I attended the latest production of the SF Opera: “EL último sueño de Frida y Diego,” (“The last dream of Frida and Diego”). These two iconic Mexican political and artistic figures strongly enhanced the 20th Century.
The ongoing fascination with Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, especially in the San Francisco Bay Area, was strongly nurtured — especially in the last 40 years — by local Chicano and Latino artists, the majority of them living in or near the Mission District. Similarly with the massive celebration and popularization of the Day of the Dead that began at the original Galería de La Raza, at the time located on the corner of 24th St. and Bryant. The first Day of the Dead Parades took off from there with a few dozen revelers. Today, the parade attracts thousands of people.
From the sounds of the very first orchestral notes, the musical score created by Berkeley-born Gabriela Lena Frank and the script created by Nilo Cruz, to the wonderful voices of the chorus singing in Spanish made clear that this was going to be an exciting evening. Lena Frank is the first woman of color to be commissioned for an opera by the SF Opera. She wrote amazingly compelling music, even if little attention was given to Mexican music. Perhaps some whistles, conches or percussive pre-Columbian sounds could have been featured? A danzón perhaps?
The stage itself was a large canvas upon which the action occurred. It was adorned with an abundance of marigolds and, related Day of the Dead colors, accompanied by a compelling light design. Blue and orange dominated the color palette.
In the relatively slow-paced first act, we first encounter Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in a well-populated cemetery. He is still above ground. She has been dead for 3 years. Powerfully sung by the Argentinian, mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack, Frida came alive.
The other occupants of the cemetery were played by members of the opera chorus, including “regular folks” with costumes evocative of Mexican society in the late 1940s and early 1950s. A few anachronistic characters also appeared, such as a nun reminiscent of the 17th-century poet/nun Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz and a Spanish soldier, perhaps a nod to the deep mark left in Mexico by the conquistadores. In that space, Frida seemed relatively at ease, although unhappy to learn about Diego’s asking her to come back to visit him.
Frida is not the main voice of this underworld area. That role belonged to “Catrina,” who is clearly in charge. Playing “Catrina” is the amazing Chilean soprano Yaritza Véliz. She cuts an imposing figure on stage, wearing a rather ominous “Calaca” (skeleton) costume, with some tentacular elongations that extend down from her waist, a mix of serpent and human.
This “Catrina” is not the more traditional Catrina, first created in 1910 by the ironic and politically motivated brush of José Guadalupe Posada. Posada created an iconic image of a pretentious Mexican woman, who looked down on her roots and embraced European ways.
The Posada version, interestingly enough, was later used by Diego Rivera in 1947, in a painting called “Sueño de una tarde dominical en la Alameda Central” (“Dream of a Sunday afternoon on Central Alameda”).
I expand on the character of “Catrina” because I think her depiction in this opera, although a succulent creation beautifully interpreted by Véliz, is diminished in its possible dramatic scope. This opera character is more scary and bureaucratic. Perhaps a pretentious rich woman wannabe would have created some compelling musical and ideological clashes with Frida Kahlo? After all, although Frida could easily mix with the upper classes, she was a militant communist. As was her husband, Diego. A fact that is strangely omitted in the opera.
I have worked with scriptwriter, Nilo Cruz, whom I admire greatly. Thus, it is a bit puzzling why the script diminishes the reality of the tragic and dramatic aspects of the life of Frida and Diego. Here, Rivera appears as an unrepentant and coarse womanizer, while Frida appears as a mere victim. In act one, when she argues against going back to the world of the living, even if it is for a brief visit, she finds little good or loving to say about Rivera, until she is convinced to go by a young man who dresses as Greta Garbo. Their second act, a romantic reunion, seemed insincere.
Although I respect poetic license and creativity, not to portray Frida Kahlo as a tough, sharp-tongued and politically active woman, someone who has become a feminist icon and also someone who had quite a few bisexual relations, is a disservice to her complexity.
I applaud the San Francisco Opera for joining in focusing on both the Frida/Diego complicated personal relationship and their artistic legacy. The fact that this new opera would connect their lives to the Day of the Dead is a much-welcomed creative occurrence. It is a good beginning.
The SF Symphony, neighbors to the SF Opera, has produced a very popular yearly Day of the Dead concert, a well-attended and eagerly awaited celebration that has been going on for over 15 years.
It would indeed be awesome if both, the SF Symphony and the SF Opera, committed to more regular productions of works related to our Latino community and — as the case is here — done in Spanish.
Once in a hundred years is not enough.