Behind the Music: "Destiny of Desire"

Tania Thompson
 | Oct 31, 2016
Rosino Serrano

Rosino Serrano at ​the piano in Destiny of Desire. Photo by Debora Robinson.

Music is Spanish-born Rosino Serrano’s magic and passion. Among the many musical hats he wears are pianist, composer, musical director, arranger, orchestrator, performer, producer and teacher. He balances his work between music for film, stage and television and his time between Mexico City, New York City and Los Angeles. His current home base is South Coast Repertory for the production of Destiny of Desire by Karen Zacarías. He composed Desire’s music, plays a grand piano live during performances and has one of the best lines in the play. Music is Serrano’s magic and passion.

What originally drew you to music?
My childhood home was filled with music. I come from a family, on my father's side, with several generations of blacksmiths, who also happened to be music dilettantes, in a small village in La Mancha, Spain. My grandfather used to play saxophone in a band with his brothers, one of whom even composed several zarzuelas (Spanish operettas). My father used to play the accordion by ear, just for the fun of it. I was born in Madrid and by age 4, I was already playing my first notes on a small Hohner organ that we had at home. At age 7, I officially started my classical piano studies at the Madrid Conservatory and, from then to this day, I have done no other thing in my life than music.

Whom do you consider to be your mentor?
Definitely my grandfather was the first one to bring me into the magic of music. I have studied in a number of conservatories and music schools around the world, and I have had the privilege to be guided by many great teachers through the years. When my family moved to Mexico in the ’80s, I continued my classical piano studies in that country. From that time, I keep fond memories of Uruguayan pianist Edison Quintana and Mexican composers Mario Lavista and Arturo Márquez, among many others. When, I moved into jazz and other music genres, the late Enrique Nery, a great Mexican jazz pianist and composer, became an enormous influence on my musical thinking. In the ’90s, I moved to New York City to pursue a degree in jazz composition at Manhattan School of Music, where I had the fortune to study with great masters such as Michael Abene, Maria Schneider, David Noon, Giampaolo Braccali, and Bobby Sanabria. From time to time, I still schedule a private lesson for myself with the amazing Vince Mendoza, of whom I have been a big fan for a long time. In addition to my teachers, my mentors include the many artists I have worked alongside for more than 30 years of my career. Our Destiny of Desire director José Luis Valenzuela is one of them and a very special mentor to me.

Tell me about composing for Destiny of Desire.
It all started with the songs. Destiny needed songs in order to say things that could not be conveyed in other ways. Playwright Karen Zacarías and I co-wrote the lyrics and I wrote the music. Along with director José Luis Valenzuela, we decided on the musical genres and styles that would be natural to the story and its characters, so that’s how forms like danzón, mambo, cumbia and tango came into play. As for the underscore and transitional music, those derive from the themes, motivic and melodic material present in the songs. The score has about 100 musical cues that I play live on the piano on stage and interplay with the action. Sometimes, the music highlights a suspense moment or creates the emotional tone that best serves the scene; think of it in the vein of the movie theatre pianist for silent movies.

Tell me about your collaboration with José Luis Valenzuela and with Karen Zacarías.
I have worked with José Luis in several productions for his Latino Theater Company. It always is an enlightening experience to work with him and watch him work with the actors and designers. I think he is a great visionary and I praise the profoundness with which he undertakes every single detail. I also admire the demanding way—though always respectful and loving—that he approaches everyone. As I said before, I have always looked up to him as a mentor, so it always is a huge honor for me to be part of his team. Getting to know and work with Karen also has been such a blessing. She is a tremendously talented playwright, with a limitless imagination and creativity. Co-writing the songs and the overall process of building this show together has been a delightful journey since we premiered it last year at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C.

I love having a grand piano as part of the voice of this show. I have a feeling that with a telenovela-inspired play, audiences might be expecting a guitar. This show re-directs some expectations, doesn’t it?
Stereotypes have undermined the vision that U.S. audiences have on our culture. I think it is time to realize and understand that, in a diverse multicultural world, we can communicate through universal languages that belong equally to all, beyond our vernacular resources and definitely beyond clichés. Mexico is much more than guitars, tequila and tacos.

I noticed that you have some tech gear next to the piano.
Our sound designer John Zalewski does an amazing job of live-processing the sound of the piano, which expands its timbre capabilities. This takes things from the just-amplified natural sound of the instrument for some of the songs, to the addition of reverbs, delays and a variety of other effects that create a more oneiric, sometimes ominous, atmosphere underneath other moments in the play. I have a speaker monitor and a mixer next to me on stage just so I can hear the processed piano, the actors’ amplified voices and the tracks we play and sing along to.

How do you want the music to speak to audiences?
People say the best film music is that which you don't really notice, but still creates an emotional impact accompanying the action. I think the piano in Destiny of Desire serves as a discreet commentator that carries and supports emotional aspects of the play and, hopefully, serves as an integral, non-intrusive element. Also, the music aims to tell an underlying side of the story through musical gestures, as every motif, texture, and theme is related to specific characters or situations.

What has been the best part of working on this show?
The human bonds that grow through these kinds of creative processes are, perhaps, the most important aspect for me. We spend long days and weeks of intense, deep work together and we become a family. Many of these encounters become life-time friendships.

What was most challenging?
For sure, it’s keeping up with the high standards of such an amazing team of professionals! Working in another country, in a language different than yours, also is challenging, but enriching and exciting as well.

You have one of the best and funniest lines in the play.
"What?"! It all started as an internal joke, but then, the audience seemed to like that unexpected spoken line and we all loved it, too, so the idea stayed. I enjoy myself that moment every night.

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