Charles H. Oppenheim Interviews RXR

Pro Opera (Mexico) 6/VI/07

CHO: The premiere of Frida in English was in Philadelphia in 1991. The premiere in Spanish in Guadalajara occurs 16 years later.

RXR: Yes, it has been sixteen years since the premiere. It's nice to realize that last year Frida had her Quinceañera.

CHO: What were your thoughts on this earlier opera in your career as you watched the opera unfold at the Teatro Degollado?

RXR: Up until now, all productions of Frida have presented the Latino characters of Frida and Diego with a mostly Anglo cast for a mostly Anglo audience. Now, for the first time, there were not only Mexicans playing Mexicans, but a Mexican audience who already knew every detail of the story and who embodied the cultural traditions that the opera celebrates. The audience was an especially important part of the theatrical experience, since many of them actually came to the theater dressed for the occasion as Frida and Diego.

CHO: What place does this opera have in your lengthy musical production?

RXR: I have written two other operas with Mexican subject matter, La Curandera and Monkey See, Monkey Do. Monkeys has also been performed in Mexico.

CHO: What was it you saw in the character of the painter Frida Kahlo that inspired you to create a “musical biography” on this subject?

RXR: I cannot take the credit for choosing Frida Kahlo as a subject. The American Music Theater Festival (now Prince Theater) was already working with the two librettists, Hilary Blecher and Migdalia Cruz, when they commissioned me to write the music. I'm glad they did, because Frida is an ideal subject for the stage, full of color, tragedy, humor, sex, infidelity, violence and passion. Mark Twain said that fiction was limited by the laws of probability, but that real life was not. If one were to try to make up a story with such bigger-than-life characters doing all those outrageous things, no one would believe it. Frida was destined for the intense genre of opera. As one American reviewer put it, her life was " opera waiting to happen."

CHO: Frida has been described as extending the common ground between opera and musical theater, in the tradition of Gershwin, Sondheim and Weill. Is this an accurate description of your style?

RXR: Yes. Diego Rivera began his career working in Paris in an elitist Cubist style. He then experienced a kind of artistic conversion and decided to devote his talent to popular art for all the people. He created powerful and complex formal structures which had amazing immediacy and clarity. I decided to follow Diego's model and to write music in the populist genre of musical theater while still mainting the intricate ensembles and large-scale structural dimensions of opera.

Frida interweaves several musical styles —ranging from authentic Mexican folk music to the jazzy musical style of the 1930’s in the New York scenes— with a very contemporary “lyrical atonality,” as Musical America has described it.

I enjoy creating stylistic "collisions" in my work, bringing widely disparate musical elements together and creating a synthesis of opposites. I've used that process in many other pieces, starting with Medieval or Renaissance music, Hebrew chant, Bach, Mozart, Rameau, ragtime or tangos and letting my own musical language have a conversation (or argument) with it.

CHO: Did you actually research the musical styles and genres current in the times of the historical Frida?

RXR: Atmosphere is important to me, so I did look for authentic Mexican folk songs to use in the opera; but the main point of my study was to learn the style so that I could create my own Mexican-sounding music. I was inspired by Manuel de Falla, who said he wrote "imaginary folk music." It may seem strange to find Mariachi, side-by-side with American jazz, "The Internationale," Viennese-inspired atonality plus twisted bits of Wagner and Tchaikovsky; but, since Frida was such a complicated personality, no music about her could be one-dimensional.

CHO: I was wondering, do you know what kind of music Frida actually liked and listened to? Were Frida and Diego very “musical” at all? We know of their relations with other famous plastic artists and politicians, but do you know if they were they acquainted with Mexican composers or musicians?

RXR: I have no idea what music Frida and Diego liked. Years ago, someone made a Mexican movie about them in which they sang bits of Saint-Saëns' Samson et Dalila to each other, which seems, to me, highly unlikely. Just as Diego took the liberty of portraying Emiliano Zapata's horse as white rather than black, I am taking the liberty of recreating Frida and Diego in musical terms, even though music was not an element in their creative lives.

CHO: What do you think your opera brings to the table in terms of knowledge and comprehension of the character of Frida and of such a significant period in Mexico’s modern history?

RXR: I have tried to show in music what Frida must have been like as a person; for instance, the first music that Frida sings in the opera shows us that she has an independent streak. The orchestra is playing in 4/4 time, but she sings in 3/4, swimming against the rhythmic tide from the very first note. Also, Frida is unpredictable in that she resists being tied down for very long to either speaking or singing; she keeps switching back and forth between the two. And, in the second act, in her seductive bath scene with her lesbian lover, she suddenly begins singing low, below the staff, in the same register as a man.

As for the historical context, the period during and after the Mexican Revolution was an important time in which many artists, including the composers Chávez and Revueltas, began to explore their native traditions, rather than affecting the European veneer of the earlier Díaz regime. Frida's famous Tehuana costumes were a symbol of this national pride. Musically, I've tried to make the score as Mexican as possible; but, in order to do so, I needed to place the Mexican elements in a larger international context.

CHO: What is your personal relationship with Mexico and Mexican music?

