Bio-Op Brings Revolutionary Artists Alive

With Robert Xavier Rodríguez’s Frida Long Beach Opera has presented its second socially conscious, 21st century bio-op premiere of the season, solidifying its stature as a cutting edge operatic force to be reckoned with. LBO’s first biographical opera was composer Philip Glass and librettist Rudolph Wurlitzer’s highly critical look at the beloved Walt Disney (baritone Justin Ryan), The Perfect American - who as the scathing opera showed, with flaws and all, was anything but. While the latter enjoyed its U.S. debut at LBO, Frida had its SoCal premiere courtesy of LBO. Interestingly, both of these real life historical figures - animator and theme park innovator “Uncle Walt” and Mexican painter Frida Kahlo (Puerto Rican mezzo-soprano Laura Virella) - are icons in Southern California.


The art of both Disney and Kahlo may have been avant-garde in their time, but when it came to politics, they couldn’t be more different, quite literally on opposite sides of the spectrum. Disney was a union-busting anti-communist who gleefully informed on suspected Reds in House Un-American Activities Committee testimony, while Kahlo was a revolutionary. Indeed, had Disney - who hobnobbed with the likes of Leni Riefenstahl (Hitler’s favorite screen propagandist) - known Kahlo, he probably would have denounced her before HUAC.


According to Frida’s book by Hilary Blecher (Migdalia Cruz wrote the English and Spanish lyrics and monologues, with supertitles projected above the stage), while a teenager Frida witnessed the death from starvation of an impoverished child in Mexico City, which radicalized her. (How ironic that a woman who couldn’t bear babies was such an outspoken champion of children.) As presented outdoors in the sculpture garden of the Museum of Latin American Art, the production creatively fuses music, onstage singing, dancing and acting with many big screen projections of artwork, adding a heightened visual sense which is entirely appropriate for an opera about painters. This imaginative fusion is adeptly overseen by stage director/video and production designer Andreas Mitisek.


Having said that, I thought the illustrations used to depict the disastrous traffic accident that would cause poor Frida (already afflicted by polio) so much anguish throughout her life were amateurishly rendered, cartoonish in the worst sense. But overall, in terms of Frida’s imagery, this was certainly the exception, not the rule, as with a pro-Emiliano Zapata interlude that expressed Kahlo’s growing revolutionary convictions.


In any case, the tragic accident caused the lifelong misery Kahlo suffered for the rest of her shortened existence. (I suspect her famous unibrow was a result of hormonal imbalance caused by internal damage.) Like that other Latin American revolutionary born into the middle class, Argentine Che Guevara - who endured severe asthma - Kahlo’s ill health and personal agony probably enhanced her identification with the wretched of the Earth. Death figures with skeletal masks reappear through the opera, as if they are haunting the damaged Frida.


In Scene 4 enter the already famous Diego Rivera (Venezuelan-American lyric baritone Bernardo Bermudez), the great mural artist and Communist Party member. Despite their age difference - Rivera was more than 20 years older than Kahlo - and her health problems, they become a couple and marry. As Rivera was a prominent Marxist, their relationship further politicized Frida, who was still in her twenties. Through his public art Rivera strived to express leftwing ideas, and in one rousing aria likens radical art to “ham” to nurture the workingman.


Nevertheless, like many politically aware talents Rivera came to the attention not only of the proletariat and peasantry, but of the bourgeoisie. That embodiment of capitalism, Nelson Rockefeller - future N.Y. governor (who would slaughter inmates during the Attica uprising) and U.S. veep - commissioned Rivera to create a mural for Manhattan’s then-new Rockefeller Center, and Diego and Frida relocated to New York City. But mixing and mingling with the American ruling class is unappealing for Kahlo (their Mexican Communist comrades also look askance at some of Diego’s commissions), but in one of the opera’s best scenes, Rivera proves he’s no sellout to Yanqui dinero.


[PLOT SPOILER ALERT!] The painter added a portrait of Lenin to his Rockefeller Center mural and when Rocky told him to remove it, Diego boldly refused to do so, insisting on his right to free artistic expression. Capitalist pig that he was, Rockefeller believed that since he paid for the commission, he had more right to determine what went into Rivera’s mural than the artist did and destroyed it.


(This true life vignette was also portrayed in Tim Robbins’ stellar 1999 movie about Orson Welles, Cradle Will Rock, with the Panamanian singer Reuben Blades as Rivera, John Cusack as Rocky, and in a minor role, Puerto Rican actress Corina Katt Ayala as a pouting Frida. BTW, in Barbara Leaming’s biography about Welles, regarding Rockefeller’s less than supportive role in Orson’s abortive early 1940s South American film, It’s All True, Welles blasts Rocky: “Nobody was ever more cowardly in the world than Nelson, you know.” It seems that the sole genius of Rockefeller - who undermined artistic prodigies - was, like a certain president, to be born into wealth.)


