His output ranged from chamber pieces to operas, though his best-known works are two agitprop songs he wrote for the Chilean socialist experiment: Allende's election theme, Venceremos (We Shall Triumph), and the hymn of resistance, ¡El pueblo unido jamás sera vencido! (The People United Shall Never Be Defeated).
His cancer was diagnosed just as his most ambitious opera, Fulgor y muerte de Joaquín Murieta, was being performed at this year's Savonlinna festival in Finland. Like some of his other works, it was based on an epic poem by his close friend and fellow communist, the Nobel prizewinner Pablo Neruda, and its audacious blend of symphonic music with tango, cueca, cachimbo, salsa and other South American vernacular styles was received with rapture.
Born in the northern city of Antofagasta, Ortega studied at the national conservatory under Gustavo Becerra, another key figure in Chilean musical history. His early career included periods with an institute for music promotion and as a sound engineer, before he won a composition chair at the conservatory in 1969.
In 1966, Neruda invited Ortega to compose a score for his text on Murieta, a quasi-mythical Chilean horse-trainer who went to California in the 1840s gold rush and ended up a Robin Hood-type rebel; the cantata was staged in 1967. He also collaborated with the poet and Becerra on a 1970 sung version of Neruda's Canto general.
Appointed creative director of the university television channel in 1970, Ortega co-wrote Canto al programa, a musical presentation of the Popular Unity platform, performed by the folk group Inti-Illimani and featuring his campaign anthem Venceremos. In 1972, an album of his most trenchant political lyrics, La Fragua (The Forge), featured the era's other foremost folk group, Quilapayún. Three months before the Allende experiment was crushed in September 1973, Ortega and Quilapayún wrote the famous protest song, ¡El pueblo unido jamás sera vencido!After the Pinochet coup, Ortega escaped to France, first to Nanterre, where he worked with the Franco-Chilean musical collective Taller Recabarren, then to Pantin, in Seine-St-Denis, as director of the national school of music. He took French citizenship some years ago, and remained there even after he was given permission to return to Chile.
He returned to Neruda's work as the source for his cantata Bernardo O'Higgins Riquelme, 1810 (1978), a homage to the Chilean independence hero, and he celebrated the bicentenary of the French revolution by composing an operatic trilogy. His reworking of Joaquín Murieta on an operatic scale was first staged at the municipal theatre in Santiago in 1998.
Shortly before his death, Ortega had worked with his eldest son, Chanaral, himself an outstanding young composer, on what will be the last of his dozen operas: Pedro Páramo, based on the novel by the Mexican Juan Rulfo.
He is survived by his partner Sophie, his former wife Ana Maria Miranda and their three sons.
- Sergio Ortega Alvarado, composer, born 2 February 1938; died 15 September 2003