For Hector Armienta, it was watching farmworkers last year as they picked crops with minimal protection even though the pandemic was at its peak and wildfires raged nearby.
"All they had were bandanas," said Armienta, who is the artistic director of Opera Cultura in San Jose. "They weren't being provided N95 masks or anything. You would see images of them working, with the fires in the background and it was horrific. I just felt that their story needed to be told."
Armienta was looking to write a new opera. He planned to do a production on Dreamers, immigrant youth who came to the United States as children, but he ultimately decided to focus instead on farmworkers.
To be authentic, he interviewed several farmworkers about the hardships they faced during the pandemic. One man told him about the threat he faced of losing his small farm. He talked to many more farmworkers and eventually used their words and their stories in the songs.
RELATED: Daughters of the field: East Bay women provide essential goods to farmworkers working through pandemic, wildfires
"There's one aria about these two college students who had to quit school in order to survive," said Armienta. "And when you hear their stories and how difficult and sad it was for them to have to return to the fields, those are things that I couldn't make up. Those are not my experiences. So it has to be their story. It has to be their words."
Since live performances were still prohibited by COVID-19 restrictions when Armienta was writing the opera, he decided to try a something new. He created an animated opera inside a virtual world.
"You'll see Gilroy; you'll see Half Moon Bay virtually created and you'll see avatars," said Armienta. "The virtual world that looks like the places where these people that I interviewed live."
With little experience in animation, Armienta went to MACLA, a Latino arts organization that's been in downtown San Jose for 30 years.
MACLA had recently opened a production studio to train Latino youth in media production and amplify Latino voices in film production. Opera Cultura was their first client.
RELATED: CA farmworkers press Gov. Newsom to sign bill for COVID-19 relief
"When Hector brought this project to me, immediately, it was like, oh my goodness, I've never heard this story told in this way- I've never heard it through the lens of opera," said Tricia Creason-Valencia, head of MACLA Studio. "So it's a first-person narrative, but it's told in a way that no one's ever seen before."
The short feature won't consist only of animated characters. Armienta and Creason-Valencia recorded the opera singers on a green screen and are placing them performing in front of virtual backgrounds alongside their animated characters.
"My hope would be that all of those elements are going to come together that people are going to really re-examine what does it mean to be a farm worker, a person working with dignity in our community," said Creason-Valencia.
RELATED: COVID-19 vaccine: Advocates push for high priority for CA farmworkers
Armienta hopes to take the production to Mexico and perform it live with animated elements in the background before staging similar performances in the Bay Area.
The cast includes Cecilia Violetta Lopez, soprano, Deborah Rosengaus, mezzo soprano, and Emmanuel Mercado, tenor.
Opera Cultura's production of "Mi Camino - Farmworkers in the Pandemic" premieres online here on June 25 with a second performance on June 27.