JOSE MOJICA (1896 San Gabriel, Jalisco, Mexico -1974 Lima Peru) (all photos courtesy Charles Mintzer collection)

By Charles Mintzer

mojica1  mojica2

José Mojica has for me been a singer of constant fascination; He was basically a “comprimario” tenor for his twelve years with the old Chicago Opera, 1919-1930; 1940, carrying spears and delivering messages with an occasional star role awarded him due to his special qualities. When I was a young 78rpm record collector almost sixty years ago, José Mojica’s records were much sought after. Nowadays, if anyone knows his name at all, it is as that good-looking Mexican tenor for whom Mexican movie-music composer Maria Grever, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maria_Grever, wrote the popular song, “Jurame,” or “that guy who gave up an operatic and film career to become a priest.” Those few words essentially sum up the current estimate of this artist. However, his recordings and photographs remain collector items almost half a century after he sang his last notes in public. Oh, and not to be forgotten, for a few years in the late twenties-early thirties he made movies that were very popular in the Spanish-speaking world. And I would wager that any of the many subsequent estimable tenors from Mexico who have made it big would surely glow at the mention of the name José Mojica: for example, Placido Domingo, Francisco Araiza, Rolando Villazón and Ramon Vargas. His life story “I A Sinner” with its strong religious element, sold over three million copies, mostly in Latin America. Can one think of any other opera singer whose life story sold in those numbers, even if that huge number carries a publisher’s understandable exaggeration?

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In this 1955 autobiography, “I A Sinner” (published by a Catholic publishing house; the edition that I own was published by the Franciscan Herald Press in Chicago) Mojica recounts his early years growing up in less than ideal, but not impossible, circumstances in Mexico, the realization that he “had a voice” and his early stumbling to get his voice trained and then discovered by the “right” people. He even ventured to New York City to acquire vocal training and possible professional management. He met Caruso early in his life’s journey, and the great tenor drew his caricature and wished him well in his career aspirations. While singing small roles with opera troupes that visited Mexico in the late teens he made acquaintance with some of the internationally-famous singers who later vouched for his abilities to Cleofonte Campanini, general director of the Chicago Opera, thus helping secure his engagement with that company. He was hired for a modest weekly salary, but in his mind there was glory in being on that stage with some of the celebrated singers of that company. Of his first season he said “The second opera was “Aida” with Raisa in the title role.

mojica3 mojica4 (with Raisa and Rimini and Caruso caricature)

 

I sang the part of the Messenger, which I was inclined to consider a humiliation at the time. But by the time we reached the third act I was of a different opinion; singing at the side of that great artist was an experience so elevating that I would have gladly been an extra in the mob scenes if only I could be on the same stage with her.” (That the Messenger does not sing after the first act, and never with Aida herself I think Mojica means that he stayed backstage and “drank in” the rest of the performance.)


mojica5  mojica6 (as Pélleas)

Eventually in the mid-1920s he was given a chance to sing Pélleas to role-creator Mary Garden’s Mélisande, and this rare assignment earned the gratitude of Garden who wrote him: “January 22, 1925 My dear Mr. Mojica, First my thanks for the lovely roses and your kind thought of me – then my thanks for your divine work in Pélleas – you will never know what your Pélleas meant to me – since my debut at the Opera Comique I have never heard nor seen the role done as you did it last night – it warmed up my heart and gave me happiness in my art that I have not had for a long time – and my only hope is to sing it with you one day in Paris – Thank you for listening. You have a beautiful future before you dear Mojica, live for it seriously – my warmest admiration and a heart full of thanks. Mary Garden”


mojica7  mojica8 (with Schumann-Heink, Marguerita Salvi and Lucrezia Bori)

As early as the famous Garden-led 1921-22 season he was cast as the Prince in the world premiere of Prokofiev’s “The Love for the Three Oranges.” In this opera he shared star billing with Nina Koshetz in one of her rare North American opera appearances. In his Chicago Opera career Mojica sang hundreds of performances both in Chicago and on the transcontinental tours of the United States. Most of his totals were in really small roles like Ruiz in “Il Trovatore,” Yamadori in “Madama Buterrfly,” and the Major Domo/Innkeeoer in “Der Rosenkavalier.” Then there were what I term “quality small roles” like Beppe in “Pagliacci.” Cassio in “Otello,” but originally he was cast as the less important Rodrigo, Franz in “Les Contes d’Hoffmann,” the Spy in “Andrea Chenier,” and the Sailor in “Tristan und Isolde.” Of leading roles, Mojica during his Chicago career often sang Niceas in “Thais” always with Garden, Almaviva in “Il Barbiere di Seviglia,” oftentimes Leopold (the second tenor with high C’s) in “La Juive” with Raisa, the above-mentioned Pélleas with Garden, and in 1927 “Fledermaus” (in English) was given three performances with Raisa, Charles Hackett and Mojica as a tenor Orlofsky.

mojica9 (with Chaliapine)

In the 1923-24 and 1924-25 seasons Feodor Chaliapin sang many guest appearances with the Chicago Civic Opera, and Mojica was cast as Shuisky, the oily counselor of Boris Godunov. Chaliapin personally coached Mojica in the great Act II scene between them. Chaliapin had very specific and unconventional ideas of how he wanted that crucial scene played; part of the action had Shuisky with his back to the audience. Mojica’s account of rehearsals for this scene is priceless:

“Your manager in New York has spoken to me about you, and he says that you are a good actor. And that’s what I need – do you understand? Look here – let us try a bit from Boris’s mad scene. You sit over there and watch me. You are Boris I am Shuisky. You walk like this. You lean over like this. You come close like this! And you proceed to spit out the poison of your words upon Boris, you change your expression until you have a look of triumph on your face.”

