Blog - Painting Her Own Reality - Opera Orlando's Frida
February 04, 2024
"This is how it feels to be me. I dare you to look...and once you look, I’m going to make sure you cannot look away.” - Frida Kahlo
On Jan 26, 2024 I saw Opera Orlando's production of Frida, Robert Xavier Rodriguez's 1991 opera about Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. I really enjoyed it and judging by the crowd reaction, I was not alone. Cecilia Violetta Lopez brought the house down as Frida, and she is now 3 for 3 on her character dying at the end of an Opera Orlando production. (I saw her previously in La Boheme in 2017 and La Traviata in 2021). She's really good at it but she's becoming the Sean Bean of this company. Hey Opera Orlando, can we cast her in a comic opera or something?
Sean Bean, making a plea
This production also made me realize how little I knew about Frida Kahlo. I knew she was a painter, she was from Mexico, I'd seen some of her self-portraits and.... that's about it. But she was a really, really interesting person and is definitely worth a deep dive into.
Same disclaimer as my Thoughts on Tosca post: this isn't quite a review. It's more me expounding on some things I liked and thought were interesting about the production, but, if pressed, I guess my four word assessment is "Fantastic. Go see it."
Also, there aren't many resources online for this opera, so I'm flying a little blind here. All my quotes from and takes on the opera are from memory, so: grain of salt.
(A note on my headings: Things in "quotes" are quotes from the real Frida Kahlo. "Italicized quotes" are lines from the Opera.)
Frida Kahlo - Cecelia Violetta Lopez
Diego Rivera - Bernardo Bermudez
Director: John de los Santos
Conductor: Jorge Parodi
Frida was written in 1991 by Texas born composer Robert Xavier Rodriguez. The book (libretto) is by Hilary Blecher and lyrics and monologues are by Migdalia Cruz. (Honestly, I'm a little unclear about the division of labor in having a librettist and a separate lyricist. If anyone can illuminate this, I'll go back and include that here.) It's performed in a mix of English and Spanish (though mostly English). The supertitles had both English and Spanish, and WiseMusicClassical notes that the Spanish translation is by Cecilia Violetta Lopez, which is cool.
Side note: there's a 2022 opera about Frida and Diego called The Last Dream of Frida and Diego that tends to come up first in a google search. This is not that one.
Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) was a Mexican painter. She was severely injured in a bus crash in 1925 and took up painting during her long recovery. She suffered chronic pain and health problems for the rest of her life and this, as dramatized in the opera, informed a lot of her art. Per fridakahlo.org, and I think this was maybe mentioned in the show, she had 30 surgeries throughout her life.
In 1929 she married Diego Rivera (1886-1957), a famous Mexican painter and founding member of the Mexican muralist movement. The had a ... let's say "turbulent" relationship. Kahlo's health, always fragile, declined in her last years and she died in Mexico in 1954 at age 47.
I didn't do a particularly deep dive into the historical accuracy of the opera, as it's art and strict historicity, in that context, isn't very important to me. It needs to work emotionally, and it does. A quick search showed that the events in the play, even some of the surprising ones like Kahlo's affair with Leon Trotsky, did happen, though the details are undoubtedly dramatized. The opera plays a little fast and loose with the timeline and events around Kahlo's divorce and death, for example, but whatever. This isn't CinemaSins. (I'm not even going to link them. Screw those guys.)
The Scaffolding - General Production Stuff
An Elusive Medium
“Nothing is absolute. Everything changes, everything moves, everything revolves, everything flies and goes away.”
Frida, in contrast to the other operas I've seen, felt like the theater equivalent of a mixed media art piece. (i.e. Picasso's Still Life with Chair Caning which is a painting with a chair-print oilcloth and a rope glued on). It isn't sung through and while there's recitative (sing-talking) there's also spoken dialog and moments when the characters turn to the audience and give monologues, sometimes in spots where I would have expected an aria. The dialog parts, though, didn't really make it feel like a musical theater-ish singspiel opera a la Abduction at the Seraglio. It just kind of felt... experimental?
