portland opera

Tim & Samie: A rare partnership

ArtsWatch Weekly: An enduring friendship in art; a new opera leader; Ursula K. Le Guin's stamp of approval; performance & music & more

PORTLAND’S LONG BEEN A MAKERS SORT OF TOWN – a do-it-yourself, homespun, Saturday Market, farmers’ market, craft-centric, street-art, life-as-art kind of place, spinning its populist creativity from handmade craft to handmade food to handmade clothing and jewelry, and reaching its tentacles upward into fine art, whether it’s found in museums or galleries or home studios or among the booths and displays of street fairs. Not unlike the centers of the Arts & Crafts Movement that flourished in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it’s a place that believes art and artisanship fit together in a heightened, rounded, everyday way. As the city and state slowly waken from the pandemic shutdown, people are beginning to gather again – to see things and maybe buy things, and to rekindle the lost pleasure of being together, shoulder to shoulder (or maybe a little more distanced, and maybe still wearing masks) in a public place, simply celebrating the joy of being alive.

Left: “Arizona #2,” Timothy Wayne Stapleton, acrylic on canvas, 60 x 36 inches. Right: “Harmonic Memories,” Timothy Wayne Stapleton and Samie Jo Pfeifer, acrylic on canvas, 36 x 30 inches.

One of those revived gatherings, the Slabtown Makers Market, will be hosting visitors this weekend, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, July 24-25, at NW Marine Art Works, 2516 N.W. 29th Ave., Portland, a haven of artists studios amid a sprawl of former heavy-industry buildings. More than 40 artists and crafters will be showing and selling their goods, and giving back a little, too: 5 percent of sales will be donated to local nonprofits.

Amid the clayworks and macrame and baked goods and clothing and artworks by the likes of painters Daniel Duford and Chinese American artist Clement Lee, one booth leaps out: the one being operated by Samie Jo Pfeifer, friend and assistant to Tim Stapleton for four years before he died in September 2020 from the effects of ALS, or Lou Gherig’s Disease. Tim was a beloved and multitalented artist in Portland for many years, known in varying circles as a theatrical stage designer of uncommon creativity, a graceful writer whose stories often looped back to his early life in the coal-mining regions of Kentucky, an actor, a teacher at various colleges, and a visual artist whose paintings also regularly took their inspiration from the people and culture of the Coal Belt. You can read much more about Tim and his life in Farewell to the Tangerine Window, Marty Hughley’s heartfelt ArtsWatch memorial to him from last October.


Portland Opera hires new artistic director

Priti Gandhi, who comes to Oregon from Minnesota Opera, will be one of the few top woman artistic leaders in the opera world

Priti Gandhi has been hired as the new artistic director of Portland Opera, the company announced in a press release Wednesday morning. Gandhi, who has sung internationally and who comes to Portland from Minnesota Opera, where she has been chief artistic officer, will be one of the few women in the opera world in a top artistic role. The company has been searching for a new artistic leader since parting ways with former general director Christopher Mattaliano, who had also filled the artistic function, in 2019.

Priti Gandhi, new artistic director of Portland Opera. Photo: K.C. Alfred

We’ll have more on this story as we learn more.


The text of this morning’s press release:

(Portland, OR – July 21, 2021) Portland Opera is delighted to announce that Priti Gandhi has joined the company as artistic director.

“I am beyond thrilled to welcome Priti to Portland and Portland Opera!” says Sue Dixon, general director. “She is an inspiring artistic leader, and I am so excited to work with her as a collaborative partner to move the company forward—as we continue to realize Portland Opera’s mission in the community.”


Chamber music comes out to play

ArtsWatch Weekly: Chamber Music Northwest enters the concert hall, shakeup at OBT, Black & beautiful in Newberg, "Frida" rocks, Waterfront Blues Fest, "Summer of Soul"

THE SCENE WAS FAMILIAR, ALTHOUGH IT HAD BEEN WELL MORE THAN A YEAR since I’d been inside a concert hall. Yet there I was, on Wednesday morning, sitting inside Kaul Auditorium at Reed College for the first open rehearsal of Chamber Music Northwest‘s 2021 season, which begins officially tonight with a concert by the East Coast Chamber Orchestra and CMNW’s new artistic leaders, the married team of pianist Gloria Chien and violinist Soovin Kim.

