How do you tell the story of an artist whose life was so filled with a vibrant, surreal mixture of pain, trauma, passion and joy that, as one critic noted, it “was an opera waiting to happen”?
You write an opera about her, of course. That’s what composer Robert Xavier Rodriguez did 26 years ago with “Frida,” a visually vivid and musically eclectic portrayal of beloved Mexican painter Frida Kahlo and her on-again, off-again husband, famed muralist Diego Rivera.
Cincinnati Opera is set to perform “Frida” seven times, June 23-July 8, in the Aronoff Center’s Jarson-Kaplan Theater.
Commissioned by the American Music Theater Festival (now Prince Theater) and premiered in Philadelphia in 1991, “Frida” was given a new production in Detroit in 2015. Cincinnati Opera artistic director Evans Mirageas and general director Patty Beggs saw it there, and were so overwhelmed they decided to bring it to Cincinnati.
“It sort of hit us between the eyes. It’s a fantastic piece,” Mirageas said. “I think it will really wow our audience. The music is both simple yet multifaceted – very seductive, colorful, a lot of folkloric music. It’s a terrific piece and it has a big starring role.”
That central character is Frida Kahlo (1907-1954), whose surreal yet folk art-like paintings often explored issues of gender, race, class and nationality. Hers was a pain-filled life, much of that the result of a 1925 bus crash that nearly killed her – she was impaled by a handrail from the bus.
And yet she persevered to grow as an artist and produce a distinctive body of work whose appeal has only grown since her death. That perseverance is what “Frida” is really about.
“It is an iconic role for a woman, a great role – a woman of great strength and stamina who fought adversity,” Mirageas said. “She was a strong woman who overcame incredible odds. Hers was a life greatly lived.”
Her relationship to Rivera – stormy, full of passion and infidelities amid a complex swirl of their radical political activity – made theirs one of the most incredible love stories of recent times, and provides plenty of dramatic fuel for a stage work.
“The opera portrays two extraordinary, bigger-than-life people,” composer Rodriguez said. “You couldn’t make up a plot like this; no one would believe it. As Mark Twain said, ‘Fiction is limited by the laws of probability. Real life is not.’
“Frida is an ideal subject for the stage, full of color, tragedy, humor, sex, infidelity, violence and passion. … “I saw and still see Frida, not as a victim, but as a fighter who had the strength to build her own public persona independently of her famous and powerful husband.”
Setting that seething emotional mix to music was no small challenge for the San Antonio-born Rodriguez, who despite his Mexican heritage admits he has found himself at times an “admiring outsider” when it comes to Mexican culture. But Rivera’s career provided direction.
“I did draw musical inspiration from Diego’s stylistic transformation from a cubist painting in an international style in Paris to a man of the people who devoted himself to celebrating Mexican culture,” Rodriguez said. “Similarly, I drew from my musical background as a modernist composer and incorporated the sounds of Mexican folk music.”
“Frida’s” music is notable for Rodriguez’ skillful blend of many musical influences, from jazz to European classical music to the musical theater of George Gershwin and Kurt Weill, along with Mexican folk music.
Rodriguez, 70, is a wide-ranging, eclectic composer who isn’t easily pigeonholed. “In addition to Frida, I have written maybe 10 other pieces that celebrate the Mexican/Latin American tradition,” Rodriguez said. “I have a special place in my heart for all of them, but they remain a small percentage of my catalogue of 133 works.
“I’m like a chef who makes a mean enchilada but creates a wide variety of other dishes as well.”
But “Frida” is, after all, about a visual artist, so the look of the opera is as vital as its sound. That’s where set/costume designer Monika Essen comes in. Aiming to “convey the wild intensity that was Frida Kahlo,” Essen designed visuals that use Frida’s artwork generously, but often distilled to its “most symbolic elements,” she said.
“I desired to create a surreal dreamscape filled with contradictions just like Frida herself; something that in one moment could appear bleak and forbidding, but in the next could explode with a burst of color and laughter,” Essen said.
As for the character of Frida, Essen did extensive research into Kahlo’s sense of style, which also tied into her socialist political leanings. Frida admired the matriarchal society on Mexico’s Isthmus of Tehuantepec, for example. “She very much identified with the strong feminine persona of the Tehauna women and adopted their mode of dress for herself,” Essen said. “So, not only did she dress this way to cover her infirmities, but she also was making a statement.
“There are also many iconic images of her, so I had to make sure to get every detail correct because she is such a beloved figure.”
Frida and Rivera are famous for their politics, and advocating for communist principles in the 1930s made them especially controversial.
But “Frida” isn’t really about that, although it’s integral to their characters and relationship.
“I don’t know if politics is key here – certainly not governmental, perhaps more about economics,” Mirageas said. “It doesn’t make political statements, it just asks questions, and to me that is fine. What an opera like this does is ask questions, and we may find resonances in our own times.”
“The important thing about Frida and Diego’s politics was their concern for the poor,” Rodriguez said. “On the other hand, Diego spent much of his time cultivating rich patrons, whom he then publicly ridiculed, as in the famous Rockefeller Center mural portraying Lenin as ‘hope for the future.’ ”
No, the focus is on the life struggle and artistic triumph of Frida Kahlo herself.
“I saw and still see Frida, not as a victim, but as a fighter who had the strength to build her own public persona independently of her famous and powerful husband,” Rodriguez said. In other words, perhaps an ideal opera heroine.
“Most of the great operas have at their core a strong woman,” Mirageas said. “This season features four women with very different kinds of strength (adding Mimi in Puccini’s “La Bohème,” Pamina in Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” and explorer Isabelle Eberhardt in “Song from the Uproar”).
“The season could be called ‘What I Did for Love.’ It demonstrates our love for the way opera can show how incredible women are.”
– By Ray Cooklis
“Frida,” by Robert Xavier Rodriguez. June 24-July 8. Cincinnati Opera, Jarson-Kaplan Theater, Aronoff Center, downtown. 241-2742 or cincinnatiopera.org