Story and photos by Robert W. Bone
Mazatlan, Mexico – Life moves smoothly along the shores of this Pacific coast town. Sunbathers take their cue from the pelicans lazily coasting along, inches above the waves.
This “Golden Zone,” as it’s called, is not much different than a resort beach anywhere in the world. But visitors who rouse themselves from the sand to take a trip to the city center find something very different. There among the pastel-colored buildings, narrow streets, and shaded plazas is a Mazatlan which still has the atmosphere of a Spanish colonial town.
One ancient square in particular evokes a compelling story of triumph and tragedy which took place a century and a quarter ago. The Plazuela Machado was the scene of a dramatic public appearance and heartbreaking death of one of the world’s great operatic sopranos.
Born in 1845, Angela Peralta was not considered an attractive child, and she first worked in Mexico City as a servant girl. But it was soon discovered that she was blessed with considerable musical talent.
She learned the piano and the harp. But most of all, the Mexico City elite were impressed with Angela’s truly angelic voice. They financed her studies in Italy,
and while still a teenager, she drew enthusiastic crowds in her home country, and later in the best operatic venues in the U.S. and Europe.
She became known in New York and London as the “Mexican nightingale” for her beautiful voice and feisty personality. She garnered award after award for her performances. She also won acclaim as a composer.
Angela Peralta left public life for a time during a brief, unhappy marriage. But her talent flowered anew when the young widow returned to the stage in 1871. She soon established her own opera company, aided by her manager and lawyer, Don Julian Montiel & Duarte.
In due course, Angela and Don Julian fell in love, and they began an affair which shocked conservative elements in Mexico City. The same audiences who had praised her now turned against her with a vengeance. When these influential opera fans were unsuccessful at destroying her career, they hired hecklers to interrupt her performances.
Angela continued to be adored by more tolerant elements elsewhere in Mexico, and she vowed never to sing in the capital again. At 38, she began what turned out to be her final tour. One of the company’s first dates included a fateful performance in Mazatlan.
The ship carrying Angela, Don Julian, and her entire opera company arrived at the port of Mazatlan on Aug. 22, 1883. Enthusiastic crowds gathered at the docks and then joyfully accompanied her and her troupe until they reached the Plazuela Machado.
She gratefully rewarded her fans by appearing on her balcony at the Hotel Iturbe overlooking the plaza. The crowd grew silent only when Angela raised her hand and began to sing.
The song which reverberated over the plaza was “La Paloma,” the traditional refrain which is still popular today, and one whose Spanish lyrics celebrate the triumph of love over death. It proved to be a prophetic choice.
Unknown to anyone, a crew member of Angela’s ship had come down with a case of the highly contagious Yellow Fever, and had spread the infection ashore in Mazatlan.
In the theatre next door to the Hotel Iturbe, the opera company began to rehearse Verdi’s Il Travatore, but it was destined never to be heard.
Before the performance, the Mexican Nightingale and nearly all members of her company, along with a considerable number of townspeople, fell ill and died, a result of a sudden epidemic of the disease for which neither cause nor cure was then known.
Among the survivors was Don Julian. The apparently distraught manager quickly arranged to marry Angela on her deathbed in Room 10 of the Hotel Iturbe. Some said it was to preserve her good name. Others believed it was to solidify his legal claim on her company.
Eyewitness accounts of the scene also vary. But when the time came for his bride to give her assent to the marriage, she was fully unconscious, and perhaps already dead. One of the surviving members of her opera company assisted with the “I do,” by holding her head and gently nodding it when the question was asked. Another version said her assent was actually voiced by a woman hiding under the bed.
Today the Hotel Iturbe has been converted into the Municipal Center for the Arts. Next door is the stage where the diva was to have performed, now refurbished and renamed in her honor as the Angela Peralta Theater. The theater continues to play an active role in the cultural life of Mazatlan.
Walking tours of Mazatlan frequently include a visit to the theater, along with other historic sites, art galleries, and popular sidewalk cafés. One museum, the Casa Machado, provides a view overlooking the square. It also features photos and other mementos of Angela Peralta, recalling Mazatlan’s sad role in the final appearance of the Mexican Nightingale.
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