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BWW Previews: FRIDA at Cincinnati Opera Offers an Insightful View of the Artist

"I would love to do a show on Broadway," said Catalina Cuervo, 35, who plays the central character of FRIDA at Cincinnati Opera. Yet, she is happy to perform in smaller venues and less well-known operas. "I decided to make a career of music when I was 15 years old," she said.

In a unique production, Cincinnati Opera offers FRIDA by composer Robert Xavier Rodriguez with libretto by Hilary Blecher and Migdalia Cruz. An opera filled with music drawn from Mexican folklore and American influences, such as George Gershwin, FRIDA covers the life of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo (1907 - 1954).

After a bus accident which caused her major injuries, she began painting. She ended up exhibiting in Paris and Mexico. Surreal yet folk art-like, her work often reflected her life, particularly its physical challenges. Frida explored issues of gender, race, class and nationality.

Politically active, Frida joined the Young Communist League and the Mexican Communist Party. On a personal side, she suffered from a rocky marriage with muralist Diego Rivera as well as having three miscarriages. They separated several times during the years.

Commissioned by the American Music Theater Festival, FRIDA opened in Philadelphia in 1991. It paints the story of a strong woman who persevered to have her art shown.

A revival of the opera occurred in 2015 at the Michigan Opera Theater in Detroit. Cincinnati Opera Harry Fath General Director and Chief Executive Officer Patricia K. Beggs travelled to Detroit to see the opera and returned determined to produce FRIDA in Cincinnati. The idea blossomed: FRIDA was put on the calendar for late June and early July 2017. Cuervo and Ricardo Herrera as Rivera repeat their leading roles in the Cincinnati production as do other members of the staff.

Cuervo said she worked hard on this character, doing independent research on Frida, even reading her journals.

Teachers noticed Cuervo's talents at an early age. The Ministry of Culture of Colombia named her as one of the five most successful Columbian sopranos in Opera World. She married a personal trainer Cristian two years ago. Her husband understands her often hectic travel schedule, putting her on the road for two months at a time.

She attended Miami Dade College in Miami, Florida and then the New World School of Arts at the University of Florida. By 2010, Cuervo received a master's in vocal music performance from Roosevelt University in Chicago. In addition, she obtained an artist diploma from Roosevelt. This background enabled her to begin a career of performing smaller roles and cover larger ones such as Magda in Puccini's La Rondine. Her goal is to sing Carmen and any of the heroines in a Puccini opera.

Originally from Argentina, stage director Jose Maria Condemi said he had staged the Michigan performances of FRIDA and was asked to do the same for Cincinnati Opera. He views this opera as different from the standard repertoire. Backed by a small orchestra, FRIDA is a chamber opera with many distinct, intimate and individual scenes. For example, Frida's paintings come alive in one scene. Condemi said that the Jarson-Kaplan Theater at the Aronoff Center is the perfect venue for FRIDA because of its intimate size.

Condemi has directed in North America and abroad, including the Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Teatro Colon/Buenos Aires. Condemi received his MFA from the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. He is the Carol Franc Buck Distinguished Chair and Director of Opera and Musical Theater at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. This is his seventh production with Cincinnati Opera.

Conductor is Andres Cladera, a native of Uruguay, who serves as artistic director of Emerald City Opera, Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Passionate about Frida's story, he was pleased to be asked to conduct FRIDA. Cladera knew of the excellent reputation that Cincinnati Opera has within the musical community.

"It's a tough job to keep all the parts together," said Cladera, talking about musicians, singers, costume and set designer, etc. The show is demanding for performers frequently on stage. The biggest challenge is that the opera compresses Frida's life to two acts, with a running time of two hours and 30 minutes. Sung in English and Spanish, translation is available for the Spanish portion.

There are several opera companies from outside Cincinnati planning to view the production. "It will have legs," said Cladera. "It will have a life."

Cladera conveys the message that FRIDA is a powerful production. While the music tells the story, Cladera wished he had more time to prepare. One of the more notable arias is Frida's opening song "I was once full of life." He thinks the audience will walk away from the show having a positive experience.

He has conducted throughout the United States, including the Carnegie Mellon Philharmonic. He holds a master's of music from Carnegie Mellon University and a bachelor of fine arts in piano and voice from the College of Charleston. In 2007, the Association of Choral Directors of America named him outstanding young conductor. Cladera also has his own opera company in Pittsburgh.

Costume and set designer Monika Essen conducted detailed research into the character of Frida so that every detail matched the artist's dress and hair. Essen actually travelled to Mexico to gain more insight for her costume design. Not only is attention to detail present in each scene, but characters change costumes quickly adding a challenge to the production, according to Condemi.

Summarizing her experience with FRIDA and other operas, "I am grateful for every opportunity I had, big or little," Cuervo said.

FRIDA is performed on June 23, June 25, June 27, June 29, July 1, July 6 and July 8. At this time, tickets are sold out. For more information, call (513) 241-2742. Visit

Picture courtesy of Cincinnati Opera.

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From This Author Laura A. Hobson