I think that's at least partially because some of the monologues were definitely non-diegetic. In the earliest one, where Frida's boyfriend Alejandro is listing off her injuries in clinical detail after the bus crash, he distinctly is stepping out of the narrative and speaking directly to the audience. The environment darkens and the spotlight is on him, which separates him visually from the rest of the stage and only heightens the fourth wall break effect. That unexpected shift in diegesis, combined with the absolutely gruesome description really made that part land with a wallop. The audience gasped in horror as he finished by describing the metal railing piercing Frida's body and emerging from her vagina.
"I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality."
Also contributing to the experimental feel was the non-literal staging. Most of the sets were made of large movable square panels with some light abstract coloring on them. Occasionally they would be spun around and they'd have some fragments of a "real" place attached, like Frida's bed or a painting scaffold, but more often they were either blank or had Kahlo's artwork projected on them in thematically appropriate moments. There were at least two of Diego Rivera's paintings projected as well, but the majority were Kahlo's.
This non-literalness was used to great effect several times; the one that sticks out to me is the scene with Diego's affairs. Frida and Diego live in separate, but adjoining houses, and while she paints in her house, he is sitting in his with his back to the audience. A parade of woman cycles through to him while Frida, who knows what is happening, chooses to ignore it. I really like how it was staged; the square panels behind them were evocative of separate residences, but there was no actual barrier between the two. So it was a good instance of the perspective of a character being externalized via staging: Frida absolutely could see the affairs if she wanted to. She just had to turn her head slightly. It was just social contract preventing it.
The only time the staging became extremely literal and realistic was during the Manhattan scenes and this was obviously deliberate. I've seen online that Kahlo is sometimes considered a surrealist or a magical realist painter (though I don't know enough about art trends to know if that's true or widely agreed upon), so it makes sense for the stage in her homeland to be non-literal. The rich Manhattanites, though, are not shown kindly with regards to, well lots of things, but especially their understanding of the value of art. (More on this later) So the suddenly realistic staging has the effect of making you feel like you were ripped out of a fluid and imaginative Mexico and thrust into a rigid and stifling Manhattan where creativity is not valued or welcome.
"I want a storm to come and flood us into a song that no one wrote.”
The music was a mix of multiple styles, with strains of Mexican traditional music, more modern feeling orchestral music with some jagged rhythmic stuff and some unusual (read: 20th century sounding) harmonies, and some more "traditional" (read: Romantic) style classical music that I'm used to hearing in 19th Century operas. I also think there was some quoting going on, as there were a couple of the Romantic style threads that sounded familiar, though I couldn't quite place them. The music in the Manhattan scenes shifted to a distinct 1930s feel. The music navigated between these different styles fluidly and purposefully.
The pit ensemble was probably the smallest one I've seen at the opera, with only 11 players. It included an accordion, a lot of percussion, and a classical guitar, which makes sense given the Mexican traditional bent to the score. (Shout-out to my friend Chris Belt on the six string. I sat down and quickly went from "Hey, cool, there's a guitar!" to "Hey, cool, I know that guy!")
"Can verbs be made up? I'll tell you one. I heaven you, so my wings will open wide to love you boundlessly."
As I mentioned above, most of this opera is in English. I've always found English opera a little jarring, as the language is rhyme poor and has a lot of punchy monosyllable words but I think this opera was well served by these limitations. There's a visceralness to it that I think was stronger because it wasn't meditated into a "prettier" language. Both the singing and speaking were often blunt and vulgar (meant as a compliment); English does blunt and vulgar well.
The program marked this as PG-13 for strong language and sexual content. If it were a movie, the MPAA would probably have rated it R because they said "fuck" more than once. Plus the MPAA are weird about sex, especially non-heteronormative stuff. Also there's a lot of body fluid talk in this.
The language and content never felt gratuitous or provocative for provocations sake. It was appropriate for the situations and characters
The Painting - A Deeper Look into the Opera Itself
"I paint myself because I am the subject I know best."