Oh, sure, there were differences from the Before Times. The mostly older audience filed in at a social distance after first signing in with their names and telephone numbers (for contact tracing, just in case) and taking seats in little separated pods of two or three chairs. And everyone except the musicians – all of whom were fully vaccinated, as were, presumably, most of the crowd – was wearing a mask. There was no stink, as far as I could smell, about the precautionary requirement. It would have been difficult not to notice the sheer pleasure of the audience – and its attentiveness. This was, despite its modest size, something of a coming-out party; a grand reopening. After all these months, to be sitting inside a concert hall, listening to great music performed by highly skilled musicians, in real time and real space! Everyone, or so it seemed, was here not out of obligation but desire.

Chamber Music Northwest’s first open rehearsal of the new season: getting into the swing of some early Mendelssohn. Oregon ArtsWatch photo

There was familiarity, too, in the onstage pre-rehearsal scene. A goodly amount of woodshedding. A musician or two checking phones. A stoic stare into the distance. A finger-loosening run or two up and down the keyboard. Even a pre-rehearsal (and presumably post-coffee) yawn. Everyone except the cellos standing. Because this was a rehearsal, a proliferation of casual clothes, from jeans and T-shirts to sundresses and pantsuits and even a little black dress. All of the pre-show rituals and routines that performers use to shake out of one reality and into that rigorously focused reality beyond: sixteen voices, preparing to become one.


Colors go out in the world: ‘Frida’, reviewed

Portland Opera’s summer production reveals fresh, flashy new classic

Despite its three-decade lifespan, Frida remains fresh and flashy. Plenty of sex, angst and art (and a little pot) propel it into contemporary times. Above all, the intricate music and sharp-witted libretto make the story come fully alive — and I suspect, will keep the opera breathing for decades.

The opera has been staged and praised throughout Europe and the United States, premiering in 1991 at the American Music Theater Festival in Philadelphia. It opened in Portland June 22 for a four-day sold-out run, though the June 26 and June 27 performances were cancelled due to the heat wave.

Portland Opera's 2021 production of Frida. Photo by Trace Downen.
Portland Opera’s 2021 production of ‘Frida’. Photo by Trace Downen.

Frida marked the first time in 16 months since pandemic restrictions began that Portland Opera invited a live audience. Brimming with anticipation of experiencing live music again, opera-goers sat outdoors, socially distanced in pods from one another in front of OMSI’s Jordan Schnitzer open-air stage. The waxing gibbous moon emerged from clear skies as the opera concluded 95 minutes after it started. Viva Fridas! rang out, as did bravos! in proper and predictable Portland fashion.


Sweltering days & shady places

ArtsWatch Weekly: Beating the heat, Halprin's fountains, 'Frida' at last, Creative Laureate x 2, Risk/Reward, hip-hop dynamo, tiny tapestries

WITH TRIPLE-DIGIT TEMPERATURES FORECAST for Saturday through Monday in Oregon and across much of the West Coast, it looks like we’re in for it. Forecasting models vary, but they seem to be ranging somewhere between out-of-the-frying-pan-into-the-fire and the Seventh Circle of Hell. What to do? Strategies vary, but one popular one is also simple and natural: Look for some shade.

On Monday afternoon, with the temperature in the mere mid-90s, my family and I – including two key members, one a recently and gratefully inoculated 15-year-old, visiting from Seattle – ventured  to the Portland Japanese Garden. Except for a couple of jaunts to Sauvie Island and a trip to Longview, Washington, for vaccinations, it was our first such group outing since before the shutdowns. We found the shade, all right: plenty of it in this serene and magnificent garden. And we found a lot more.

Taking a break in the Portland Japanese Garden. Oregon ArtsWatch photo


Beyond Fridolatry

Portland Opera’s ‘Frida’ stages the great Mexican artist Kahlo’s extraordinary life — without deifying her

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.

Catalina Cuervo as Kahlo in Portland Opera’s Frida. Photo: Trace Downen.