Meanwhile, back at the review:


The restive Frida - who had a failed pregnancy - implored Diego to return home to her beloved Mexico and Act II opens with them back in their native land. Whereas the first act was stellar, the second act is less so, as the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky moved to Mexico, thanks in no small measure to Rivera and Kahlo’s lobbying on the refugee’s behalf. At first, the apostle of Permanent Revolution (Jonathan Lacayo plays Trotsky, as well as other roles) and his wife Natalia (soprano Joanna Ceja, who also has multiple roles) settled in Frida’s family home “La Casa Azul.” But soon, according to the opera, there is a falling out, owing to Kahlo apparently having an affair with the much older Trotsky (this is a bit of canny casting, as Lacayo also portrays adolescent Frida’s first beau, Alejandro).


Overall, the opera’s dramatization of the relationship between Frida and Trotsky is unsatisfying - the exiled Bolshevik’s significance is never really explained. The depiction of Trotsky was far superior in Julie Taymor’s superb 2002 movie Frida, starring Salma Hayek in the title role, Geoffrey Rush as Trotsky and Alfred Molina as Rivera. When the polio-stricken Kahlo and aging Trotsky manage - despite their infirmities - to climb a Mexican pyramid, it is a truly radiant moment that captures not only the exuberance of their love, but also the hope of revolution.


This leads me to another point - Molina is arguably the screen and stage’s definitive Rivera. I’ve seen Diego elsewhere depicted as a buffoonish character and at times (but, to be fair, not always), Bermudez plays the painter in this caricaturish manner, but Molina’s Diego retains his dignity throughout.


Much of the rest of Act II was devoted to the turbulence of Kahlo and Rivera’s marriage and her failing health. Much is made of their sexual peccadilloes and infidelities, as the personal overwhelms the political. The second act is far more concerned with who is sleeping with whom, than in the painters’ politics.


In doing so, the opera unfortunately neglected one of the most memorable moments in the history of art and politics: Whereas Frida and Diego had championed Trotsky, their fellow Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros - another one of Mexico’s “Big Three of Art” (the third being José Clemente Orozco) - was a Stalinist who actually led a 1940 attack on the home Leon and Natalia had relocated to in the Coyoacán section of Mexico City after leaving Kahlo’s “Blue House.” Siqueiros failed to liquidate Trotsky but a Stalinist agent assassinated him there with an ice pick or ice axe on August 20, 1940 (the home is now a museum dedicated to the Bolshevik Revolution’s co-leader).


The music for Robert Xavier Rodríguez’s 26-year-old opera was frothy and eclectic, drawing on a variety of sources, ranging from mariachi music to Mexican folk music to Eugène Pottier’s “L’Internationale.” The score is performed by a six piece orchestra presided over by Kristof Van Grysperre, who conducted with gusto.


Experiencing the photographic exhibit “Frida Kahlo: Through the Lens of Nikolas Murray” - with exquisite portraits of Diego and Frida by one of her apparently countless extracurricular lovers - before entering MoLAA’s sculpture garden really put one in the mood for the opera (the display runs through Sept. 3). Taking the opera in under the stars was certainly inspired, but unfortunately the sound system had glitches, with amplification sometimes going in and out.


To be sure, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera were colorful, larger than life individuals whom I would have loved to have met. My close friend Martin Charlot encountered them when he was a child - Marty’s dad, Jean Charlot, taught Diego and the other Mexican muralists the technique of fresco mural painting. (Martin, who now lives in Burbank, pursued the “family business” and - speaking of Disney - recently painted the mural adorning the lobby of Aulani, a Disney Resort & Spa in Ko Olina, Hawaii.) Unlike the Charlots, I never had a chance to hang out with Frida and Diego - although this opera gave me an opportunity to do so for two hours and 15 minutes. I think I would have loved them - in between their arguing, that is.


Long Beach Opera presented the SoCal premiere of Frida June 17, June 18, June 24 and 25 at 8:00 p.m. at the Museum of Latin American Art, 628 Alamitos Ave., Long Beach, CA 90802 and 8:00 p.m., June 23, Grand Performances, 350 S Grand Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90071. Long Beach Opera’s new season begins October 2017 with The Consul followed by The Black Cat in January 2018, The Invention of Morel in March 2018 and The Love Potion in May 2018. For more info: (562)470-7464;


Frida is playing (with a different cast) through July 8 at Cincinnati Opera; see: