitting in the audience, that’s very special. You’re finally putting your work out there for the world to see.

What do you hope the audience will experience?

I want people to allow themselves to be challenged into — and to be open to — hearing other voices, especially people without a positive outlook on immigration. It’s important to be open to all voices if we want to have an honest discussion about this. Political views pass. Politicians also pass. But the libretto says that the act of migrating is something that’s been with us since the beginning of humankind and will be with us forever. We are free to migrate. For us to understand that is a big step, and we must be willing to hear other voices and stories.