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. 

Multicultural Mix

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.”

Composer Robert X. Rodriguez. Photo: Gabriel Berdé

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. 

Photo: Trace Downen.

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.”

Further Fridamania

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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The arts moment: back, or ahead?

ArtsWatch Weekly: We're emerging, but into what? The culture, and the arts world, consider the possibilities and make plans.

LIKE MOST OF THE NATION, OREGON HAS ENTERED SOMETHING OF A STATE OF SUSPENDED ANIMATION. Are we in or are we out? Do we shrink or do we grow? Scurry back, or look ahead? In the immortal words of The Clash, should I stay or should I go? Large stretches of rural Oregon, apparently, are eager to go – out of Oregon and into Idaho. Meanwhile, we are free to go unmasked into public spaces if we’re fully vaccinated, but not everywhere and not all the time – and we either are or aren’t on an honor system: Grocery store and restaurant workers and others dealing with the public are being left to police the unmasked to make sure they’re not cheating, and to live with the consequences of their customers’ anger. Businesses that live and breathe on public access, such as the sweet Oregon-scaled Enchanted Forest amusement park south of Salem, have eagerly reopened – and then shut down again in the face of threats from unvaccinated would-be visitors over being required to wear masks. We are one state, it appears, deeply divisible, with liberty and justice dependent on your point of view.

Back to the future? Melvin Van Peebles’ 1968 debut feature “The Story of a Three-Day Pass,” about a Black American G.I. and a white woman who meet and hit it off in France, came two years before his breakthrough hit “Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song.” And it is, Marc Mohan writes, “the most revolutionary ‘new’ movie to hit Portland this week.”

Still, the trend appears to be toward motion – moving ahead – and that includes the worlds of culture and the arts. Museums have reopened, with restrictions. Music and theater and dance are once again among us, if mainly via video stream or on outdoor stages. (But not completely: Portland’s Triangle Productions is entering the final weekend of its production of the comedy Clever Little Lies, live and on an indoor stage, with a quarter-of-the-house capacity of 50 people at a time.)

Here at ArtsWatch we’re shifting with the tide, too. For instance, we’ve renamed Marc Mohan’s movie column, which has been called “Streamers” through the pandemic because movies have been available only via streaming, as “FilmWatch” – because, as Marc notes, movie theaters are beginning to open up again, and whether it’s in a popcorn palace or streaming to your living room screen, a movie is a movie. Even then, as he writes in his latest film column, this whole moving-forward thing can be a confusing muddle of present, past, and possible future. “The most revolutionary ‘new’ movie to hit Portland this week is from 1968, of course,” he writes. That movie is The Story of a Three-Day Pass, the debut feature of maverick filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles, “a sneakily acerbic takedown of American racism, particularly its internalized effect upon the psyche of Black Americans.” A story ripped, or so it seems, from the headlines of pretty much any year you choose.


LEFT: Catalina Cuervo as Frida and Bernardo Bermudez as Diego Rivera in Anchorage Opera’s 2020 production of ‘Frida’. They’ll repeat their roles this summer at Portland Opera. Photo by Kathleen Behnke, courtesy of Anchorage Opera. RIGHT: Kahlo and Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky are among the figures in artist Molly Van Austen’s 175-foot scroll weaving around the Chehalem Cultural Center. Photo: David Bates

SUDDENLY IT’S FRIDA KAHLO SEASON IN OREGON: Onstage and via stream from Portland Opera, and on paper in a fascinating art exhibition at the Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg. One of a handful of 20th century cultural figures whose work can draw a crowd just about anywhere, the ever-fascinating Mexican artist is either central to or an integral part of both shows. Here’s the word on each: 

