By Robert Croan
The turbulent life of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo (1907-54) reads like a secular passion play about a troubled human being who suffered poverty, childhood polio and a horrific tram accident that left her in lifelong pain.
In her paintings, Kahlo depicted herself as an anguished Madonna. No less important in her life, however, were her political views (a zealous Communist) and her marriage(s) to iconic muralist Diego Rivera.
The inherent drama of her biography suggests an opera libretto, and in 1991, New York writers Hilary Blecher and Migdalia Cruz created one – in English and Spanish – on commission from what is now Prince Theater in Philadelphia. The composer, San Antonio native Robert Xavier Rodriguez, later described Kahlo’s life as “an opera waiting to happen.” The result, Frida, is a unique chamber opera that the composer has described as “in the Gershwin, Sondheim, Kurt Weill tradition of dissolving barriers and extending the common ground between opera and musical theater.”
Over the decades since its premiere in 1991, Frida has had at least 15 subsequent productions in the United States and Europe.
Florida Grand Opera will revive the work this month, at the Miramar Cultural Center (March 16, 17), Fort Lauderdale’s Parker Playhouse (March 28, 30) and the Miami-Dade County Auditorium (March 21, 23, 24). The venues alone tell a lot: Frida is a big work for small forces – the mariachi-style orchestration exists in versions for six or 11 players – intended to travel easily, although the vocalist requirements are larger and more demanding. Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia comes to mind.
Jessica E. Jones, a second-year FGO Studio Artist who will portray Frida’s sister Cristina, calls the opera “bold and bright and beautiful – fast-paced and high energy throughout.” She feels strongly about “the parts of the story that take place offstage, the way [Frida] was able to continue her art despite all her troubles and adversities.”
The 31-year-old soprano from Pocatello, Idaho, won a 2018 Best Opera Recording Grammy for her role in Pentatone’s CD version of Mason Bates’s The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs. “I never expected a Grammy so soon in my career,” she says. “It was overwhelming!”
The singer has already portrayed several leading characters in contemporary operas, including Carlisle Floyd’s Cold Sassy Tree, Robert Aldridge’s Elmer Gantry, Ricky Ian Gordon’s The Grapes of Wrath, Evan Mack’s Roscoe and Daniel Catán’s Il postino. In Frida, as the younger, more conservative sister, Jones notes that the composer “has matched the character with more traditional, lyrical and tuneful lines, that contrast with the intricate leitmotifs and dissonances that purposefully show Frida’s challenges.”
Audiences can expect, she explains, “to see the story of a profound woman, so bold in the way she lives her life.” The most difficult thing in her role, Jones says, is “showing the juxtaposition between the two different women, as well as their closeness, the close bond they shared. They were so different, even though they were only 11 months apart.”
The opera Frida takes on many serious subjects. Frida’s life was turbulent. She was married to Rivera twice. Rivera slept with Cristina, while Frida had affairs with women as well as men — the men, however, including no one less than Leon Trotsky.
The opera’s characters include Nelson Rockefeller (who destroyed Rivera’s mural when he found it contained a portrait of Lenin), and actor Edward G. Robinson (who was a fan and collector of Frida’s work). The libretto also explores taboo female subjects, including menstruation and miscarriage.
While Jones believes it’s important to create new works, she keeps one foot in the standards. She’s currently working on two Verdi heroines: Gilda in Rigoletto and Violetta in La Traviata – roles she would like to add to her repertory after completing her stint this year as an FGO Studio Artist. She says she strives, in her singing, for “being really connected, committed to the drama. I love the acting aspect.
“I feel I have my technique under control,” she says, giving credit to her two voice teachers at University of Houston’s Moore School of Music, Katherine Ciesinski and Cynthia Clayton. “What I strive for now is to have the music speak through me, and get all the emotion out to the audience.” When not singing, Jones says she travels “like nomads in our RV” with her husband, John McCann, an entrepreneur and software designer.
The transition from the studio to an independent career is one of the most crucial times for a singer, and when asked whether she’ll be returning to FGO next season as a regular artist, she answers, with a smile in her voice, “Keep your ear to the ground.”
Frida opens at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Miramar Cultural Center in Miramar. For tickets or more information, call 800-741-1010 or visit fgo.org.