portland opera

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.



Portland Opera’s bold new season

As audiences emerge tentatively from Covid, the Opera roars out of seclusion with big changes – and a little something for everyone

If you watched the moving Journeys to Justice concert, streaming through May 31, you can see that the 56-year-old Portland Opera’s evolution is taking root in a more inclusive philosophy and broader repertoire. The six-piece program of Black-experience songs and chamber operas, sung by PO’s Resident Artists, all performers of color, is a major step into a broader opera world. It signals that new stories are being told in new ways by new people. This spring PO even crafted a new mission stressing inclusion, collaboration and connection — and thereby reaching out to new, wider audiences.

“Opera is for everybody, not just for millionaires and folks who get all dressed up,” PO co-artistic advisor Damien Geter told Oregon ArtsWatch. “People want to see things about real people, about real things, things that happened in recent times.” The more people that PO’s operas relate to, the faster the audiences will grow, he says.


Ready or not, live shows on the way

ArtsWatch Weekly: As Oregon begins to open up, live performances get ready to join the crowd, indoors and out

… AND THIS WEEK, THE GATES BEGAN TO CREAK OPEN. On Tuesday, days after the Portland Trail Blazers began to allow small crowds to see their home games at the Moda Center (they were among the last teams in the National Basketball Association to let fans return) Oregon Gov. Kate Brown announced that she would largely open the state up once 70 percent of its citizens 16 and older had received at least one coronavirus vaccination. She expected that to happen, she added, sometime in June. The order would include, as Aimee Green reported in The Oregonian/Oregon Live, “the lifting of capacity limits on restaurants, bars, stores, gyms, sporting venues, movie theaters and limitations on the number of people who can gather indoors or out for events such as road races and festivals.” While many experts consider that level of vaccination too low for a full reopening – as Green notes, “70 percent of Oregonians 16 and older partially vaccinated will probably translate to less than 50 percent of the overall population fully vaccinated” – all sorts of places are making plans.

Artist rendering of The Lot at Zidell Yards, a socially distanced performance venue with stage, large movie screen, food carts, and a series of seating pods. Capacity will be 300, but may expand.

That includes the relatively new outdoor venue The Lot at Zidell Yards, an open entertainment complex on Portland’s South Waterfront, on the west side of the Ross Island Bridge. On the same day that Gov. Brown announced the state’s reopening plans, The Lot announced a summer season of concerts and movie screenings beginning in late May, with distanced seating pods, food and drink carts, and an audience capacity of 300, which could expand if state regulations relax even further. Concerts range from popular acts such as the Dandy Warhols and Jenny Don’t & the Spurs to a show from members of the Oregon Symphony’s brass sections and, on the July 4 weekend, a scaled-back version of the Waterfront Blues Festival. Big-screen movies, produced in partnership with the Hollywood Theatre, range from Crazy Rich Asians to Rear Window and Thelma and Louise.


Oscars, books, and strange things

ArtsWatch Weekly: Oscarmania, Oregon Book Awards, strange tales and a stranger firing, opera's triumph, carving stories, photo stories

ON SUNDAY HOLLYWOOD THREW ITS BIG BACCHANALIA, the 93rd such annual fling, and even in its pandemic-year virtual tuxedo it was an obsessively overproduced wingding that was, at heart, a gigantic sales pitch for the movie industry. Nomadland (based on a book by Jessica Bruder, a former reporter for The Oregonian) won, the late Chadwick Boseman did not, and television viewership numbers took another tumble. Marc Mohan wraps things up smartly in his new “Streamers” column. Most refreshingly, he notes, the studios pushed their big fall and winter releases back to this summer, a move that “allowed greater recognition for films that didn’t conform to Hollywood ‘Oscar-bait’ formulas. As a result, the Academy took a few more halting, belated steps towards racial, gender, and aesthetic diversity.” 

A doff of the ArtsWatch cap also to Portland filmmaker Skye Fitzgerald, who scored his second Oscar nomination for his short documentary Hunger Ward, about the war-caused famine in Yemen and the struggle of two women to feed the devastated nation’s children and infants. Colette, about a former French Resistance member who travels to Germany for the first time in 74 years, won that category, but that takes nothing from Fitzgerald’s achievement. Mohan, ArtsWatch’s movie columnist, talked with Fitzgerald a week before the ceremony, and the resuting interview is worth a second read.