Unsurprisingly, this is very much Frida's opera. She is characterized strongly and very quickly reveals herself to be a vibrant, clever, vulgar, smart, and compelling person. And Lopez absolutely sold it. I and the rest of audience were frequently surprised and amused by her frankness and humor. The second scene where Frida gets her first period and has great fun making her sister uncomfortable was very funny and contained the seeds of the character we would see throughout the show.
She had several more very funny moments, especially when hobnobbing with Rockefeller and Ford in Manhattan. One of the more pointed ones was when she, clearly irritated with all of them, with a faux-naive sweetness asks Henry Ford if he's Jewish. (Henry Ford was a raging Anti-Semite, publishing several anti-Jewish papers, and was affectionately described by Adolf Hitler as "one of my inspirations.") She is also never too busy to give Diego a gentle ribbing, and displays some pretty solid gallows humor as she nears death.
She also at one point early on says this: "I prefer to suffer the Catholic way…in public." It was a funny line, but also a prescient and ironic one given how her public art reflected the physical ordeals she experienced. (If I recall correctly, in context she was not referencing the physical here. I think she said it in Manhattan when she and Diego were talking about selling out and of public image versus private beliefs.)
“I am not sick. I am broken. But, I am happy to be alive as long as I can paint.”
One of the strongest themes in Frida is the endurance of suffering. Frida lived a life of persistent agony, both physical and emotional. The catalog of her injuries in scene 3 is absolutely horrific and watching her struggle against her wrecked body is wrenching.
Kahlo's art, in her own words, "contains in it the message of pain." The way her works externalized her pain was strikingly highlighted in the staging, with some of her most visceral works projected onto the set panels during some really raw and intense moments. The three that resonated the most strongly with me were the use of "The Broken Column," "Henry Ford Hospital" during her miscarriage, and "The Wounded Deer" as she's losing herself to her pain and nightmares just before the final scene.
"The Broken Column"
"Henry Ford Hospital"
"The Wounded Deer" with Frida and the Calaveras (Photo from Opera Orlando)
On her deathbed, Frida says she can see herself not as Diego sees her, nor how anyone from the outside does, but as she imagines herself, and it's all she ever wanted. In these final moments, after struggling with her own body for so long, she finally got to represent herself not as the wounded woman she was in her paintings, but as the whole person she wished she could have been. Her rising out of her wheelchair to ascend the final stairway in a shower of light wasn't just a moment of triumph to end the show; it was a moment of relief.
To quote the real life Kahlo again: 'I hope the exit is joyful and i hope never to return.'
I think another Kahlo quote really succinctly sums up one of the opera's main messages: "At the end of the day, we can endure much more than we think we can."
"Pain, pleasure and death are no more than a process for existence"
Other than Frida herself, the most persistent characters in the opera are the three Calaveras. They're the first characters we see. A "Calavera" is a a human skull used in the Mexican Day of the Dead celebration. In 1912 the engraver Jose Guadalupe Posada created the Calavera Garbancera, a skeleton woman in garish clothing. Later Posada's engravings were promoted by Diego Rivera and he reworked the Calavera Garbancera into La Catrina for his mural "Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park." (reference)
"La Calavera Catrina" by Jose Guadalupe Posada
The Calavera / Catrina has become almost a shorthand symbol for the Day of the Dead, and the three in Frida, with elaborate Mexican dresses, funereal veils, and white skull faces, are connected with death throughout the opera. Poking around, I found several places that referenced additional terms for the representation of death, aside from the general "La Catrina." This is fairly representative: "Other words that are also used for the personification of death include "la Pelona" (the bald one), "la Flaca" (the skinny one), "la Huesuda" (the bony one). These are all used in the feminine form."
Most of the things I found reference those same three names, so I guess I wouldn't be surprised if the three Calaveras in the opera are intended to be La Pelona, La Flaca, and La Huesuda. Also, there being three of them, they are kind of evocative of the Fates, Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos, spinning out, measuring, and cutting the threads that dictate a person's lifespan.
They are a very ominous presence throughout, though they mostly don't take much of an active role until Frida's miscarriage, where they take the baby from her and sing an extremely unsettling part, complete with absolutely keening dissonances.
