You couldn’t make up a story like Frida Kahlo’s.
“We didn’t need to imagine a thing,” says composer Robert Xavier Rodríguez, who, in 1991, was commissioned by American Music Theater Festival to create music for an opera based on the singular life of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. “It’s a perfect story for opera.”
The Atlanta Opera’s upcoming production of “Frida,” directed by Jose Maria Condemi and featuring book by Hilary Blecher and lyrics and monologues by Migdalia Cruz, opens Oct. 5 at Sandy Springs Arts Center as part of the company’s Discoveries Series. It will be the work’s 19th production since its premiere in 1991.
From the moment Rodríguez first began the project, he says he recognized the enormous potential — and the great challenge — of turning Kahlo’s intense life story into a successful opera. “It’s a vast subject,” he says. “I spent most of my time thinking about what aspects of Frida I wanted to tell. There are so many sides to her.”
During her lifetime, Kahlo struggled with polio, severe injuries, mental illness, miscarriages, sexism and the many infidelities of her husband, famed painter and muralist Diego Rivera, whom she divorced and then remarried. Kahlo’s sense of suffering is apparent in her surreal self-portraits, but Rodríguez says he was especially interested in depicting Frida as a fighter, as someone who fought back to forge an identity for herself.
“Frida was very intelligent,” he says. “Operatic heroines are not often that intelligent. They follow their hearts and do dumb things. It was refreshing to work with characters who were brilliant.”
Soprano Catalina Cuervo will perform the role of Kahlo in Atlanta. It will be her fifth time performing the role since 2015, when this particular production premiered at Detroit’s Michigan Opera Theatre. “It’s a very complicated role because it documents her entire life in music,” Cuervo says. “Every time I finish the opera, I feel overjoyed that I went through the journey, that I lived it. It’s amazing to sing Frida.”
Playing Kahlo in any work would be a challenge, but the opera requires a great deal from its lead. The singer must remain on stage for the entire performance, making multiple costume quick-changes, portraying the artist from childhood to death, enacting the many traumatic events in Kahlo’s life, all while singing in the varied styles the score demands, from soaring operatic soprano to traditional Mexican folk songs to Broadway-style belt.
Rodríguez’s music combines a number of genres grounded in the music of Mexico. The opera incorporates folk melodies and styles, and the orchestra features guitar, accordion and marimba, the national instrument of Mexico.
Kahlo’s world is, of course, intensely visual, and the production seeks to recreate the surreal look and feel of Kahlo’s paintings with colorful sets, costumes, projections and puppetry. Dancers choreographed by Marco Pelle bring to life one of Kahlo’s most famous paintings in a ballet section titled “The Ballet of the Wounded Deer.”
Production designer Monika Essen went to Mexico City and visited some of the places where Kahlo had her own dresses made to create the costumes. “When I say it’s exact, I mean it’s exact,” says Cuervo. “Even my wedding ring is an exact copy. People in the audience don’t see it, but it’s all up to that level of detail.” During preparations for Cuervo’s first performance in Detroit, workers from a nearby hospital spent several hours building a cast around Cuervo’s body to recreate the one Kahlo had to wear after she was injured in a streetcar accident.
The opera centers on the fraught romantic relationship between Kahlo and Rivera, performed by bass-baritone Ricardo Herrera. Herrera and Cuervo knew each other as professional colleagues and friends before being cast together in the roles for the first time in 2015. The slim Herrera has to wear a prosthetic belly on stage to perform as the giant Rivera.
“I was very fortunate to see Diego Rivera’s murals in Mexico City when I was growing up,” says Herrera. “Now playing him as a grown-up is a fantastic honor … He loved (Kahlo) like nothing else in his life. He was unfaithful — not to hurt her — but because he couldn’t stay still. These two people are human beings, not angels, not devils. They’re trying to be who they are as people.”
Kahlo is an unusual subject for an opera. Female artists and characters who are Latina, disabled and bisexual have not exactly been widely represented in the discipline. But interest in the artist continues to grow, placing her among the 20th-century’s most significant and instantly recognizable artists, which is not a position she occupied during her own lifetime. Those involved with the production expect Kahlo will attract new audience members to the Atlanta Opera, as has occurred in other cities that have staged it.
“With the current political climate, it’s important to be inclusive in the stories that we tell,” says Marietta native Maria Valdes, who plays Kahlo’s younger sister Cristina. Valdes’ father is first generation Cuban-Dominican, and Valdes says she’s glad for the opportunity to bring a Latina character to life on the opera stage. “We in Atlanta are so rich with other cultures. I think it’s important that the art we’re making speaks to the entire community.”
“This has been my dream to play Frida Kahlo,” says Cuervo. “I don’t even remember when I first started hearing her name. She was an amazing woman. There’s so much we can learn from her, from her personality, from her way of life. She overcame every single tragedy and still tried to love life.”
‘Frida.’ Presented by Atlanta Opera. Oct. 5-13. $28-$68. Sandy Springs Performing Arts Center, 1 Galambos Way, Sandy Springs. 404-881-8885, atlantaopera.org.
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