MARIA DE BUENOS AIRES, the worlds only opera told to the music of tango, offers an electrifying and satisfying performance of music that is instantly appealing. Famed Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla, and master of the unique concertina style instrument-the bandoneon, teamed with one of his country's most esteemed poet to bring the musical form of tango to life.
For the librettist, Horacio Ferrer, and Piazzolla Maria IS tango. Maria personifies the ritual of tango by being 'born' each evening as the tango clubs begin to play music, living an exotic, indulgent life through the evening, dying when the band stops playing and the dancers relive their evening of debauchery, only to be born again the next night as the bands begin to fill the clubs again. Rich with the Catholic and latin folklore imagery, the music does what every successful operatic composition should do- use specific music to describe every nuance of the story.
Piazzolla's dedication to his 'tango' instrument, the bandoneon offered him a unique niche in the classical music world. He studied with the leading classical composers in Argentina, and even studied with Nadia Boulanger- a fascinating woman who taught an entire generation of composers and conductors.
(Ms. Boulanger is a colorful character whose ability to craft music inspired Aaron Copland, John Eliot Gardner, and many others. She was the first women to conduct many of the leading orchestras of the world. If you're a classical music lover, she would be a fascinating study.)
Piazzolla, to this day, has a very interesting relationship with his home country. His music gets more respect in the states and in Europe than it does in Argentina. I've asked dozens of Argentine musicians about this and I get the same number of responses. He is both beloved and despised depending on whom you ask. Unlike, Verdi, for example, who is considered a great Italian statesman and representative of his nation's culture.
Piazzolla took the traditional tango sound, which had been around for decades, added many jazz and classical elements to this music and started calling it nuevo tango (new tango). You'll find harmonies in his work easily identified with Duke Ellington, and classical forms of constructing music, like the fugue or the rondo, easily identified by Bach, for example. Not everyone in Argentine is wild about this, even half a century since he started this.
His only operita (little opera), Maria de Buenos Aires is a great example to me of two things: 1) Piazzolla was an adept composer and orchestrator; 2) He understood how great musical storytelling works. The sound of his writing is unique, and you're drawn in to the life of Maria very easily.
CATALINA CUERVO came to my attention a few years ago when a colleague found out I was producing the opera. A very fine stage director, he suggested that she personified Maria better than anyone he'd ever seen. Even though she is a soprano, she has the ability to sing in the low, sultry octave written for the role, and is a compelling actress. It happens that she has sung in more productions in her career than anyone else on the planet. Imagine the experience she brings to the piece. Catalina has mastered many other roles. I highly recommend a trip to her website- www.catalinacuervo.com to learn more about her.
She is performing the role with me now in a wonderful production in Anchorage, Alaska. We spoke about her experience being Maria, how she manages the singing style, how the operita is constructed, and her days of study with the show's librettist, Horacio Ferrer.
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MUSIC FROM THIS EPISODE:
1. I begin and end every podcast with the Overture to Bizet's masterpiece CARMEN. It has the energy that amps me up. Right now, I would say it brands AMPED UP OPERA podcast.
2. All of the excerpts on this episode are from Maria De Buenos Aires. There are many fine recordings of the piece. Piazzolla plays bandoneon on a 1968 recording. You can find it on iTunes through THIS LINK.