"She was born on the day God was drunk."
That description is one of the first things we learn about the title character of the opera "Maria de Buenos Aires," which has its Alaska premiere this week. A bit unfocused, perhaps, but Astor Piazzolla's "tango opera" is a hard piece to nail down.
"Piazzolla has had an odd rap," said Douglas Kinney Frost, who conducts the Anchorage Opera production that runs through Jan. 24. Piazzolla's music fused elements of classical, jazz and Latin pop, but he never fit neatly into any of the categories. Rather, his unique voice transcended all of them. He was his own musical category.
Born in Argentina and raised in New York, he could compose exquisitely formal pieces and jam with the most adventurous jazz greats. But his works were always driven by the pulse of the tango. His shorter pieces made him notorious with their edginess and bite, but they were also wildly popular among the younger generation of tango fans.
"He's a superstar in South America," said Catalina Cuervo, singing the title role in the current show. "The orchestras do a lot of his music."
Music lovers may debate whether he was among the greatest composers of the 20th century. But it seems certain that he'll be one of the few on track to become better-known in the 21st century than he was in his lifetime.
Creating 'nuevo tango'
Piazzolla was born in 1921. He learned to play the accordion-like bandoneon as a child and made a career with tango bands in North and South America. But he wanted more.
In 1955 he traveled to Paris to study serious composition under the famed teacher Nadia Boulanger, a mentor to Aaron Copland and Philip Glass, among others. He tried to downplay his tango background, but Boulanger suggested he explore the genre further.
He returned to the Americas and pioneered what is now called "nuevo tango." It pushed the envelope of the dance form, maintaining its familiar ballad melodic shape while ranging into experimental harmonies and sometimes frantic climaxes, coming within a thread of spinning into incoherence. Listeners were divided between those who couldn't make heads or tails of it and those who were entranced.
That division has never quite closed, but it was more pronounced in his lifetime. Within the narrow confines of the tango world, his shorter pieces were much admired. Among orchestral composers, who remained fixed on atonality for most of the 20th century, he was dismissed as a curiosity if not a fraud.
Touring with a quintet beginning in 1978, he earned the esteem of the jazz world. But fame as a serious composer remained slow in coming. A concerto for cello and orchestra, composed in 1982, was not performed until 1990.
"Maria" largely languished after its premiere in Buenos Aires in 1968. Today, it's said to be the most-performed Spanish language opera in the world. But not, ironically, in South America.
"The Argentine audiences like their tango to be old school," said Frost. Even though the international airport in Piazzolla's hometown, Mar del Plata, is named in his honor, his biggest single work has hardly been heard there since its debut almost 50 years ago.
"It's strange," Cuervo said. "Even now, 'Maria' is not much performed so much in Latin America."
An experienced team
Cuervo is on a mission to change that. After she finishes the shows in Anchorage, she'll produce the first professional stagings of the opera in her hometown, Medellin, Colombia, and in Bogota.
"In Colombia it's only been done in college performances before now," she said.
The Medellin performances will coincide with a huge tango festival in that city. Cuervo described Medellin as the most tango-infatuated place in the world after Buenos Aires.
"I'm going to be the person to do this," she said. "This was my first role as a professional opera singer and in the whole world I'm probably the singer with the most productions of this role under my belt."
Cuervo sang her first "Maria" in 2011 and has done nine productions since.
In fact, Anchorage Opera may have the most experienced "Maria" team around. Frost said he first conducted the piece in 2001 and has lately been doing a couple of productions every year. Baritone Luis Alejandro Orozco, originally from El Paso, Texas, now living in New York, estimated that he'd done his role eight or nine times, all in the past three years, including several shows where he was paired with Cuervo.
The opera calls for only three singers, Maria herself, the leading man character sung by Orozco named "El Payador" and a mysterious, controlling narrator, "El Duende," sung by Milton Loayaza.
A "Greek chorus" representing the voice of the people has spoken lines, but their more important contribution is the dancing. The Anchorage show features six dancers from Anchorage Classical Ballet Academy and members of a local tango club.
"Douglas (Frost) suggested it would be cool to use local tango dancers and make it a show within a show," said stage director and choreographer Adam Cates. "It helps to keep things focused."
A series of moments
Keeping things focused is no easy trick. "The opera is a metaphor for tango and Buenos Aires," said Cates. "It's hard to follow. Maria dies at the end of each night only to be born the next day."
"Maria is the personification of tango," said Cuervo. "A very strong woman. She's going to conquer anything. She goes through so much. She is sold. She is raped. But she uses these experiences to her advantage. She is tango. All the men want to love her. All the women want to be like her. Everyone wants to tango, to be like Maria.
