As a child, Alfonso Molina always dreamt of becoming a musician.
Molina began his musical career when he was 8 and started taking piano lessons in his hometown of Hermosillo, Mexico. A few years later, he decided to give up piano and teach himself how to play the guitar.
His vision of becoming a full-time musician intensified when he began playing with different Cuban and African-Cuban bands, which continued for a couple years. But, his aspirations changed when he started writing his own original music — he then dreamt of becoming a composer.
“I was used to being an instrumentalist,” Molina says. “I was used to performing and being recognized for that.”
“But then I stopped playing,” he says. “I just knew my calling was composition.”
Once he started writing music, he says he couldn’t stop. “That’s when I said, ‘OK, now I have to be a composer,’” he says.
Molina, 34, is now pursuing a Doctor of Musical Arts degree in composition at the University of Arizona — but he’s been making a name for himself as a composer for the past 11 years.
His latest composition is a one-act opera titled, “Illegal Alien,” which Molina premiered on Feb. 28 at the UA’s Crowder Hall.
“Illegal Alien” is based on Molina’s personal experiences and explores themes such as immigration, patriotism, “the American way,” racism and human rights.
Although Molina has been crossing the border legally for 30 years, he says the piece is based on what his family members have experienced while trying to cross, as well as what he sees in the news everyday. Molina also wants to make a personal statement “as a Latin-American artist” through “Illegal Alien,” he added.
“I’m trying to make it clear that we as artists are capable of writing interesting and smart things,” he says, while still providing “an analysis and a good understanding of the whole situation that is going on ideologically, politically and philosophically” from multiple perspectives.
“Illegal Alien” also has a broader goal, Molina says, to provide Latin-Americans with a sense of empowerment through art.
“It was about giving people who are vulnerable a voice,” he says.
Molina isn’t the only person who thinks “Illegal Alien” has the potential to reach a wide audience.
Humberto Borboa, a UA music graduate student and a tenor in the opera, says he thinks it’s a powerful piece.
“The subject is so strong,” he says. “It just really [moves] you in some way. I think that gets the attention of the audience.”
Borboa also says that Molina is a tremendous composer with “a great knowledge of music, techniques and musical effects.”
Borboa says he’s also a fan of Molina’s contemporary style, which doesn’t rely on the orchestra to produce all of the sound and incorporates multimedia sound effects into his opera.
Marty Constantine, a UA music undergraduate student and a tenor in the opera, says the plot of the piece intrigued him because of its modern relevance. It’s not “just another opera about “somebody cheating on somebody’s wife in the 1700s,” he added.
“It just sounded very interesting to be part of something so contemporary,” Constantine says.
He also says working under Molina was a great experience because “as a leader, [Molina] is very hands-on in the sense that he’s not afraid to tell you what you need to do or what you need to fix,” but he’s “not a dictator about it.”
Although “Illegal Alien” recently premiered, Molina says there are no more performances currently scheduled. He says, though, that a group in Mexico is interested in performing it.
His first widely-recognized piece, however, was in 2003 when a documentary film making group asked him to compose the soundtrack for “De Nadie – Morir Cruzando,” or “No One – Die Crossing,” a film about Central-American immigration, he says.
“That was when I started to take [composing] seriously,” he says.
Three years later, the group premiered the film in Park City, Utah, at the Sundance Film Festival — one of the largest independent film festivals in the U.S. — and won the 2006 Audience Award in World Cinema – Documentary.
Winning the award “was unreal,” he says. “We weren’t looking for a prize and that’s the best way to receive [one] — when you’re not expecting anything.”
Molina says he and the group were also treated like stars during the festival and got to meet actors including Robert Redford and Robert Downey Jr, which was “amazing.”
During the festival, the president of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers — a non-profit organization designed to protect its members’ copyrighted work — also asked Molina to join the society, he says.
Since then, he’s received a variety of different awards and honors. He says the most memorable, however, is the “Fondo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes,” or the national fund for culture and the arts, “which is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, award from Mexico.”
The award provides recipients with financial support to create artistic works.
“Only 10 musicians a year get it in all of Mexico,” Molina says. “So, it was very significant. It was the biggest award I have ever received because [it] allowed me to continue studying [in the U.S.].”
Molina has also premiered his compositions in different places around the world including Mexico, Germany, the Czech Republic, Bolivia and the U.S.
He has plans for the future beyond his recent opera — he says one thing he’s currently working on is writing the music for a folk-opera in New York. The piece is based on a novel by Gabriel García Márquez, titled “Cronica de una Muerte Anunciada,” and Molina previewed a bit of what his audience should expect.
“It’s going to be very exciting,” Molina says.