One day in the early 1990s, composer Robert Xavier Rodriguez received a request he couldn’t resist: compose a new opera about Frida Kahlo. But the offer was fraught with mountainous challenges.
“The producers had been through three composers already,” said Rodriguez, 70, a Texas native with strong Mexican roots. And the timeline for the project was desperately short. “It was nine months from first phone call to opening night.”
Rodriguez remembers that the frenzied pace of creating the opera horned in on his other work. “There were 17 drafts of the libretto – lots of changes. I was conducting in Panama at one point while they were rehearsing in New York. I was writing as fast as I could and faxing them a page per day of Act 2. It was a fight to the finish.”
The resulting work, with lyrics by Migdalia Cruz and a book by Hilary Blecher, was surprisingly popular, with 14 major productions over the years in the U.S. and Europe and the development of a Spanish-language version which was rapturously received in Guadalajara, Mexico. “Frida” can be seen locally for a week beginning Saturday, June 17, when the Long Beach Opera presents its production starring Puerto Rican mezzo-soprano Laura Virella as the beloved, ill-fated Mexican artist.
Rodriguez, who grew up in San Antonio and teaches at the University of Texas in Dallas, said it would have been impossible to say no to the project.
“My family is Mexican American, and I had spent a lot of time in Mexico. I feel very comfortable working with Latin American themes, so the subject was a natural for me. And of course, the subject is a natural for opera too. I remember that one of the original reviews said, ‘The life of Frida Kahlo was an opera waiting to happen.’”
When Rodriguez came on board, the overall structure of the opera was already in place, and he liked the approach. “I think it was an imaginative thing to do – telling her story from her youth to her death, one episode after another, and everything tied together by three Calaveras, or death figures.
“They say a Mexican is one who cries at life and laughs at death,” Rodriquez explained. “The death figures both comfort her and torment her.”
The details of Frida’s complex personality were filled in during the final months of the creative process, Rodriguez recalled. “She spent a lot of time complaining about things and about how miserable she was.” Of course, Frida almost died in a car accident that left her health perennially delicate, and her relationship with her philandering, egotistical husband, muralist Diego Rivera, was tempestuous. But Rodriguez didn’t want to dwell too much on the negative.
“I didn’t want people to watch a whole evening of (whining) and moaning. I wanted to portray Frida as a fighter – someone who took all of this hardship and pain and turned it into her art. In the shadow of this enormous figure – Diego being both physically and artistically huge – she carved out her own identity. That strength was what I found the most attractive and distinctive. That for me was the thread to portraying her character on the stage.”
‘EVERYONE WANTS A PIECE OF FRIDA’
Rodríguez has described “Frida’s” score as “in the Gershwin/Sondheim/Kurt Weill tradition of dissolving the barriers and extending the common ground between opera and musical theater.” The composer draws on folk traditions appropriate to the story: mariachi-style orchestration, authentic Mexican folk songs and dances.
Rodriguez also pulls in more disparate strands from Frida’s time and place, including tangos and elements of zarzuela, ragtime, vaudeville and 1930s jazz. You’ll even hear fleeting quotes from the Communist anthem, “L’Internationale,” Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony and Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde.”
Rodriguez is pleased that all the productions of “Frida” he has seen incorporate her art into the scenic design. “They use her work as part of the sets, sometimes in the costumes.”
Many productions are also explicit about the racier side of Frida and Diego’s passionate partnership and their personal predilections, Rodriguez said. “In the Houston production we were visited by Dolores Olmedo Patiño, the executor of Diego’s estate and one of his many lovers. She saw a parade of Diego’s lovers onstage in which she herself was portrayed. She was delighted.”
Many productions include explicit scenes. “There is strong language and there are several scenes which can include nudity,” Rodriguez said. “Many productions have gone for it.”
Frida had already gained iconic status when Rodriguez was working on the opera, but her rise since its premiere has continued unabated. Julie Taymor attended the world premiere in 1991, and Rodriguez suspects it might have piqued her interest, resulting in her 2002 film starring Salma Hayek as Frida.
“Frida was already big while I was writing it. She was an icon for so many groups – feminists, Latinos, lesbians, artists in general, and those with physical disabilities. I’ve learned through the years that everyone wants a piece of Frida.”
Despite the success of “Frida,” Rodriguez emphasizes that he isn’t obsessed with Latin American themes. “I’ve written 130 works and only 10 or 12 have Latin themes. Latin American culture is an important part of my work, but not the only part – a thread that runs through it from time to time. I’m like a well-trained chef whose repertoire includes making a mean enchilada.”
When: 8 p.m. Saturday, June 17; also June 18 and June 23-25
Where: Museum of Latin American Arts, 628 Alamitos Ave., Long Beach. June 23 only: Grand Performances, 350 S Grand Ave., Los Angeles