A Selective Guide to the Arts in Los Angeles

Bernardo Bermudez (Diego Rivera) and Laura Virella (Frida Kahlo) in "Frida" at Long Beach Opera / Photo courtesy of LBO

Bravo to Long Beach Opera for their summer production of Robert Xavier Rodriguez’s “Frida,” which ended June 25. An opera as colorful as artist Frida Kahlo’s life and work, “Frida” explores the passion and pain and beauty of an important  artist. It was made all the more magical being set in the Museum of Latin American Art’s sculpture garden under the stars and tied to a small, but wonderful exhibit of photography of Kahlo by Nickolas Muray.

It was genius that Rodriguez chose Kahlo as a subject for his 1991 opera. Her life story sounds almost fictional, or at least as surreal as some of her art. Through “Frida,” we learn much about her as a woman, a lover, an artist and a Mexican. Her relationship and two marriages to Diego Rivera frame her life story (only 47 years long! 1907-54) and the opera.

I overheard an elderly lady commenting to her companion after the show: “It’s not ‘La Boheme.’” And I don’t think she particularly thought that was a bad thing. For me, it certainly wasn’t. I found the opera to bridge musical theater and opera, and to do so in a convincing way.

As explained in the program, the music is an interesting blend of Mexican folk songs and dances, along with the composer’s own “imaginary folk music,” tangos and colorations of zarzuela, ragtime, vaudeville and 1930s jazz, as well as “stolen” musical fragments from two traditional Mexican piñata songs, two narrative ballads, the Communist anthem, Tchaikovsky’s Fourth and Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde.”

The small orchestra, with violin, clarinet/saxophone, trumpet/flugelhorn, percussion, accordion and piano, did a remarkable job with a variety of musical flavors, and was ably led by Kristof Van Grysperre.

I found myself humming the final song in my car on the way home. But some of the songs seemed rather silly and superfluous to me, like the one about why Kahlo paints monkeys. As Kahlo said, “I paint my reality,” which meant painting self-portraits when she was bedridden and painting what she saw around her, such as animals she kept as pets (including a monkey).

“Frida’s” libretto can be vulgar — indeed, Giacomo Puccini did not use the F word. But we assume Hilary Blecher (book) and Migdalia Cruz (lyrics) were being faithful to how the strong and unrestrained Kahlo must have been in real life.

Personally, I would have preferred more Spanish than English in the songs and dialogue, and I found the beginning to be too impersonal, almost disconnected from the rest of the opera — but that’s quibbling with an entertaining work that takes on an incredible real-life character.

Long Beach Opera did a remarkable job with minimal stage design by LBO Artistic and General Director Andreas Mitisek, mostly a screen with projections of artworks, including an animation of a drawing Kahlo had done after the bus accident that nearly killed her as a teen. Kahlo’s artwork is autobiographical so it is essential to any story of her life. One of the most hypnotic scenes was the surreal “wounded deer” sequence, derived from an image in one of her paintings and choreographed with four actors as Calaveras.

The acting and singing was consistently excellent from the small cast that took on multiple roles, including the chorus: Alejandro Martinez, Joanna Ceja, Jonathan Lacayo and David Castillo. Venezuelan-American lyric baritone Bernardo Bermudez and Puerto Rican mezzo-soprano Laura Virella were exceptional in their leading roles.

In outfits inspired by Kahlo’s paintings — bold jewelry, flowers in her hair, traditional and colorful Mexican dresses and shawls — Virella looked like she stepped out of one of the artist’s famous self-portraits or one of Muray’s photographs, some of which are iconic images that are reproduced everywhere and look more like painted portraits than camera images. If you can see this small exhibit at MOLAA, go!

—Julie Riggott, Culture Spot LA

For more about Long Beach Opera, visit https://www.longbeachopera.org.

“Frida Kahlo: Through the Lens of Nickolas Muray” continues through Sept. 3 at MOLAA. For information, visit https://www.molaa.org/exhibition/frida-kahlo-lens-nickolas-muray/.