Opera Looks At Legendary Mexican Painter Frida Kahlo's Life Story

Mar 18, 2019

A revival of the 1990s opera "Frida" has made its way to South Florida and follows the trajectory of legendary Mexican artist Frida Kahlo's life.

The opera, presented by Florida Grand Opera, starts with Kahlo as a teenager. Performed by Colombian lead soprano opera singer Catalina Cuervo, Kahlo explores her sexuality through an aria about the experience of getting her first period and becoming a women. Opera-goers will experience Kahlo's pain after a tragic bus accident leaves her temporarily paralyzed and through her relationship with well-known Mexican muralist Diego Rivera.  

The opera is by American composer Robert Xavier Rodríguez and reflects on Mexican culture, music, decor and dance. It highlights some of Kahlo's most iconic paintings, including her potent "Henry Ford Hospital," which came shortly after a miscarriage and shows Kahlo with umbilical cords coming out of her stomach. WLRN's Alejandra Martinez talked with Cuervo on Sundial about how it feels to perform the role of Frida Kahlo. 

WLRN: What have been the challenges in having to play a real person -- especially someone who you admire so much?

CUERVO: The biggest challenge is being able to make Mexican people fall in love with me, this Colombian woman. When Frida was given to me I wanted to make sure that the Mexican people will be happy with my performance, that they wouldn't feel like 'why is this Colombiana doing Frida? It needs to be a Mexican woman.' So every time I perform, every time I study and every time I do it I'm always thinking I hope they love me, I hope they accept me and I hope I do something that they will be proud of.

There's a powerful aria in the opera about a moment in Frida's life right after this horrible bus accident. Talk to us a little bit about that point in the show.

In this moment the rail of the bus [passes] through the front of her body towards the back and destroyed, went in through her vagina, came out through the end of the [spinal] column in the back. She was like literally pierced with the handrail from side to side. Miraculously a lot of [organs] were not damaged but her [spine] was definitely damaged big time. They didn't expect for her to live. 

The 1990s revival of the opera, "Frida" by American Composer Robert Xavier Rodríguez has made its way to South Florida.
Credit Alejandra Martinez

But when you're performing the aria you're saying death is dancing on my bed.

In the Mexican culture "La Pelona" is the image of a bold woman that represents death. This is a time where Frida really gets into the painting. She started painting her casts and also there's a part where she says "Dear, Alejandro (her first boyfriend) I stole some oil paints from my mother and my father got this little easel so I could paint lying down in bed." So she starts painting at this moment in the opera.

And she starts her career as a painter. There's another scene that might speak to a lot of people in South Florida, especially the immigrant community here. It's the one when she first arrives to the U.S.

So she arrives in New York and the curtain opens and then you have all these socialites of New York: Mrs. Ford, Mr. Ford, the Rockefellers and the women are wearing pink beautiful silky dresses and then Frida comes in with this "Tehuana" dress ... which is with greens and yellows and red. So after she has this scene where she is introduced to the socialites she has a monologue where she says, "My name is Frida Kahlo. I'm also a painter but not like Diego, small things nothing serious. He paints the big outside. I paint the secrets inside."

Frida Kahlo's painting, "Henry Ford Hospital" of 1932 inspires one of the arias in the opera, "Frida."
Credit Museo Dolores Olmedo

Towards the end of the first half of the show there's another scene. This one connects one of the most famous self-portraits.

Frida had something around six to nine miscarriages. Basically her uterus couldn't hold the baby. I think this was the most horrific thing in her life on top of everything. She was a survivor. All kinds of things happened to her, a million things -- polio and she was a kid and then the accident then her relationship with Diego was very difficult, him cheating on her with her own sister was one of the things that really hurt her. But definitely the thing that [hurt] Frida the most was the inability to create babies and to have kids. She wanted to be a mother so bad.

Explain to us kind of what we see on stage because you bring this painting to life.

There's all this blood represented with red ribbons on the stage and Frida is crying and touching it. And Diego says, "Put your struggles into the canvas and you feel better. Use this pain that you're feeling and throw it to the canvas." So Frida goes and grabs all the ribbons and Frida goes to the canvas and throws the ribbons at the canvas. What that represents is really what she did which was using the pain in her emotions and using all those difficult moments in her life and putting it on canvas to make art.

The opera, "Frida" opened at the Miramar Cultural Center this past weekend and will have other performances at the Parker Playhouse in Fort Lauderdale and the Miami-Dade County Auditorium. 

DATES:

Parker Playhouse
Mar 28 and 30, 2019, at 7:30pm

Miami-Dade County Auditorium
Mar 21, 2019, at 8:00pm
Mar 23, 2019, at 7:00pm
Mar 24, 2019, at 3:00pm