"But in the morning, they're ashamed about what they did last night, the cheating, stealing, the sex, the killing. Everybody blames tango. So they kill her. They kill Maria."
End act one. In the second half Maria is still singing, but now as a shadow or spirit or saint, reborn, her virginity restored, with a child who comes with religious connotations.
"It's not a story, but a series of moments," said Cuervo.
"Piazzolla set out to write a piece that was abstract, surreal, non-linear," said Cates. The librettist, Horacio Ferrer, was known for his intensely allegorical poetry.
"The text is mired in imagery," said Frost. "It's like an hour-and-a-half-long sonnet."
Even fluent Spanish-speakers may have a hard time following the words. Ferrer specifically wrote in a slang called "Lunfardo," a mix of Spanish and Italian said to have originated among criminals to keep the police from understanding their conversations.
Lunfardo flips syllables and substitutes common words. Some of it has been adapted into modern Argentine vernacular, and much is out of date, sort of like the hep lingo of 1950s beatniks. But it has a permanent place as the language of tango lyrics. In Ferrer's hands, it became almost his own language.
"There's one aria I sing about three marionettes that went crazy that I still don't understand," said Cuervo. "It's not about marionettes."
The stage directions include complex, dream-like scenes, Maria wandering through a circus with juggling clowns and the like. Like the literal words, "they don't do much to move the plot forward," Cates said. "It's confusing."
For this production he has designed a single set, a nightclub bar. El Duende, the grim storyteller and puppet master, is here presented as a bartender to whom everyone shares their secrets. El Payador is a club singer. Together with Maria they present her story in a series of song sets. Between the sets, the patrons dance.
Rather than try for a literal translation of Ferrer's poetry, which would baffle the audience, the production team has gone with English titles that condense the poet's imagery into brief synopses.
Message in music
Instead of a customary orchestra in the pit, Frost leads a small tango ensemble from the piano. All the musicians are onstage, like the bar's band. Among them is bandoneon player David Alsina. "We were lucky to get him," said Frost. "There are only about four or five of these guys in the world."
Piazzolla tinkered with various instrumentation over the years, from the quintet heard in the Anchorage production to a full orchestra. "I've done it with a lot of strings before," Frost said. "I really didn't care for it. But you hear all kinds of approaches to this. Some groups are very stiff, note for note. Others are loose, all over the place."
Similarly, there are different approaches to the characters. "El Payador is not really defined," said Orozco. "I've played it as a single character. Here he takes on a different persona every time he enters a scene."
"Each song becomes a vignette," said Cates. "One by one you see a different archetype of the female character. She's a child, mother, whore, seducer, victim."
The singing is also hard to define, Oronzo said. "When I do Escamillo or Figaro, it's all one style. Here you have to weave in and out. You have a lot of freedom. It's very different from most opera or even musical theater, uncharted territory."
The role of Maria is not hard to sing, Cuervo said. "But it can't be sung operatically. It must be sung like tango. That's actually the right way."
Cuervo noted that there are similarities between the popular tango genre and the grand arias of Verdi and Puccini.
"Tango is sung in a very operatic way, with the long lines, full voice and vibrato," she said. "But I use my chest voice rather than my lyric voice. And it's more like jazz. I have a lullaby and I can sing it a different way each time."
Unifying all the parts of the opera is the beautifully dark and haunting mood struck and sustained by Piazzolla's unique music, simultaneously passionate and sad. Like tango itself. Like life.
"Maria's" success came too late for the composer. In 1990 he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage that left him unconscious until he died two years later. He was in the coma when the opera was finally heard in the United States in Houston in 1991. The first British performance took place in 2000.
The piece caught fire internationally after a 2003 production in Rome. (The Italians seem to have a particular love for Piazzolla, whose parents were Italian by birth.) More performances followed with each year.
That the opera, like its heroine, continues to be reborn, stronger every time, is entirely due to the compelling music.
"The opportunity to play along with the score is really rewarding," said Frost. "Using a jazzy quintet, everyone gets their moment in the spotlight. Musicians just love it. They really want to dig into it."
"It's all about the music," Cuervo said. "For us, Piazzolla is a god. His music says it all. You hear the first four notes and you're into it, the world of tango, the nightlife of Buenos Aires. So different from our lives here."
MARIA DE BUENOS AIRES will be presented at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Jan. 22-23, and 4 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 24, in Sydney Laurence Theatre. Tickets are available at centertix.net.
Alaska Dispatch Publishing