  • PORTLAND OPERA’S BOLD NEW SEASON. As we noted here last week, Portland Opera will present Frida, its long-anticipated production of Robert Xavier Rodríguez’s opera about the life and times of Kahlo, in combined outdoor and streaming performances in June. This week, Angela Allen takes us beyond with a broad discussion of the big new changes brewing in the opera company’s new season, which ranges from its still-streaming Journeys to Justice concert of music about the Black experience to the coming traditional Tosca and the contemporary operas The Central Park Five, a Pulitzer Prize winner with music by Anthony Davis, and the “dystopian chamber opera” When the Sun Comes Out, which was commissioned by the Vancouver Queer Arts Festival. “Opera is for everybody, not just for millionaires and folks who get all dressed up,” Damien Geter, one of the company’s artistic advisors, told Allen. “People want to see things about real people, about real things, things that happened in recent times.” Soprano Karen Slack, Geter’s co-artistic advisor, added: “I am both a lover of grand traditional repertoire and new works. Having made a solid career on both sides, I know the power they both possess. A healthy mix of classics reimagined and new works is always exciting. A little something for everyone.”
  • ART FROM THE QUARANTINE LIFE. “Cultural life in Yamhill County hasn’t returned to pre-pandemic levels of activity, but the engine is revving louder these days,” David Bates writes. “People are making plans, holding rehearsals, scheduling summer art camps.” And at the Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg, he adds, a “delightful new exhibit” addresses the question of what artists will make of the Shutdown Year: “How will a historic, life-changing pandemic translate to the stage, page, and canvas?” The show features suggestions from two artists: Joe Robinson, owner of the East Creek community art studio and anagama kiln near Willamina, who declares that the “large, beautiful pots” scattered around the gallery “can only be accomplished when many hands come together,” and Molly Van Austen, whose 175-foot scroll snaking around the gallery comprises something of a diary of her memories and imaginings during the pandemic. It’s a cavalcade of people: “Each image in this long drawing is a meditation on some dear person in my life. That brings me joy and sadness. Memories prolong life and intensify our emotions.” Among the crowd is a portrait of Kahlo with the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky. Frida seemed to know everybody – and as likely as not, everybody was at least as eager to be around Frida as Frida was to be around everybody.


From left: Taylor Feldman, Ryan Stee, Stacey King and Shanita King on the trip to the top of Mt. Hood in Devin Fei-Fan Tau’s documentary “Who’s On Top?”

DEVIN FEI-FAN TAU: WHO’S ON TOP? In her newest Stage and Studio podcast, Dmae Roberts talks with Portland’s Devin Fei-Fan Tau, a gay Taiwanese-American filmmaker, about his new documentary Who’s on Top?, in which he and his crew follow four LGBTQ+ climbers – only one of them with previous climbing experience – in their quest to get to the top of Mt. Hood. It’s not just a physical journey, but an emotional one, too, and Roberts’ interview includes the voices of each climber talking about what led them to this pursuit. As Roberts puts it: “Historically excluded and ostracized as not belonging to the adventurer community, the climbers tackle not only a mountain, but assumptions about who they are and how they belong to the world of outdoor sports.” Bonus: The film is narrated by the great George Takei.


Lawrence Shlim (American, born 1954). “Volcanic Ash, Centralia, Washington,” 1980. Gelatin silver print. Portland Art Museum, Gift of the artist, 81.41.2

TUESDAY, MAY 18, WAS THE 41st ANNIVERSARY OF THE ERUPTION OF MOUNT ST. HELENS, one of the signal events in the history of the Pacific Northwest. (It was a Sunday morning in 1980, and I was in Seattle, waiting at the depot to board the train back to Portland, which didn’t happen because the tracks were wiped out somewhere south of Centralia). The mountain’s cataclysmic explosion was the focus of the Portland Art Museum’s terrific exhibition Volcano! that opened last spring, and that in turn lost most of its run to another catastrophe, the coronavirus pandemic. Fortunately, the museum assembled this excellent online version of the exhibition, which you can still access. It’s a grand-scale show, with historic paintings going back as far as the 1850s, some wonderful post-explosion paintings by Henk Pander, George Johanson, Lucinda Parker and others, and many photos documenting both the devastation and the recovery that followed. If you click the link, you’ll find your own favorites. One of mine is the photo above, by Lawrence Shlim, of a street scene in Centralia, looking out a window at a man walking through a blizzard of ash. It seems to speak both to 1980 and the plague year of 2020: life enduring and moving on in the midst of disaster. A town staying, and going, too.