Atlanta Opera stages tango opera at Paris on Ponce

‘Maria de Buenos Aires’ will be an immersive experience
Cuervo will perform Argentinian composer Astor Piazzolla’s opera at Le Maison Rouge, a cabaret inside Paris on Ponce. CONTRIBUTED BY Doug Wonders

Cuervo will perform Argentinian composer Astor Piazzolla’s opera at Le Maison Rouge, a cabaret inside Paris on Ponce. CONTRIBUTED BY Doug Wonders

The seductive atmosphere of a decadent, red-velvet nightclub. A beautiful singer devoted to her art. The haunting sound of the bandoneon player as he strikes up the tango.

A bit of Buenos Aires will arrive in Atlanta next week, and what may be most surprising about the experience, which will take place in the lush, slightly dissipated atmosphere of an Atlanta cabaret, is that it will all be brought to life by the Atlanta Opera.

"It's a huge hit for us already," says Atlanta Opera General and Artistic Director Tomer Zvulun, who directs the production of "Maria de Buenos Aires." "It was basically sold out two weeks after we announced it, so we had to add two performances. The reaction is very encouraging for us."

The production, which the company brings to the small cabaret venue Le Moulin Rouge inside Paris on Ponce, a massive warehouse store chock full of vintage furnishings and collectibles, represents a somewhat unusual move for the Atlanta Opera, best known for its large-scale productions of familiar classics at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre.

But the show is part of the company's Discoveries Series, now in its third season, which complements its mainstage season with smaller chamber works produced at various venues around town. The company has so far staged productions at the Alliance Theatre, Kennesaw State University's Bailey Performance Center and Georgia State's Rialto Center for the Arts.

Zvulun says the company looked long and hard for the right venue to place “Maria.”

“We walked into Paris on Ponce, and it completely answered everything I was hoping for,” he says. “We don’t need to add one scenic element to it because it’s all there already …’Maria’ is not a typical proscenium show. It’s going to be very unusual seating. It’s a very immersive experience where the opera happens all around you.”

“Maria de Buenos Aires” is famed tango composer Astor Piazzolla’s only opera, created by the composer in collaboration with Argentine surrealist poet Horacio Ferrer in 1968. Zvulun says the show, which centers on an enigmatic tango singer obsessively devoted to her art, is one he’s wanted to bring to Atlanta from the moment he first accepted his position at the company in 2013. “I was actually in Argentina at the time, directing a show in Buenos Aires,” he says. “I was so obsessed with the music, the culture, the tango, I vowed back then to do this piece in Atlanta.”

Those who go expecting Puccini or Verdi are in for a bit of a shock. Performers in “Maria” sing in the style of tango, not classical opera, and the score calls for an 11-piece folk ensemble including the bandoneon, the traditional Argentinian accordion central to tango music.

“In some ways, the bandoneon is a character in the piece,” says the show’s conductor Jorge Parodi. “The sound is very colorful and different. Of course, Piazzolla was a bandoneon player, and he was at the center of the work.”

As a native Argentinian, Parodi says the piece has always been dear to his heart, because tango in Buenos Aires isn’t just a dance or a type of music, it’s part of the culture. “I feel very attached to the style,” he says. “It’s very unique in its color and its music. Tango speaks to us in Argentina because it’s been living with us for a hundred years. It’s really part of our communal culture.”

His feeling is shared by soprano Catalina Cuervo, who has performed the role of enigmatic Maria many times and will take it on again in the Atlanta Opera production. Cuervo grew up in Colombia before coming to the U.S. when she was 18. “Medellín, where I grew up, is considered the second capital of tango in the world after Buenos Aires,” she says. “People in Medellín love tango just as much as people in Argentina do. It’s almost our music, too.”

Cuervo says the one thing that makes returning to the role so many times rewarding is the music. “The music is amazing,” she says. “It’s the type of music from the first passage that the orchestra starts in with the overture, you are immediately transported to Argentina and to the world of tango. You start to feel like you are in another country, somewhere else.”

Unlike many operas, dance is a central part of “Maria.” When she first learned the role, Cuervo says she closely studied the tango for three months with an instructor so she could get the intricate steps and the particular attitude just right. “The way I walk as the character, it’s almost dance-like,” she says. “Every time I stand in a position, it’s a tango position. I incorporate all of that into the character. As a performer, it’s all about the music. It’s standing in a certain way, dancing, feeling the music in every step I take.”

Cuervo has performed the role in concert halls, opera houses and ballrooms, but cabaret settings like Le Maison Rouge are particularly well-suited to the production, she says.

“This is a way to make the show an experience, not to just have the audience sitting in chairs far away from us. The audience becomes part of the story, I can talk with them, I can have a drink with them while I’m performing. The audience is completely immersed in the experience. They’re like another actor, on stage with us. It’s really a great experience.”


'Maria de Buenos Aires.' Presented by Atlanta Opera. Feb. 2-4, Feb. 6-7. $60. Le Maison Rouge at Paris on Ponce, 716 Ponce de Leon Place, Atlanta. 404-881-8885.

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