Frida Kahlo blazed through a turbulent, colorful life whose emotional extremes made the great 20th century Mexican painter an ideal subject for opera. Portland Opera’s production of the 1991 opera Frida sets Kahlo’s vivid story to appropriately vibrant music by composer Robert X. Rodriguez, lyrics by prolific award winning playwright Migdalia Cruz and book by Hilary Blecher. Since its premiere, Frida has been staged more than two dozen times around the U.S. and Europe, with cast sizes ranging from six to 60, receiving rapturous reviews from Vienna to Mexico.
Now it’s finally coming to Portland. The June 22-27 live performances are sold out, but digital access is available beginning June 28.
Opera generally works best when it’s over the top, and Kahlo’s eventful life was “an opera waiting to happen,” as one writer put it. But while the creative team fashioned an opera that matched her artistic and amorous adventures, they strove to avoid deifying Kahlo, keeping the character relatable to the rest of us who don’t live quite so large.
“In Frida Kahlo, all people can see something of themselves,” Rodriguez says. “We all know what it’s like to undergo pain. And she is the poster child for so many groups of people — Latinx Americans, women, gay and lesbian people, people with physical handicaps. Her rising above her pain is emblematic of humankind, so she speaks to everyone on a personal level.”
Kahlo’s art drew on a wide range of artistic influences, starting with European Renaissance and avant garde masters, then the pre-Columbian and colonial Mexican folk art she encountered during her late 1920s sojourn in beautiful Cuernavaca. Residencies in the US further expanded both her artistic horizons and her exposure to critics, collectors, and other artists before she returned to Mexico in 1934.
Influenced by Surrealism, nationalism, leftism, indigenous art and mythology and more, Kahlo’s colorful, emotionally piercing work increasingly attracted acclaim and patronage from famous European artists (including Picasso, Miro, Breton and Duchamp), American film stars, international galleries and museums in the 1930s and ‘40s. Even as her health declined, her paintings continued to evolve and her politics remained radical until her death at age 47 in 1954.
For too long, Kahlo’s artistry was overshadowed by that of her husband, the groundbreaking Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, whom she met through their shared affiliation with the Mexican Communist party. Thanks to his crucial roles as both her artistic enabler and romantic betrayer, Rivera plays a prominent role in the opera, too. Their tumultuous, off-and-on again relationship deeply affected both her art and her life. Their many affairs fueled their own work and others’ stories about them — including Frida.
The opera also features another companion that haunted Kahlo’s adult life: constant pain and other symptoms caused by horrific injuries suffered in a 1925 bus crash when she was 18. Act I follows Kahlo’s life from just before the terrible bus crash through her early years with Rivera in both Mexico and New York. The second act shifts back to Mexico, where Rivera cavorts with Kahlo’s sister Cristina, Kahlo trysts with Trotsky and other lovers male and female, and embodied figures of Death haunt the proceedings.
Frida’s subject made a good match for its composer’s own style. Even though he was born in the US, Rodriguez’s mother is, like Kahlo, from Mexico and both his parents are of Mexican descent. And Mexican influences abounded when he was growing up in the multicultural metropolis of San Antonio, Texas in the 1950s and ‘60s. (He now teaches at the University of Texas at Dallas.) Two of his other operas and several other instrumental works also incorporate Mexican subject matter or themes.
Like Kahlo and Rivera, Rodriguez’s own work draws on both classical and folk influences. “In a way I followed a musical path similar to Diego Rivera,” the composer told ArtsWatch. “He began his career as a cubist in Paris. Then he came back to Mexico and started to unify the complex cubist formal mastery he’d gained as a young visual artist with Mexican folk themes. I grew up in the classical atonal modern traditions of Stravinsky and Schoenberg, and out of that tradition I embraced folklore and American jazz and created a synthesis of musical styles, which is my reflection of Diego’s synthesis of visual styles.”
To suit Kahlo’s stylistic composite of folk and classical art, Rodriguez followed the example of composers such as Kurt Weill, Stephen Sondheim in Sweeney Todd, George Gershwin, and Leonard Bernstein, who’d mixed influences from musical theater and opera. He was also inspired by the powerful, folk-influenced modernist music of composers such as Kahlo’s leftist contemporary, the 20th century Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas (who also lived in San Antonio for a spell). And he abided by the illustrious Spanish composer Manuel de Falla’s notion of modeling his own, original “imaginary folk music” upon actual folk tunes.
The result: a musical mashup of mariachi, romantic opera, zarzuela, samba, modernist classical, ragtime, tango, hot jazz, traditional Mexican piñata songs, and more. Yet the disparate influences never sound merely like a mixtape. Rodriguez makes the musical melding sound both organic and dramatic — and suited to its protagonist’s complex character.
“She has many important qualities that many operatic heroines do not have,” Rodriguez told ArtsWatch. “For instance, she’s intelligent. Many operatic heroines are as dumb as a box of rocks. Frida is brilliant and she has a sense of humor and she always sees the other side of things. So I tried to show her different sides in the multilevel music.” Praising the music’s accessible originality, the New York Times’s John Rockwell called its original production the best opera/musical of 1991, beating out major works by John Adams and John Corigliano.
Sung in both English and Spanish, Portland Opera’s production features Colombian-American soprano Catalina Cuervo as Kahlo and Bernardo Bermudez as Rivera, along with two women and two men in various roles and costumes. Andrés Cladera, who’s worked with Rodriguez before, conducts an instrumental sextet. Stage director Andreas Mitisek uses projections of works by both Kahlo and Rivera as well as commedia dell’arte-inspired movement to take her expansive story beyond the literal.
But it remains grounded in reality. The original creative team made sure to include Kahlo’s wry sense of humor, potent sexuality, and radical politics. They avoided portraying the kind of noble victimhood that’s too often over-sentimentalized retellings of Kahlo’s eventful life.
“Her life is full of torment,” acknowledges Rodriguez, “but as we say in Texas, no one wants to see anybody pissing and moaning on the stage for three hours. I didn’t want to wallow in Frida’s pain. I wanted to show her rising above the pain and creating her own identity through her art.”
Before each performance, Portland youth dance troupe dance troupe Corazones Alegres Ballet Folklórico will perform a 20 minute program of dances traditionally from the Mexican states of Veracruz and Jalisco. Portland Opera has also collaborated with Prosper Portland, Latino Network, IdeAl PDX, City Repair, and the Portland Bureau of Transportation to bring a colorful street mural to the cul-de-sac in front of the Hampton Opera Center on Caruthers Street, and the Eastbank Esplanade entrance. The artwork was designed by IdeAL PDX (Yathzi Turcot, Jessica Lagunas, Daniel Santollo “TEKPATL,” Alex Valle, José Solis, and William Hernandez). And Prosper Portland has activated Tilikum plaza (the pedestrian walkway opposite the Jordan Schnitzer CARE Summerstage) with food carts and picnic benches.
Portland Opera’s production is one of several examples of this season of Portland Fridamania. In October, Portland Center Stage at The Armory presents the one-woman show Frida … A Self Portrait. The Portland Art Museum’s exhibit Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Mexican Modernism runs next Feb. 19-June 5, 2022.
Live performances of Frida are sold out, but digital access is available for purchase until August 9 on Portland Opera Onscreen. The onscreen premiere is June 28 at 7:30 PM.
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