The Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach was the venue for Long Beach Opera‘s latest production of Robert Xavier Rodriguez‘s opera Frida, based on the life of painter Frida Kahlo. Before the performance, the audience had the chance to view exhibits at the museum, and then went outside to the sculpture garden for the performance. Experiencing an opera about an artist, presented in an art museum, was further enhanced by director/designer Andreas Mitisek‘s brilliant idea of a screen in back of the singers that had projections of art by both Kahlo and her husband Diego Rivera. Not simply photos of entire paintings by the two Mexican artists, but projected close-ups of the art which accentuated the scenes of the opera, and brought the situations of the drama into sharper focus. One touching example was during the scene of Frida’s and Diego’s wedding, the close-up projection showed only the section of a painting of the couple holding each other’s hands. The costumes for the character of Frida were totally keeping in the spirit of what the artist would have worn. These were not copies, even though any of them could have been (in the pre-performance talk, it was admitted that those dresses were all found in shops on Olvera Street).
The open-air sculpture garden is not a large space, but that became a plus, offering the audience the chance to be near enough to the singers to really see, up close, the detailed acting they all did. All singers wore body microphones, and Bob Christian‘s sound design kept everything in good balance with the amplified instrumental ensemble of six players, conducted by the company’s associate conductor Kristof Van Grysperre. Rodriguez’s music is a clever mixture of authentic Mexican folk songs and dances, original Latin-style music that he composed with hints of tangos and jazz, all mashed together with touches of Stravinsky, and even a bit of Wagner.
As Frida Kahlo, Laura Virella sang with a sound that was rich and full over a wide vocal range. Her energy never flagged and she was as fresh at the end as at the beginning of a role that hardly ever was off-stage.
Her husband, Diego Rivera, was portrayed by baritone Bernardo Bermudez. His Diego was strongly sung and the young baritone was padded and made up well, to create a credible middle-aged, overweight man.
The original version of Frida was for a much larger cast than would be possible for this production. A quartet of singers: Alejandra Martinez, soprano, Joanna Ceja, mezzo-soprano, Jonathan Lacayo, tenor, and baritone David Castillo each took on several smaller roles with active movement and good singing. The two ladies even modulated their voices to sound like young girls for a section originally composed for a children’s chorus. In keeping to the central theme of the story, they sometimes wore skull masks (calaveras) as Day of the Dead characters.
This is a production that should not be missed. There are three more performances, including one in downtown Los Angeles at the Grand Performance space. The opera is a little over two hours in length, plus one intermission.
Friday, June 23, 8pm — Grand Performances
Saturday, June 24, 8pm — MoLAA
Sunday, June 25, 8pm — MoLAA
Featured image (top) by Doris Koplik
All other photos by Keith Ian Polakoff