RXR: My parents were both of Mexican descent, and my mother was born in Mexico; but, since I am an American, I know Mexico only as an admiring outsider. Perhaps viewing the culture from a distance has given me the fresh spark of enthusiasm to try to create an opera that could be a national rallying point for two of Mexico's most important cultural icons. After all, it was not an African-American who wrote the music for Porgy and Bess, but a New York Jew of Russian descent. In addition to my three operas on Mexican subjects, I have also written several instrumental works which incorporate Mexican themes. The three largest are Con Flor y Canto, Màscaras and Sinfonia à la Mariachi. Unfortunately, I do not know very much of what is being written in Mexico today; still, I was deeply touched when, after a performance of one of my works in Mexico, a member of the audience said to me, "Thank you for giving us OUR music."

CHO: The fact that you’ve already published seven operas not only speaks of you as a prolific composer, but also speaks in favor of the genre: that contemporary opera is alive and well. How does one go about composing opera these days? Through commission only?

RXR: It is no accident that the word "opera" means "work." Frida was, by necessity, composed in the terrifyingly short time of nine months: like having a baby, but with the labor pains at the beginning and continuing all the way through. Normally, operas involve a commitment of several years, from developing the libretto to the short score to the orchestration to (if you're lucky) a workshop process to try out the material and, finally, to the actual production. With Frida, after the opening in Philadelphia, we were able to keep testing and rewriting on the road in Boston and Vermont before opening in New York. Even then, there were many more revisions before the final version was ready for the Houston Grand Opera. With so many people involved, both a commission to compose an opera and a performing organization to produce it must be in place before a composer can begin to write. After a commission, the promise of hearing a new work performed is the best inspiration for a composer.

CHO: Now that we celebrating not only Frida’s centennial but opera’s 400th anniversary since Monterverdi’s L’Orfeo, what are your thoughts on the genre as a musical form and as a means of storytelling?

RXR: Opera is the supreme art form. Because music actually enters our bodies and makes us vibrate from within, we have a deeper, physical response to the words and images we see and hear on the stage. Even though symphony orchestras are struggling these days, I'm happy to see that audiences still crave the wonderful emotional catharsis that opera can provide. One of my favorite quotations is from Jean Cocteau's play Les Parents Terribles, "We read books to see whether we're in them." Similarly, we go to operas to see blown-up versions of our own hopes and fears. It's no wonder that most operas deal primarily with love affairs. The forms and styles of musical theater may change, but music will always be the most magical way to tell a story.

CHO: Frida has been staged all over the U.S. and Europe since it’s premiere. How does the Mexican production differ from the previous stagings? What are your thoughts on the production by the Festival de Mayo, the Mexican cast, stage direction and performance by the Jalisco Philharmonic Orchestra?

RXR: The Guadalajara production was first-rate, and Grace Echauri was brilliant as Frida. Clearly, the Festival de Mayo spared no expense to provide a world-class team of artists: translator, stage director, designer, singers, dancers, choreographer, conductor and orchestra. I enjoyed the fact that, during the eight-minute ovation, after all of the directors and performers came out on stage, the last bow went to the stage hands, who were applauded every bit as enthusiastically as the stars.

This was, by far, the sexiest Frida there has ever been. Every previous production, for instance, only showed Frida's sister, Cristi, walking out of Diego's house to indicate that Cristi and Diego had become lovers. In Guadalajara, we actually saw Diego and a nude Cristi in action through a scrim in front of Diego's famous portrait of her; and the nude bath scene with Frida and her lesbian lover was transcendentally erotic. Josefina García's excellent Spanish translation gave us the chance to play games with accents. In previous English productions, the singers usually sang with a Spanish accent to show that the characters were Spanish-speakers; here, we did the opposite: the Mexican singers sang the parts of the American characters (such as Ford, Rockefeller and Edward G. Robinson) in Spanish with a delightfully comic American accent. The audience exploded. Still, in this, as in all productions, it's the three Calaveras who steal the show.

CHO: Exactly. These Calaveras are a constant presence throughout the opera; they are always around Frida and accompany her in her journey through life. Are they a symbol of the constant presence of Death in her tortuous life?

RXR: The constant presence of Death was real for Frida. She actually slept with a skeleton mounted over her bed; so she, literally, looked Death in the face every day of her life. In the opera, the Calaveras serve as a visualization of Frida's personal demons. They both torture her and comfort her. They also provide comic relief, or lazzi, as equivalent characters to the Zanni in the Italian commedia dell'arte.

CHO: In a recent interview in Mexico, you mentioned that in most activities celebrating Frida’s centennial, the emphasis has been placed on her role as a victim of circumstances, but that you wanted to stress her significance as a survivor, as a fighter who never surrenders to fate. Could you elaborate?

RXR: Oscar Wilde said that he put his genius into his life, rather than into his work. Frida, on the other hand, was able to combine her life and her work into one inseparable whole. Frida's physical and emotional torments would be hard for the audience to endure unless her pain were clearly seen as a catalyst to inspire the extraordinary images she was able to create. We have an American saying that "Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional." In spite of her pain, Frida had a marvelous sense of humor, which makes her rare among operatic heroines. In the opera, the librettists and I decided to emphasize how Frida used the events of her life as raw material for her art and for the remarkable public persona which she created for herself. We portrayed Frida, not as a victim, but as a fighter who looks Death in the eye and shouts "¡Viva la vida!"