The love and art of married Mexican painters Kahlo and Rivera are the subject of a new Spanish-language opera titled ‘El Último Sueño de Frida y Diego’
The tempestuous but enduring love story of famed Mexican artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera has been told many times over the past 80-plus years, first in Kahlo’s painfully autobiographical paintings and in the many years that followed in news articles, books, exhibitions, films, plays, music and more.
Now comes “El Último Sueño de Frida y Diego” (“The Last Dream of Frida and Diego”), a Spanish-language opera making its world premiere with San Diego Opera on Saturday, Oct. 29 at the San Diego Civic Theatre. Co-written by Latin Grammy-winning composer Gabriela Lena Frank and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright-librettist Nilo Cruz, the two-hour opera will re-tell the Kahlo-Rivera love story from a fresh and unique perspective — the afterlife.
Instead of meeting the couple at the peak of their creative careers in the 1930s and ‘40s, “El Último Sueño” opens in 1957, three years after Kahlo’s death and in the final hours of Rivera’s life. Set on Mexico’s Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), the dying Rivera summons Catrina, the keeper of souls, and begs her to bring Frida’s spirit back from the underworld to guide him safely to his rest. Kahlo consents, but not to ease Rivera’s fears. She decides to returns for one last opportunity to paint and experience her art again.
A behind-the-scenes look at San Diego Opera’s world-premiere opera ‘El Último Sueño de Frida y Diego’
‘El Último Sueño de Frida y Diego,’ a world premiere opera opening Saturday at the San Diego Civic Theatre, tells the story of Frida and Diego in the afterlife
Cruz said he didn’t want to tell the same story the public has seen many times over about Kahlo and Rivera’s troubled relationship. Instead, he came up with this fictional account inspired by the two artists’ well-known fascination with Dia de los Muertos, the afterlife and Mexico’s cultural and indigenous roots. Frank said that writing music about Kahlo has been a dream come true.
“Frida Kahlo has been a hero since my girlhood,” Frank said. “Before I could read, I found her in the pages of an art book in my mother’s home library, the only woman in a multi-volume set of ‘great artists.’ My mother pointed out how Frida was small, brown and creative like us; moreover, of thick brow, disabled and a daughter of both Europe and Latin America like me. Images in her paintings danced in my dreams for years.”
A turbulent love story
Kahlo and Rivera met in 1927. She was a 22-year-old art student, and he was 42, on his second marriage and already a nationally renowned muralist. The lovers bonded over their artistic passions and left-wing politics, and he divorced his wife to marry Kahlo in 1929. They traveled the world to fulfill his many artistic commissions, and along the way, she developed her unique artistic identity, which was inspired by Mexican folk designs, pre-Columbian art and the primitive ex-voto paintings that depict divine healings.
Kahlo is best known for her 55 self-portraits which depicted the excruciating and lifelong pain she suffered from a spine-shattering bus accident at 18, and her heartbreak over Rivera’s many extramarital affairs. Kahlo also engaged in affairs with men and women. In 1940, they divorced but remarried a year later and remained together until her death at age 47, though their relationship remained tempestuous to the end.
After her death, Rivera was quoted as saying: “July 13, 1954, was the most tragic day of my life. I had lost my beloved Frida forever. Too late now I realized that the most wonderful part of my life had been my love for Frida.” Rivera remarried in 1955, but before his death two years later at age 70, he expressed a desire to have his ashes commingled with those of Kahlo. His wish was never granted.
“Frida Kahlo has been a hero since my girlhood. Before I could read, I found her in the pages of an art book in my mother’s home library, the only woman in a multi-volume set of ‘great artists.’ My mother pointed out how Frida was small, brown and creative like us; moreover, of thick brow, disabled and a daughter of both Europe and Latin America like me. Images in her paintings danced in my dreams for years.”
— Composer Gabriela Lena Frank
Painting a musical portrait
Frank and Cruz are longtime friends who have collaborated on more than dozen projects, and both have explored their Hispanic heritage in their work.
The Berkeley-born Frank, who is of Peruvian heritage, has based compositions on South American folklore, poetry and mythology. She won a Latin Grammy in 2009 for an Inca dances chamber piece. Cruz was 9 when he immigrated with his family from Cuba on a Freedom Flight in 1970. Besides his Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Anna in the Tropics,” about Cuban immigrants in a Florida cigar factory, some of his other Latin American-themed plays include “A Park in Our House,” “Two Sisters and a Piano” and “Lorca in a Green Dress” as well as the book for the musical “Havana.” His first opera, “Bel Canto” with composer Jimmy Lopez, premiered in 2018 at Lyric Opera of Chicago.
Frank said “El Último Sueño” started out as an idea she and Cruz first discussed in 2008. They further developed the piece during a residency at Whittier College in 2010-11. After that, the project was stewarded along in its gradual development by opera companies in Arizona and Texas, but its development funding began to run dry.