And now, back to our previously scheduled coverage.


Left: Joe Wilkins, author of “Thieve.” Right: Ann Vileisis, author of “Abalone.”

THE OREGON BOOK AWARDS ARE COMING UP SUNDAY, and although they’re much less high-profile than Sunday’s Academy Awards blowout was, a lot of talent and a lot of prestige will be in the virtual room when this year’s winners are announced. That’ll be at 7 p.m. Sunday, May 2, on a special episode of OPB Radio’s The Archive Project, a co-production of OPB and Literary Arts, which also sponsors the annual book awards. (You can see the list of nominees here.)


Good men must plan: A review of ‘Journeys to Justice’

Portland Opera does ‘Justice’ justice

In the 30 years I’ve covered Portland Opera—through many changes in administration, artistic direction and philosophy—I’ve never seen such a compelling program as this month’s Journeys to Justice. It began streaming April 16 and will continue through May 31. You can purchase a digital pass through Portland Opera, at a $50 suggested price, though there’s a “Pay What You will Option” for as little as $5.

The creative and accomplished quality of singing, staging, lighting, costumes, hair design! –the twinning of operatic and theatrical values came together as these six art songs and chamber operas based on Black experience (and written in the last 30 years) unfolded across 75 minutes with no intermission. Cutting-edge and contemporary in style, and convincingly done on camera, Journeys reached into the deep folds of pain and occasional jubilance that define Black American culture in a historically white supremacist landscape.

Mezzo-soprano Jasmine Johnson and the Portland Opera Chorus performing 'The Talk: Instructions for Black Children When They Interact with the Police.' Photo courtesy of Portland Opera.
Mezzo-soprano Jasmine Johnson and the Portland Opera Chorus performing ‘The Talk: Instructions for Black Children When They Interact with the Police.’ Photo courtesy of Portland Opera.


The race is on. Ready for live events?

ArtsWatch Weekly: Ready or not, things are opening. Plus Lillian Pitt & Friends, opera breaks the mold, movie time, poetry all over

THE RACE IS ON, as George Jones famously crooned, and if it’s not pride up the backstretch and heartaches goin’ to the inside, as the song’s lyrics breathlessly declare, the stakes may be higher: Can we get the nation and world successfully vaccinated before relaxed safety standards and unchecked viral variants send us back to the starting gate? As warmer months approach, and vaccination rates improve, and people become more restless after more than a year in shutdown, the urge to get out and do things grows stronger – but is it jumping the gun? This week the state reclassified Multnomah and Clackamas counties, with a combined population of more than 1.2 million, from “moderate” to “high risk” for coronavirus. (Washington County, with a population of almost 600,000, maintained its “moderate” status.) The question is vital and controversial, and it goes beyond schools and workplaces and houses of worship and even a weekend at the coast. It has a deep and direct impact on cultural life, too.

Young blues phenom Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, from Clarksdale, Mississippi, had the crowd roaring at the 2019 Waterfront Blues Festival. The festival, a Portland July 4 Weekend tradition, was canceled in 2020 because of coronavirus restrictions but will return in July 2021 at the new Lot at Zidell Yards, south of its usual sprawling location on the downtown waterfront. This year’s acts have not yet been announced, and crowd size will be controlled. Photo: Joe Cantrell

Things are stirring. Restaurants have opened for indoor dining. Even theater, beyond the Covid-special videotaped virtual version, is taking tentative steps. Portland’s Triangle Productions has just gone into rehearsal for Joe DiPietro’s four-performer throwback comedy Clever Little Lies, with plans to open to a live audience on May 6, and it could be just the sort of nostalgic escapism that cooped-up audiences will be craving. Movie theaters are reopening (see Marc Mohan’s “Streamers” column, linked below). A consortium of Oregon large-event venues, meanwhile, has written Gov. Kate Brown pushing for guidelines and permission to reopen, arguing that they know how to control crowds and should be part of the decision-making process. The letter includes about fifty signees, ranging from the Pendleton Round-Up to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the Sisters Folk Festival, and the Portland and Eugene symphonic orchestras.