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An Unusual Orchestra Creates a Transformational Work of Art
As told to Tricia Tunstall, Cofounder and Contributing Editor, The Ensemble, by Omar Zambrano, Artistic Director, Latin Vox Machine
On November 5, 2021, an audience of three thousand packed the Movistar Arena in Buenos Aires, Argentina for the premiere of a work that would have been deemed extraordinary under any circumstances: a brand new part-symphonic, part-operatic, part-pop musical theater show based on a child-centered fable written by a French aviator during the Second World War.
What made the performance even more noteworthy was partly, of course, COVID; most performance arenas across the world had been dark for nearly two years. But there was another factor that put this event solidly in the realm of the near-impossible: it was the brainchild of a new volunteer orchestra founded four years earlier by a group of Venezuelan migrants. How did it happen that from the despair of exile came the explosion into theatrical life of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s whimsical and beloved book The Little Prince?
In 2017, a group of 35 Venezuelan musicians who were earning their living mostly by busking in the Buenos Aires subways decided to form a symphonic orchestra. These musicians were just a few of the many people who have been forced into exile by the major political, social, and economic crisis in Venezuela (by 2021, the number of Venezuelan exiles reached more than 5.5 million).
The members of the new ensemble, led by Venezuelan producer and composer Omar Zambrano, called themselves the Latin Vox Machine. In the years since, the group has grown to include more than 150 members; most are Venezuelan exiles, but they also include musicians hailing originally from Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, Chile, Colombia, and Uruguay. In short order, they found themselves performing on some of Argentina’s biggest stages, thanks in part to the support of United Nations agencies that publicly recognized them as a global model of resilience and solidarity for migrant groups everywhere.
In 2019, the Latin Vox Machine decided to aspire beyond outstanding symphonic performance. They embarked on a large-scale creative project, “El Principito Sinfónico” (“The Little Prince Symphony”), based on the The Little Prince. Zambrano wrote lyrics and co-authored an original score with Joram Betancourt, and other Latin Vox members (Juan Pablo Correa, Francisco Duque, and Pablo Motta) joined the creative team to help write orchestrations and arrangements. They made plans to produce the work as a symphonic piece with actors, video art, and a light show.
And then COVID-19 happened, and the curtain closed before it could open.
Their immediate first response to the pandemic was to establish virtual communications between all ensemble members, and to start an online teaching academy through which members could continue their musical training and the teachers among them could have an income. The Latin Vox Academy is still open and offering music education available to anyone, regardless of prior musical experience.
But what of “El Principito Sinfónico?” The original plan had been to create a live production first, and then make a recording. Now, they pivoted to make the recording first. They converted the kitchen of a local house into a production studio and implemented the most rigorous health protocols, initially recording the soloists and the principals of each symphonic section one by one. As pandemic controls began to ease, they recorded a few more musicians at a time, and then, eventually, sections at a time—still masked whenever possible. Between each take, the “studio” was refreshed and the equipment re-sanitized. Finally, sound engineer Joram Betancourt edited everything together into a master audio recording (available on Spotify, Apple Music or YouTube). In Omar Zambrano’s words: “What might have seemed an impossible task, the recording of a new choral symphony during a pandemic, became our team’s day-to-day work, and activated our whole organization toward a shared goal.” The entire process took almost two years.
With the easing of some pandemic restrictions in September, rehearsals could begin for a staged production, leading to the November premiere. The audience included many delegates from the United Nations agencies whose support for migrants is so important across the world. A filmed version of this production is now available on YouTube. Click here to view a short Instagram trailer.
The next step in this journey will be a tour of local performances, which is now in the pre-production phase. Planning is also beginning for an international tour.
For Latin Vox Machine, the very difficulty of this project became a unifying and energizing motivation; everyone was determined to continue with this vision that had united them all. “It was as though the ‘Little Prince’ character himself strengthened the Latin Vox musical family,” says Zambrano, “inspiring us to care more for one another, to give less importance to the little details that in other times would appear important, to remember our origins—and, most of all, to understand that, as the Little Prince says, ‘what is essential is invisible to the eye.’”