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A local documentary maker stages his great-grandfather’s lost Colombian opera

With The Way to Andina, Arlen Parsa records his journey from filmmaker to musical impresario.

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Arlen Parsa, a local documentary maker and Columbia College graduate, never realized there was another artist in his family until his maternal grandmother died in 2013 and his mother, inspired to research the family's history, learned that her grandfather, Eustasio Rosales, had been a composer of some renown. "She did a random Google search and discovered that his music is actually on the Internet," Parsa explains. "This song of his had survived a hundred years and is still apparently being performed in South America. It's called 'Bolero,' and it's meant to be performed by five marimbas."

Parsa liked the song and decided to dig deeper into his great-grandfather's past, little realizing that he was embarking on a journey that would result in his producing an opera and directing a documentary about its creation. The Way to Andina, his first feature-length movie, recounts his discovery of Rosales's unproduced opera and his effort to bring it to the stage. It also profiles Rosales, a fascinating man who made lasting contributions to Chicago culture. A native of Bogotá, Colombia, Rosales immigrated to Chicago around the turn of the 20th century, working odd jobs (as a bandleader at a hotel nightclub, he helped to popularize the tango) and trying to get his compositions performed. He succeeded in 1933, when the Chicago Symphony Orchestra performed his piece Three Spanish Dances.

Rosales spent the last several years of his life working on Andina, a Spanish-language opera set in a Colombian village. Parsa learned of its existence when he found the handwritten score in a box of Rosales's belongings that his aunt kept in her basement. Convinced that he had found something special, Parsa decided to get the score transcribed, then performed by a small ensemble. Hearing the music inspired him to go even further and stage the opera with a full orchestra at the Ahtenaeum Theatre in September 2015—no small task, considering he knew nothing about opera at the time and had never produced a theatrical show. The Way to Andina is as much Parsa's story as Rosales's, detailing how the unassuming novice becomes a musical impresario.

Parsa's struggle is a source of much good-natured humor. "I think the way I justified showing so much of myself in the movie was that, in all the scenes I'm in, I'm never the smartest person in the room," he says. "It's a humbling thing to be the guy who's supposedly in charge but can't tell if the sheet music is upside-down or right side up. I'm the idiot who's bumbling onscreen, and the people who are the heroes are the ones doing the work and making this thing happen."

In the process of getting Andina performed, Parsa learned about more than just opera—he discovered some shocking facts about the era in which his great-grandfather lived. After Rosales married an American woman in 1911, she was stripped of her U.S. citizenship under the Expatriation Act of 1907. (In 1922, Congress repealed the section that revoked the citizenship of American women who married immigrants, but it never issued a formal apology to the people affected until 2013.) "Can you imagine that happening? Losing your citizenship because of who you married and because you were a woman?" Parsa asks. "Because this didn't happen to men who married immigrants."

Parsa, whose father came to the U.S. from Iran, believes that Americans have yet to get over their anti-immigrant bias. In one of the more moving passages of The Way to Andina, he speaks passionately about how immigrants have benefited American society through artistic and scientific contributions and by adding diversity to the culture at large. This doesn't come across as preachy, however, because his argument is grounded in personal experience; in fact, it feels levelheaded in light of the nativist outrage that has crept into American political discourse over the past two years. "When I was working on the movie last year, we were in this atmosphere where people were questioning the place of immigrants in American society, questioning whether immigration was even beneficial," he says. "I felt this was a thread I had to follow with the film. Now I'm wondering if I should have followed it more, considering how the presidential election turned out."

In spite of this issue, The Way to Andina is an upbeat experience. Parsa shows great affection for the people who supported the opera's creation, including the singers, the conductor, and the public relations specialist who helped him promote it. His use of illustrations to visualize the opera's research and transcription (inspired, he says, by Errol Morris's documentaries) is witty and engaging. And the movie communicates the excitement of recovering history and of putting on a show. Given its educational value and G-rated content, it would be ideal viewing for kids, and Parsa expresses interest in having the film screened for music education classes.

Later this year the filmmaker plans to premiere another documentary, this one about activists for affordable housing in Bronzeville. He's also about to start writing his first dramatic feature. But he wants to continue promoting his great-grandfather's music whenever he has the chance. Parsa is currently talking with Chris Ramaekers, who conducted the stage production of Andina, about recording a soundtrack album, and he's been in touch with Luis Carlos Rodríguez Álvarez, a musicologist at the University of Antioquia in Medellín, about workshopping the opera at the university next year. (Álvarez has also arranged for the National Symphony Orchestra of Colombia to perform Three Spanish Dances in August.) Evidently the way to Andina leads to the future as well as the past, with Parsa introducing new generations to a piece of Latino culture that nearly slipped through the cracks of history.  v

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