Unproduced opera, composed by Lesa Lea Ortega in 1988.

Ortega was born in Holbrook, Arizona in 1961 and lived a mostly uneventful childhood, broken only by her unexpected musical skills. Though her parents were mostly uninterested in any music, Lesa proved to be a prodigy with most woodwind instruments (preferring the clarinet and saxophone in band) and displaying modest talents in vocal music. She earned a bachelor's degree in music performance from the University of Arizona, then received a Master's degree in music performance at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. She decided to stay at UNM to get her doctorate in composition and started work on her thesis, an opera about the legend of La Llorona.

La Llorona is a very old folk tale, common in Mexico and the American Southwest, about a married woman who falls in love with another man. He tells her he can never be with a woman who has children, so she drowns her two children in the Rio Grande. Then he admits that, no, he never really loved her, and he'd never be with her anyway. Distraught, horrified, she flees back to the river and drowns herself, either in a case of simple suicide or in a misguided attempt to rescue her dead children. And ever since, the legends say, la Llorona, the Weeping Woman, has prowled the river looking for her children -- and drowning any other children she comes across.

So Ortega started hardcore research into Hispanic folklore and musical styles as she began work on what she was calling "La pasión de la Llorona." She had composed a short, very traditional operetta as her Master's thesis, but had decided to make her new opera something unique. She worked to combine Italian opera with traditional Mexican folk music, Spanish guitar, mariachi performers, and even modern Tejano music. The lyrics combined English and Spanish languages in an attempt to approximate how Hispanic populations in the Southwestern United States often speak to each other.

Ortega's initial drafts earned high praise from her thesis advisor and from her friends in the department who'd heard it. The artistic director for the nearby Santa Fe Opera made inquiries about it, too, raising the possibility that "La pasión de la Llorona" could be Ortega's ticket to superstardom, at least within the classical music community.

But Ortega was having some significant personal problems that were interfering with her work on the opera. Both of her parents and her grandmother died mere months apart (grandmother of old age, mother in a car accident, father of a sudden heart attack), and the stress was hampering her studies. In addition, she began having trouble with insomnia and unusually vivid nightmares, dreams about drowned children, about being trapped by a rapidly rising river, about being stalked by la Llorona herself.

And on top of all that, her apartment was also suffering an unusual number of broken light bulbs, leaking faucets and plumbing problems, and aggressive mildew. Her landlord called in a host of plumbers and electricians, but despite replacing pipes and wiring numerous times, they were unable to make any real progress on fixing the problems. Strangely, the maintenance difficulties in Ortega's apartment were not being seen anywhere else in the complex. Her neighbors also told her they thought someone had broken into her apartment, because they could hear a woman crying inside when Ortega wasn't at home.

A couple of Ortega's more superstitious friends worried that the Weeping Woman really was after her, but she dismissed their concerns, joking that she'd make sure to avoid streams and rivers.

One particularly odd thing about all of this is that other people who had read her composition -- her advisor, a few music professors, some friends, and a local guitarist who'd given her some tips about composing for Spanish guitar -- began having dreams similar to Ortega's. One of her professors had a backyard swimming pool, and the dreams made him so nervous, he had it drained -- what if one of the grandkids came over and fell in? Or was pulled in...?

By the time Ortega got the composition completed, she was getting about two hours of sleep a night, thanks to the nightmares. She took the musical score to her advisor, turned it in to him for a final check, then went home, expressing the hope that, with the project finished, much of her stress would disappear so she could, as she said, "sleep for a week." Unfortunately, the next morning, the students living downstairs from her apartment found water leaking through the ceiling. They called the landlord, who unlocked Ortega's apartment to find that the spigots on the kitchen and bathroom sinks, in the bathtub, and on the water heater had blown off overnight and flooded the entire apartment.

Lesa Ortega was nowhere to be found, and she's never turned up since, alive or dead.

"La pasión de la Llorona" is still around, but it's never been produced or performed. It probably never will be.


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