“I nodded. Chaliapin continues: “From then on, the scene is all mine. The public must not be distracted by any other face. You turn your back upon the audience and now it is “I” who must act, changing from the sane person into a madman! Then we reach the finale during which I smash everything on top of the table, and you leave the stage. Now you do it.”

“Without any fear, I repeated the action exactly as he had instructed me. When we were finished, the giant (he was six feet, four inches tall) gave me a huge Slavic embrace and cried, “Bravo, Mushika! You are indeed an actor.”

“Then it was time to perform the rehearsal before [Maestro Giorgio] Polacco. I felt confident after being coached by Chaliapin, and I acted with such freedom and insouciance that I noticed a sour expression on the director’s face. Chaliapin was quite aware of the director disapproval, but disdained to notice it. We continued until we reached the moment where I was supposed to turn my back on the audience.”

“Polacco smashed his fast furiously upon the lectern, stuck out his chin, and screeched, “Mokika!””

“Turning to him, I inquired politely, “What is it, Maestro?””

“A spectacular silence alerted everyone in the theatre. Polacco asked me, in a voice heavy with sarcasm, “Whoever told you you were a performer? Who taught you this stupidity of turning your back to the audience while you are singing?””

““Just one minute, Maestro” Chaliapin interrupted with that great, rich voice of his. “I am the one who taught him, and the scene will be played in this manner! Pick up your baton and continue the rehearsal!””

Talk about the power of a superstar!

Mojica did not sing much opera outside of the Chicago Civic and the summer Ravinia Festival (outside Chicago). He was an active concert artist in the USA, but mostly in mid-size cities in the Mid-West and on the Pacific coast. One rarely sees his concerts listed in the larger American cities. These concerts were often given in high school auditoriums and other lesser venues. In 1982 Chicago Opera Mezzo soprano Coe Glade told me that Mojica visited New York in the mid-1950s and that they had a wonderful reunion, reminiscing about their days at the Chicago Opera. I recall her mentioning that he sang a concert (a fund raiser) in a New York religious venue on that trip.


mojica10 (in Thais)

 

The great Thomas Edison (click here for the CD) was very taken with his lyric tenor and its phonographic-friendly quality and contracted him for the Edison label. He recorded thirty-six sides for Edison from 1924-26, mostly Spanish songs and trifles, but also arias from “Lakmé,” “Les Huguenots,” “L’Elisir d’amore,” “Il Barbiere di Siviglia,” and “Pescatore di Perle.” He also recorded for Victor (electricals) and was heavily promoted in Victor’s Latin American market. After he joined a religious order in 1949 as Fra Jose Francisco de Guadeloupe Mojica, his vocal talents were utilized for fund-raising. There are several recordings of songs and arias with a spiritual theme on LP, some recorded in his sixties, when only his musicality and diction give real pleasure. On records Mojica reveals a very sweet voice, almost the best type of pop voice, with good but not stratospheric range.


mojkica11   mojica12 (Hollywood stills)

In the 1930s Mojica made several movies in Spanish, for details see International Movie Database or one can enter his name in a Youtube search. ( http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0596267/  ), and participated in lengthy tours of Latin America, sometimes in concert but mostly in promoting his films. In 1933 he gave concerts in Athens and Salonika, Greece, Istambul, Turkey, and Sofia Bulgaria. To our current sensibilities his films are not all that sophisticated. In 1940 he returned to the Chicago Opera for Narraboth in “Salome” with Marjorie Lawrence and Fenton in “Falstaff” with John Charles Thomas and Dusolina Giannini. In the movie phase of his career he had established important friendships with the leading Mexican movie stars of the day, Lupe Vélez, Delores del Rio and Ramon Navarro. His widowed, single mother, with whom, as an only child, he had a very, very close relationship, had instilled in him her deeply-felt religion and she made him promise to reform his “ways” and become a good Catholic. One does wonder what his “ways” were that made him title his autobiography, “I, A Sinner.” In the book there are accounts of failed love affairs with women, but over the years there has been gossip and speculation about his sexuality, but no proof to the contrary. His photographs can be interpreted in any way the beholder wishes. In 1942 on a trip to South America, he joined a Franciscan order in Cuzco, Peru, and in 1948 he was ordained a priest in Lima. He concertized extensively in Latin America, the proceeds of his concerts devoted to religious institutions. He is the subject of a biographical movie “Yo Picador” (the entire movie available free on Youtube.com) during his “priesthood” phase.

 

FILMOGRAPHY

In Hollywood:

  1. One Mad Kiss (1930)
  2. When Love Laughs (Cuando el amor ríe)(1931)
  3. Hay que casar al príncipe (1931)
  4. Law of The Harem (La ley del harem)(1931)
  5. Mi último amor (1931)
  6. El caballero de la noche(1932)
  7. El precio de un beso (1933)
  8. The King of Gypsies (El rey de los gitanos)(1933)
  9. Melodía prohibida (1933)
  10. La cruz y la espada (1934)
  11. Un capitán de cosacos (1934)
  12. Love Frontiers (Las fronteras del amor)(1934)

In México:

  1. El Capitán aventurero -basado en la pieza de Manuel Penella, "Don Gil de Alcalà"-(1938)
  2. La canción del milagro (1940)
  3. El Pórtico de la Gloria(1953)Como Fray José de Guadalupe Mojica
  4. Yo pecador(1959) actuando al lado de Sara García, Pedro Armendáriz y la diva argentina Libertad Lamarque
  5. Seguiré tus pasos (1966) con Juliancito Bravo

In Argentina
Melodías de América (1941)

mojica13 mojica14