Ruben Valenzuela, left, Founder and Artistic Director of Bach Collegium San Diego with Mario Montenegro, Artistic Director of the Vocal Ensemble at the CECUT, Tijuana, Mexico. / Photo courtesy of Gary Payne


A new collaboration between a local artistic director at Bach Collegium San Diego and a Tijuana-based librettist, the project highlights not just the opportunities for cross-border collaboration – but also the pool of classical musical talent and projects in Tijuana.

The U.S.-Mexico border might seem an unlikely setting for a ground-breaking performance of “Messiah,”  the 18th century choral masterpiece by George Frideric Handel. Yet for the founder and artistic director of Bach Collegium San Diego, there is no better place to realize his vision: singing the famed oratorio entirely in Spanish.

“I think it will resonate deeply with this region,” Ruben Valenzuela told me last week. We were sitting together on a bench in Point Loma, outside All Souls Episcopal Church, where he works as music director. The church also serves as a base for the Bach Collegium, a group dedicated to historically informed performances of music from the Renaissance, Baroque and early Classical eras.

Valenzuela has invited musicians from across the United States for three performances of “El Mesías” this month – on March 18 and 19 in San Diego County, and on March 20 in Tijuana – that are being billed as world premieres. Though parts of “Messiah,” originally written in English, have  been translated and sung in Spanish, Valenzuela said this marks the first time the entire two-hour piece will be presented in Spanish.

“This is a perfect opportunity to take an iconic masterpiece, and literally tailor it to this community,” Valenzuela said. The community he’s aiming to reach is the Spanish-speaking public on both sides of the border. 

The result of nearly two years of collaboration between Valenzuela and a Tijuana-based librettist, the project highlights not just the opportunities for cross-border collaboration – but also the pool of classical musical talent and projects in Tijuana.

For Valenzuela, it’s also a tribute to his own Mexican origins. He was raised in Los Angeles in a Spanish-speaking household, the oldest son of a musician who performed in Mexican trio ensembles. Valenzuela, who holds a doctorate in musicology from Claremont Graduate University, said his first exposure to the oratorio was listening to excerpts in Spanish when he was a boy attending Central Spanish Seventh Day Adventist Church. 

“I heard this and I thought, ‘oh my gosh, that is incredible music’,” he recalled.

The border often seems like a barrier that splits communities on either side. But in this case it has served as a bridge. When Valenzuela set out to find someone who could  write a Spanish-language libretto, an advisory board member of Bach Collegium with connections in Tijuana’s classical music community told him he knew just the right person:  Mario Montenegro, a musical scholar, creator of a vocal ensemble, and owner of a cafe in the city’s Rio Zone. 

I’ve known Montenegro for years – he’s an eloquent voice in Tijuana’s classical music world, and a mentor both to accomplished and less experienced singers. For the past 10 years, he worked as artistic director of the seven-member Ensamble Vocal Cecut  at Tijuana’s federal Cultural Center. 

Montenegro is a law school graduate with a master’s degree in architecture. But he’s been  listening to opera since his boyhood on a ranch in the Mexican state of Durango. He has published research, produced radio programs and taught classes on the subject. He recently was the librettist for a Spanish-langage version of Puccini’s opera “La Boheme.” 

Tijuana’s weekday traffic rushed by outside one afternoon last week when I met with Montenegro at his Media Naranja cafe to talk about his latest project. “These are living works, they’re not museum pieces that have to be under lock and untouched,” Montenegro told me. 

“This is to offer Spanish-speakers a piece of music that has them in mind,” he said. “It’s an effort to take this universal masterpiece and offer it to them, both in San Diego and Tijuana. And this can be a bridge – in  communication, in culture, in art, in the beauty of the music.”

After “Messiah” was first performed in Dublin in 1742, Handel repeatedly modified his piece. Decades later, Mozart made an adaptation that added woodwinds and a German-language libretto based on Martin Luther’s 16th century translation of the Bible.

Setting down Spanish words to Handel’s composition presented its own challenges.

“We obviously couldn’t do a literal translation because of the syntax of the different languages,” said Valenzuela. “We want the spirit of the English, but in Spanish. So we had all these discussions about how he (Montenegro)  was going to approach the Spanish.”

To make sure the words could be properly sung, Montenegro turned to Javier Carillo, a baritone and musical director of the Cecut Vocal Ensemble, who suggested some small adjustments. “I’m astonished because the changes we had to make were minimal, to stress certain accents, or to make it sound more idiomatic in Spanish,” Montenegro said.

The ultimate test will come a few days from now, when chorus and orchestra members gather to rehearse and perform the piece. “It’s going to be a shock to hear ‘comfort ye my people’ come out as ‘consolad a mi pueblo’,” Valenzuela said. 

Valenzuela dreams of one day taking performances of “El Mesías” to cities across Mexico, even to Europe. But for now, he’s already warmed by the encouragement he’s finding close home – from his parents. “They’ve always been supportive of what I do, but I think they have a hard time relating to it, because they don’t live in that world,” he said. “But now that it’s in Spanish….they’re thrilled.”

Also of note

  • Embezzlement charges against former Baja California officials: Baja California Gov. Marina del Pilar Avila’s government on March 5 announced that it has filed embezzlement charges against members of former Gov. Jaime Bonilla’s administration, accusing them of illegally authorizing construction of a massive solar energy plant in Mexicali. Bonilla announced the project last June as a public-private partnership.  But last month, Mexico’s federal energy agency turned down the project. (La Jornada, Zeta, Periodismo Negro)

  • San Diegans move to Tijuana: Growing numbers of San Diego residents priced out of their city’s skyrocketing housing market are moving to Tijuana, KPBS News reports. And that is affecting residents of some upper-middle class neighborhoods in Tijuana who are now seeing their housing costs go up too.

Join the Conversation


  1. Sandra,
    Thanks so much for your consistently excellent coverage of our border region for so many years. This story about cross-border projects reminds me of a wonderful experience I had as Director of the Women’s Museum of California in San Diego. The head of the Tijuana History Museum had visited our exhibit “Guts and Glamour” about how women transformed the beauty industry as entrepreneurs of the 20s and 30s. She invited us to bring the exhibit to the TJ Museum Galley. We provided the raw materials, (historic clothing, artifacts and graphic panels) and they created the display and Spanish translations of the text. They held a wonderful Opening Reception with me as Guest celebrity. I was overwhelmed with the artistry and the warm welcome. Only sad that I didn’t speak or understand much Spanish. It is a warm memory for me and I wholeheartedly endorse such alliances. Now at a small theatre in Chula Vista, I am supporting another cross border project “La Carpa De La Frontera”, a theater promoting social justice and healing and led by a Tijuana artist who is disabled, Samuel Valdez. If interested in his story you can reach him at: Thanks so much.

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