They seem to get stronger as Frida's body starts to fail and they almost take on the role of accusing Furies in her nightmares, taunting her and firing arrows into her in a physical manifestation of Kahlo's The Wounded Deer."
At the end though, when Frida accepts her death and is freed from her wheelchair amid singing saints, the Calaveras become comforting figures. It reminded me of Danny Aiello's line in the movie Jacob's Ladder (1990): "They're freeing your soul....if you're frightened of dying and... and you're holding on, you'll see devils tearing your life away. But if you've made your peace, then the devils are really angels, freeing you from the earth. It's just a matter of how you look at it, that's all."
Frida and Diego
"I love you more than my own skin.”
I could definitely see how it would be tempting, dramatically and emotionally, to tell the story of Frida as primarily the story of her and Diego, as from what I gather the aforementioned Last Dream of Frida and Diego does. In this opera, though, while Diego is very important and is present for a lot of it, the framing definitely revolves around Frida. For this particular narrative, Diego doesn't quite exist outside of her; you really don't see very much of him onstage without her present.
There's repeated imagery, and explicit statements, referring to them as being the sun and the moon, in the same sky but not the same orbit. The image of the sun and moon projected onto the curtain during intermission looked to me like it was excised from her painting "Love Embrace of the Universe, the Earth (Mexico), Myself, Diego, and Señor Xolotl." The image is very apt: the two of them chase each other throughout their lives, gravitationally connected, no matter how far they drift from each other.
"Love Embrace of the Universe, the Earth (Mexico), Myself, Diego, and Señor Xolotl"
It would be easy to overly romanticize their relationship, but the show handles it with some equivocation. It's passionate, rocky, fulfilling, frustrating, comforting, and exhausting. I think a clue as to the show's ambivalence is in the lead up to the wedding scene. Both Frida and Diego are on stage monologuing, but they are separated from each other by like 20 feet, each in their own spotlight on a dark stage. And since they aren't looking at each other and are addressing the audience, it really made them feel isolated from each other. Also, the music during all this felt a little unsettling. Maybe a touch ominous. It caught me off guard, but it was appropriate given how the show would play out.
Frida and Diego definitely felt really well realized. Their fights felt realistic, often ending up unresolved in the moment and coming up as ammunition in a later argument. They obviously have great affection for each other and it's well conveyed. He praises her when she's not there, she never hesitates to give him a good natured jab, he has anxiety about her someday not needing him anymore. And Lopez and Bernardo Bermudez (as Diego) really sell it; the acting in this one was very good.
Their reconciliation on her death bed, when he appears after a long absence from her life, was charming, and made you understand the relief they felt to be with each other again. I really liked his entrance, when he sings to an extremely deteriorated Frida "I am the black and red bear and I want a taste of your honey!" while gently holding her. It was a cute moment. He doesn't care what she looks like. He loves her as much as he always did, and says he wants to remarry her. I also very much liked how she smirkingly echoed his earlier anxiety with "Soon I won't need you anymore, Diego." Still affectionately ribbing him, even at the end.
There's a quote from Kahlo's love letters to Diego that now remind me of this scene: "I notice that I’m with you. At that instant still full of sensations, my hands are sunk in oranges, and my body feels surrounded by your arms.”
"You don’t fuck a pyramid, that doesn’t make it not art."
Another thing that crops up a few times is the idea of how love transcends outward appearance. When Diego is courting Frida and talking to her father, her father makes a point that she is not beautiful, implying he doesn't really understand why Diego is pursuing her.
This idea comes up again later when Diego is incredulous about Frida's affair with Trotsky as he's old and ugly. And Trotsky's wife, Natalia, brings up Frida's mustache while railing at him. Like she can't wrap her head around why he'd cheat on her with someone so ugly.
Frida vs Rockefeller
"...it’s like the rest of the United States, ugly and stupid.”
