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Opera Memories

My mother, María Magdalena Velásquez Swanson (1909-), grew up in a remote hamlet in the Sierra Madre Mountains of Chihuahua, Mexico. Her father, Martiniano Velásquez (1871-1914), purchased a large Victrola record player in 1910 on which he played recordings of the great opera singers, including Enrico Caruso and the Mexican soprano Angela Peralta. He exchanged recordings with a friend who was also enthusiastic about opera, music, and the Victrola. In 1914 during the Mexican Revolution my grandfather along with 13 other men was killed by a firing squad from the revolutionary forces of Pancho Villa. My grandmother, María de Jesús Amador Velásquez, now a widow, would not play the Victrola any more. When the rebels would come into the area, she would hide it in the cellar to prevent its confiscation.


My grandmother brought the family to Los Angeles in 1928. My mother remembers that these were hard times for everybody, the Great Depression. My mother as a new immigrant studied English in night school and worked in the garment industry. Now living in a large city, she was able to see live performances of opera at the nearby Shrine Auditorium. At this time, opera was a major cultural event for many people in the area. There were many touring companies that came to Los Angeles, including the San Francisco Opera, the San Carlos Opera, and a company from Mexico City directed by Virginia Fabregas which brought operas and zarzuelas (Spanish musical theater). My mother’s favorite opera was "La Traviata".Parents

My mother’s sister Guillermina and her husband José would come 166 miles to Los Angeles from the desert town of Ludlow during the opera season. They would take my grandmother and mother to the opera. In 1934 my mother married a Swedish immigrant, Baby JohnJohn Swanson. Someone gave him an old Victrola which came with some recordings of great singers: Caruso, McCormack, Tetrazzini, and others. He liked the circus better, but my mother played and enjoyed these recordings. The day I was born on January 11, 1938 my aunt Maria Luisa and uncle Enrique Lacayo, who also loved opera, came by to visit and played these recordings to celebrate my arrival.

By the time I was 7 we had moved to El Monte, a rural community in Los Angeles County. On Saturdays while my sister and I helped with washing clothes and hanging them out to dry, my mother would play the radio so we could listen to the Metropolitan Opera national broadcasts. (These broadcasts began in 1940.) She would explain the plots of the operas for us and point out some of the well-known arias.

Even with this exposure to music it was not until I was in my late 20s before I began to listen carefully and to become personally connected with opera as an art form. When I became more familiar with the songs, music, and stories, as well as seeing it performed, opera became a passion for me.

John August Swanson

Copyright © 2015 John August Swanson
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