Librettists could pen an opera about Frida Kahlo at virtually any period of her turbulent life.
In 1991, Texas composer Robert Xavier Rodríguez based his own version on Kahlo’s lifetime trajectory.
Opera Southwest will stage this operatic musical beginning on Friday, Feb. 18, at the National Hispanic Cultural Center. Two additional performances follow on Saturday, Feb. 19 and on Sunday, Feb. 20. The opera stars mezzo-soprano Eliza Bonet as Kahlo, with José Sacín as Diego Rivera, the great Mexican muralist and womanizer she married twice.
“Frida” marks the first time Atlanta native Bonet has performed live since the beginning of the pandemic.
“Frida Kahlo is an icon that spans several different groups of people and cultures,” she said in a telephone interview. “She is an icon for feminism, the queer community, Chicanos, especially for Latin women. She was doing things that nobody at the time was doing. She stands for so many things that I also stand for and support.”
“Frida” will be sung in Spanish with projected English titles.
Rodríguez’s opera is episodic, attempting to capture the most poignant moments of the heroine’s life. It opens with her as a Mexico City schoolgirl, brash and boisterous, as she witnesses social injustice and poverty, awakening her social consciousness.
“It literally goes from her girlhood until her death,” director John de los Santos said in a telephone interview from New York. “You could do an opera about their time in New York or their time in the Blue House” (Casa Azul, their Mexico City home.)
The opera will mark de los Santos’ first time in Albuquerque. He directed “Sweet Potato Kicks the Sun” at the Santa Fe Opera in 2019.
“The music is really eclectic,” he continued. “It’s sort of a hybrid between opera and musical theater. The orchestration has a lot of guitar; it sounds like Frida’s world.”
Operatic but sprinkled with the sounds of Mexican folk music, singing “Frida” can be tricky, Bonet said.
“The music is really interesting,” she said. “It mixes several different styles and explores many different voices. It’s very challenging to explore.
“The costumes are stunning,” Bonet added. “They are authentic pieces from that region of Mexico.”
Known for her multitude of self-portraits, Kahlo, who suffered from polio as a child, nearly died in a bus accident at 18. She suffered multiple fractures of her spine, collarbone and ribs, a shattered pelvis, broken foot and a dislocated shoulder.
It was the catalyst that drove her to the canvas.
When Kahlo was bedridden, her caretakers installed a mirror above her easel so that she could paint herself, a process she continued as her body disintegrated.
In her lifetime, she endured 30 operations.
Although Rivera once overshadowed his equally talented wife, Kahlo’s fame has far outstripped that of her husband in the years since her 1954 death. Somewhere between Kahlo’s own myth-making and her self-portraits lies an ever-shifting identity. Slipping from Native queen to wounded deer, she was both nursing infant and bedridden bride. In Mexico, they call her the “heroine of pain.”
She was also the most photographed woman of her era.
“Frida said with her paintings she wanted to honor the people and the culture” she came from, Bonet, who is of Cuban/Puerto Rican extraction, said. “That is also my main goal.”