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How the Long Beach Opera captured the lives of Frida Kahlo & Diego Rivera in song

Mezzo-soprano Laura Virella plays Frida Kahlo and baritone Bernardo Bermudez plays Diego Rivera.
Mezzo-soprano Laura Virella plays Frida Kahlo and baritone Bernardo Bermudez plays Diego Rivera.
Marcos Najera/KPCC

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The Long Beach Opera tends to tackle controversial characters and topics head-on.

In 2016, company members sang the story of “Fallujah,” in what is believed to be the first opera about the Iraq War.  And right before the tumultuous 2016 Presidential election, LBO artists ripped words from the daily headlines and set them to music in an opera aptly titled “The News.”  From the stage, a soprano even belted out classic quotes like Trump’s ubiquitous “Make America Great Again” slogan.

That unconventional spirit continues as Long Beach Opera takes on the story of one of the contemporary art worlds most combative couples: Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera.  

Perhaps you know the story of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo and her hardscrabble romance with muralist Diego Rivera. It was a marriage fraught with fighting, partying and cheating. In other words, a mountain of golden grist for the opera mill.

Mezzo-Soprano Laura Virella and baritone Bernardo Bermudez bring the lovers to life in the Southern California premiere of “Frida” — an opera sung and spoken in both English and Spanish written by playwright Migdalia Cruz. She explains her criteria:

Number one. There has to be Spanish in it. Number two. There has to be real Mexican music in it and we have to figure out how that is threaded through.

Back in the late 1980’s, Cruz was enjoying a rising career when she was tapped to write the show. She recalls it was an important decision for the opera creators to craft a bilingual work:

It actually began with the director, Hilary Blecher—who is a South African director. I think I was number six of the writers she interviewed. She was like Frida is from a third world country as am I—so why do you think you would relate to Frida Kahlo?’ I said, ‘Well, first of all, I’m from the South Bronx. And that’s about as third world as it comes!’

Cruz says it wasn’t necessarily clear at the outset that the story celebrating Kahlo’s life would be in the form of a traditional opera.

It was going to be musical — but we hadn’t quite settled on the kind of music. Should it be folkloric music? Mexican music? Classical music? And then we figured we needed to find someone who could do all of that.

Eventually, Cruz found composer Robert Xavier Rodriguez and the creative team was complete. The challenge was to tell the story on a musical spectrum with a score stretching from Mexican corridos to the opera technique known as the "recitativo" in Italian. 

“We ended up working well together,” says Cruz. "It was not always an easy collaboration, I’ve got to say, from the beginning.  I actually had to convince the production team to use Spanish which shocked me . . . I was like, what?  (Laughs) They thought Spanish might cheapen the ideas or make it less classical.  And I thought, ‘You’ve got to be out of your mind. How dare you write about two Mexican artist and not put any Spanish?’” 

Along with language, Cruz says that in order to correctly capture the truth of Frida Kahlo’s story, she wanted to weave metaphor and imagery that were important to the artist — like the s of ‘blood.’  But as Cruz tells it, Rodriguez wasn’t convinced.

With me and Robert — I’m telling you all the chisme! He did not want to compose to the word ‘blood.' We cannot write a play about Frida Kahlo and not include the word blood. That’s what she was about — she was about her roots, about her blood connection to the soil, her blood connection to her uterus, to her pain, her womanhood — so I was like blood, Mexican music, Spanish and I’m in! (Laughs)

It makes perfect sense that this opera about two tough, passionate artists – who constantly locked horns – was born of tough, passionate creators who also seemed to lock horns. The result of that creative tension is a performance that makes you believe you are seeing Frida and Diego in real life.  

Laura Virella, who plays Frida Kahlo, says:

What Frida did with color, the composer has done with sound. I have looked everywhere to try to find videos of her speaking voice. I’ve talked to historians who do this type of research. They have showed me motion pictures but there is no sound of her. So I can study how she moved and walked.  They are very complex characters.

Bernardo Bermudez plays Diego Rivera opposite Virella. “In opera, often, you have guidelines of what the character is,” says Bermudez.  “But in this one, it’s a living and breathing individual that existed and was here. How do you capture a little bit of him and re-represent him in your own way so it doesn’t look like you are playing a caricature? You have to find parts of your life, your experiences. When you were heartbroken. When you had full success and love and passion and everything. And just bring it out.”

In a sense, these artists have ‘brought it out’ in every way. Director Andreas Mitisek says, “Their marriage was very strong,” reasons Mitisek.  “But it was rattled by many affairs on both sides. I think her sense of liberty and not being confined by restraints of society. In many ways, breaking free, thinking about new and different ways of doing things — I think we can look into that today.”

"Frida" premiered in Philadelphia in 1991 and has since traveled the world and continued to evolve as an operatic work. But wherever the show goes, librettist Migdalia Cruz is clear that the original message remains.

Frida was not a victim. She was self-determining artist. She knew what she was doing at every minute. She protected her work. She may not have always protected herself and some of her self-destructive habits were not great. She was also protecting her pain. But she needed to say something. And she said it. And she said it clearly. And she said it many times in every portrait she ever painted. She’s great not because she was married to Diego Rivera. She’s great because she is great.

For more information on the Long Beach Opera's production of "Frida" go to here.

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