Another really interesting scene was the dinner party in Manhattan hosted by Rockefeller and Ford. Before Frida and Diego arrive, the wealthy sing about art and the acquisition of art in a really telling way: "When we buy art it reveals our place in history." It's a mix of incredible egotism and materialism. As if the acquisition of a thing, and an acquisition not by sweat or labor but by purchase, affords the same status as actually creating the thing. As if a thing you traded money for is equivalent to a thing you made.
Additionally, the Manhattanites see art as just another commodity to monetize and use as a tool to create more capital. When Rockefeller sees that Diego has painted an image of Lenin in the commissioned mural for Rockefeller Center, Rockefeller's first concern is "How will I rent the space now?" There's no actual appreciation of art; there is money to be made.
I suppose, especially given that the Rockefellers et al are dramatic foils to our Communist protagonists, it makes sense that there's a definite thread of the ultra-Capitalists using someone else's labor and creativity to make a profit.
Diego summed it up pretty well to Frida: "We’re in Rome, of course we dine with the devil."
The whole scene was great. The artifice, shallowness, and soullessness of it all came through really well. Ford tells a lame joke and everyone performatively laughs, a little too loudly. The acting by the ensemble was really good.
There's also some stuff in here about art as propaganda versus art as truth. Rockefeller explicitly asks Diego “Will your art tell the people what we want them to think?” The expression is irrelevant, what it can convince people of is important. Frida, an artist who said her work represents "the frankest expression of myself," who paints flowers "so they will not die" is diametrically opposed to this view.
Prior to leaving for New York, she and Diego have a small disagreement over his painting of Mexican Revolutionary leader Emiliano Zapato. Frida chides him, since he painted Zapato's horse the more heroic white, rather than the black it actually was, because she believes art should be the truth. It's a small thing, and it's not dwelled on in the moment, but it prefigures the ideological difference between Frida and Rockefeller, and is a subtle setup of Diego's willingness to strike a middle ground.
Frida's "Art needs to be true" viewpoint is metatextually ironic, considering the opera's aforementioned fastness and looseness with the details and timeline of her death and remarriage. It feels true emotionally, even if it didn't quite happen that way. I wonder if this Frida would approve?
Only at the Theater
"Shit, I can't find a quote for this"
One last quick thing I wanted to highlight was the quintet with her sister Cristina, Diego, Leon Trotsky, and Trotsky's wife Natalia. They're all singing about the adultery happening, e.g. Frida with Trotsky, Diego with Cristina (and kind of everyone else, too). The parts all interweave melodically and lyrically, with character parts pairing off to harmonize, and ending with Frida and Natalia singing the same words in unison, directed at their respective partners.
The music, the singing, the stagings, all of it was great but what I really think is cool that it was scene that could only happen at the opera. (Or, to be fair, in musical theater.) A movie or even a regular theater scene with five characters talking at the same time would be kind of incomprehensible and a book really can't do simultaneity at all.
Having the character interactions mediated by music allows for another layer of meaning. It allows the production to set up parallels and reflections between the characters, and reveal emotional states via the melodies and harmonies. Characters singing in consonant harmony with each other, or with dissonance, or counterpoint, or unison all delivers meaning in a way that there is no equivalent to in any other medium. Music can amplify, invert, or recontextualize the words the actors are saying. It's like hearing the subtext out loud.
And I think that's really neat.
In the preshow talk, the conductor Jorge Parodi and the Director John de los Santos spoke about performing a modern opera. One of them (forgive me I don't remember which) talked about the excitement of creating new works for posterity that will hopefully be part of the standard opera canon in the coming decades or centuries.
I think it's easy to think of "high art" forms like opera or "Classical" music as stagnant things, frozen in times gone by. It's good to remember that people are still creating. That the Old Masters aren't the only ones there are. I like the idea of Frida becoming standard repertoire. Crossing fingers.
I feel bad that I didn't really mention production team and only gestured at the ensemble. I don't know that much about stagecraft, so commenting on the production details is a little beyond. But I know it must have been an insane amount of work, and it came out fantastic. So hats off to everyone involved.
This just leaves me with one absolutely burning question that's going to haunt me for the rest of my days:
Who the heck was that conducting the orchestra when Jorge Parodi was taking his bow?