Opera Orlando brings the life of Frida Kahlo to the stage

(“Frida” image courtesy Opera Orlando)

Few artists have had the impact on popular culture that Frida Kahlo has. Considered by many to be the most influential female painter of the 20th century, Kahlo is as legendary for her personal life as she is for her art.

Kahlo was born in 1907 in a village outside of Mexico City, and contracted polio at the age of six. The disease left her disabled and bedridden, something Kahlo would experience again in her life when at the age of 18 she was involved in a bus crash. During the accident, Kahlo was impaled by a steel handrail causing multiple injuries including fractures to her spine and pelvis. Her injuries and the long recovery process caused Kahlo to abandon her dreams of becoming a doctor.

“Following the accident, she was kind of thrust into needing to do something. She lost the ability to study medicine, and she had never been trained formally as a painter, so I think she was really doing this as journaling or scrapbooking,” said Peter Tush, curator of education at the Salvador Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, in a Watermark interview in 2017. “It was something that she could do while she was mostly horizontal in bed.”

Kahlo’s use of painting as a form of therapy became her life’s passion and led to her creating more than 150 paintings with more than half being self-portraits. Kahlo is quoted as saying “I paint myself because I am so often alone and I am the subject I know best.”

Not just the tragedies in her life but how she responded to adversity, along with the drama and passion of her relationship with husband and acclaimed Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, is why Kahlo’s story is so riveting and frequently adapted across many various stages and screens.

Kahlo’s life and work has been examined through documentaries, ballets, plays, on television and, most famously, in the 2002 movie “Frida.” The film, which stars Salma Hayek as Kahlo and Alfred Molina as Rivera, is based on Hayden Herrera’s 1983 biographical novel of the same name and went on to earn six Academy Award nominations — including Best Actress for Hayek — winning for Best Makeup and Best Original Score.

Before Herrera’s book was adapted into an Oscar-winning film, it was made into an opera. Conceived and written by Hilary Blecher in 1991, “Frida” features music by Robert Xavier Rodriguez and lyrics by Migdalia Cruz, and examines the life of Kahlo, focusing much of the time on her relationship with Diego.

“The story of Frida is so incredible that is often times seems exaggerated or made up,” says Jorge Parodi, Argentinian Maestro and conductor to Opera Orlando’s presentation of “Frida,” playing at the Dr. Phillips Center in Orlando Jan. 26 and 28. “What happened to her and how she lived her life was so incredibly dramatic that it works beautifully as an opera. With opera, the music is not a vessel to tell the story, the music is the story. It is the drama, which is why it is such a perfect way to tell Frida’s story.”

Parodi will conduct the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra with stage direction by John de los Santos. The Opera Orlando production stars Mexican-soprano Cecilia Violetta López as Kahlo and Venezuelan-baritone Bernardo Bermudez as Rivera.

“I love this production and the way Robert Xavier Rodriguez writes musically,” Bermudez says. “He uses a lot of the motifs that were popular in music during the time of Frida so the music resonates with the storyline with regard to the characters.”

Rodriguez’s score mixes mariachi-style orchestrations, classical opera and hints of Mexican folk songs giving an authenticity to the production that not only honors the life of Kahlo but her Mexican heritage as well.

“I grew up in rural Mexico, like we would go to the town well to fill up our water bucket because we didn’t have running water,” López says. “And I grew up seeing Frida’s image everywhere, she is so iconic in Mexico, but it wasn’t until later in life that I really discovered her art and who she was, and I became fascinated with her. She is just a complex person; I mean there is nothing delectate about Frida.”

Opera Orlando echoes that sentiment, writing in the show’s description “Full of life, full of death, full of wonder, full of pain: Frida is an operatic ride of the most satisfying sort — a sweeping tale of a woman who fulfills her most passionate desire and remains true to herself. Hardly any woman of the 20th century is as unique as Frida Kahlo, and hardly any work captures Frida’s spirit as completely as this opera’s intricate and proud portrait of the iconic Mexican artist’s life.”

While the opera is called “Frida,” the story is as much Rivera’s as it is Kahlo’s, and whether a story is a work of fiction or based on the lives of real-world people, many look for the hero and villain in every piece. The story of Kahlo and Diego is no exception, with Diego often times portrayed as the villain in Kahlo’s story but that’s not an accurate look at the world-renowned muralist says Bermudez.

“If anything, the story highlights how much they loved each other,” he says. “They had this open relationship but loved each other very much. What often gets lost is Diego was Frida’s number one supporter. He encouraged her to paint. He was able to get her paintings onto the world stage. … It was a very interesting dynamic between them. They were famous on their own, but together they were iconic.”

“They had their ups and downs, and they were very public about it,” adds López. “[This opera] shows Diego being the womanizer that he was but the door swings both ways. We dip into Frida’s life and show her love affairs, both with men and women. This story is very real, very raw. We don’t tiptoe around who these people were, so I think whether you walk out of there feeling uncomfortable or empowered, you realize that this is real life.”

“Frida,” presented by Opera Orlando, will be at the Dr. Phillips Center’s Steinmetz Hall in Orlando Jan. 26 at 7:30 p.m. and Jan. 28 at 2 p.m. Tickets start at $29 and are available at DrPhillipsCenter.org.

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