David Bennett, who joined San Diego Opera as general director in mid-2015, said he learned about the opera in his first year on the job here and was excited at the prospect of taking it on.
“I knew I wanted to do a lot of work to reach the Hispanic community here, and I knew that commissioning a new work can be an important thing to do for the community and for the company. It gets the staff and the board and all the parts of an opera company to coalesce around something exciting,” Bennett said. “New work always has risk, but in thinking about how to mitigate that risk, the names of Frida and Diego were well known. Robert Xavier Rodríguez has a ‘Frida’ opera that’s had a good life, so I felt confident this could be a really good project.”
Armed with that confidence, San Diego Opera co-commissioned “El Último Sueño” with San Francisco Opera, Fort Worth Opera and the DePauw University School of Music, with additional support from the University of Texas at Austin College of Fine Arts. San Diego Opera hosted its first workshop of the opera at San Diego State University in December 2019, but in the years since, the work’s score has changed dramatically.
After that workshop, Frank said she discarded much of the opera’s second act and rewrote most of the music for the first act. Part of the reason was she realized she had cut too many arias in the interest of keeping the running time under two hours. The other reason was she was still in the discovery process of how to write her first opera score.
“I’ve written a lot of symphonies for choir and voices and orchestra, but it’s not the same,” she said. “I was writing like a symphonist, not letting the narrative or interplay between the characters drive the pacing. I had to make the music part of their conversation rather than the episodes between phrases.”
Frank said she was grateful to have the time off during the pandemic to rewrite the score at her home in Mendocino County, where she also runs an academy for emerging composers. Over the past two years, she was able to share her progress online with the Miami-based Cruz through new composing software that she said has revolutionized her writing process. She’s excited to finally premiere the work next weekend.
“It’s like cooking a meal,” she said. “You want to eat the damn thing after a while. We marinated the meat and pickled the vegetables and now we just want to experience it.”
Although Frank and Cruz are Hispanic, they’re not Mexican, so bringing in a strong creative team from Mexico was a priority for authentically telling the story of Kahlo and Rivera at San Diego Opera.
Renowned Mexican director Lorena Maza joined the project two years ago as stage director. Born in Mexico City, she has directed more than 50 plays, five operas and five musicals, and she has been director of Mexico´s National Theater Company, director of Teatro Helenico and of Teatro UNAM. This marks her San Diego Opera debut.
Also making company debuts are Mexican-born conductor Roberto Kalb and Maza’s creative team from Mexico, including scenic designer Jorge Ballina, costume designer Eloise Kazan, lighting designer Victor Zapatero and choreographer Ruby Tagle. Most of the principal singers are also of Mexican heritage, including mezzo-soprano Guadalupe Paz as Frida, baritone Alfredo Daza as Diego and Maria Katzarava as Catrina.
Maza said she’s both excited and intimidated to tackle a story about two artists who have become iconic.
“They’re both huge and the exploitation of her image has been huge, also,” Maza said. “Also there is this notion about Dia de de los Muertos and Mexican folklore has been exploited in mass-media form. The challenge with these two characters is to do something personal and unique and to create our own universe for them without betraying them and what they represent.”
Maza’s mission is personal. Her lifelong best friend is Diego Rivera’s grandson, Juan Coronel Rivera. She’s also very close to Christina Kahlo, Frida’s great-niece. Her intimate knowledge of the artists’ personal lives, private homes, interests and artwork has played into how the story will translate onstage.
Ballina’s scenic design is intentionally two-dimensional rather than projection-mapped in three dimensions, so it has the same flat, canvas style of Kahlo’s paintings. The main scenery is a depiction of a pre-Hispanic pyramid representing the many layers of the underworld, which Kahlo and Rivera must pass through for his transition to death. Maza also handpicked 10 of Kahlo’s self-portraits to help illustrate her passions, her suffering and her bisexual/nonbinary identity.
And even though Kahlo returns to the living world only to paint in “El Último Sueño,” Maza said she discovers she can only do so using Rivera’s living hands and eyes, which he happily surrenders for her creative rediscovery. This creates a reconciliation the couple were unable to achieve in life.
“He leads her to her portraits through his eyes and hands, and she leads him through the portal of the living,” Maza said. “It’s a beautiful story of surrender of forgiveness and recognition and that’s a more universal theme. Their art was so personal and so unique that it became universal.”
San Diego Opera: ‘El Último Sueño de Frida y Diego’ (‘The Last Dream of Frida and Diego’)
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 29 and Nov. 1 and 4. 2 p.m. Nov. 6
Where: San Diego Civic Theatre, 1100 Third Ave., San Diego
Tickets: $19 to $315
Phone: (619) 533-7000
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