Arts & Culture

Tango-heavy 'Maria de Buenos Aires' brings a cabaretlike touch to Fort Worth Opera

Solange Merdinian and Luis Alejandro Orozco in "Maria de Buenos Aires"
Solange Merdinian and Luis Alejandro Orozco in "Maria de Buenos Aires" Courtesy of Fort Worth Opera

It usually only takes two to tango.

But Fort Worth Opera is altering that math for its presentation of “Maria de Buenos Aires,” an opera composed by Argentinian tango master Astor Piazzolla, which kicks off the company’s 2018 festival on Friday at Bass Hall. The 90-minute, intermission-less work features a trio of dancers from Texas Ballet Theater, in addition to a cast and chorus that tells the title character’s story, albeit in a somewhat abstract fashion.

“The poetry is very surreal. There is not a clear-cut narrative. The libretto is based on surreal poetry [by Horacio Ferrer],” said John de los Santos, who is the director and choreographer of the production. “It’s all about mood, and has this amazing variety. It is sensual, terrifying, melancholy, romantic and all of these great moods that are woven together by the bandoneon player. It is seamless.”

Mezzo-soprano Solange Merdinian, who sings the title role, said she feels the abstract nature of the opera’s text provides new ports of entry for the audience.

“It has a complex storyline that is open to different interpretations,” said Merdinian, a native of Argentina who now lives in New York. “There are a lot of references to the story of Jesus and about being reborn. Maria could be considered an immaculate conception of herself. But it is ultimately about the beauty and seduction of the city itself.”

But despite the unusual structure of the opera, both de los Santos and Merdinian feel that it is user-friendly, even for those who do not see a lot of operas.

“It is a really good icebreaker for opera. It’s a cabaret, it’s a tango ballet, it’s a poetic recitation,” said de los Santos, a native of the San Antonio area and a TCU graduate who was formerly a resident choreographer at FWO. “It is kind of like a musical in some ways. It’s got lots of dialogue. It is mic-ed. It is stipulated in the score that it has to be amplified.”

“ I would say it is an operetta, or maybe a cross between opera and a show you would see at a tango club,” said Merdinian.

But, while Piazzolla was all about the tango, this piece is apparently not just a series of unrelated dance numbers.

“I like dance that furthers the text. Every dance in this piece tells a story. But there are long stretches where there is no dance. There is a ton of melody in ‘Maria,’” said de los Santos, who has directed a number of operas and musicals, from New York (where he now lives) to San Diego (where he recently presented this same opera).

FWO artistic director Joe Illick said this opera was chosen as a fit for an ongoing series the company is doing, but it may also be a sign of the future.

“It was selected to be part of our Noches de Opera initiative, which started out as a plan to do Spanish-language opera for the next three or four years. And now, because of the response we are getting, we are thinking that it might become a more permanent fixture,” said Illick.

To further enhance the work’s Spanish accent, Merdinian and baritone Luis Alejandro Orozco will be joined by Gaby Natale, a well-known broadcaster who takes on the role of the narrator. The Emmy-winning Natale, who also was born in Argentina, is known for her work at the Spanish-language Univision Network, and as host and producer of the program “SuperLatina.”

The supertitles for ‘Maria’ will be in English and Spanish but, according to the director, you might not need them in either tongue.

“There is so much text, it is literally impossible to project everything. It would be too much. So the titles don’t really matter. There is a synopsis in the program,” said de los Santos.

“Enjoy the music, the singing, the spectacle, and if occasionally you feel inclined to look up, do so. But I wouldn’t worry about it much. Because, quite frankly, the titles ain’t gonna help ya.”

Illick said that, to help patrons follow the opera, those purchasing tickets in advance will be sent a libretto with their ducats.

In addition to ‘Maria,’ Fort Worth Opera is presenting two other works in this year’s festival: Donizetti’s beloved comedy “Don Pasquale” (at Bass Hall) and “Brief Encounters,” a trio of short operas presented together (at the Fort Worth Botanic Garden).

As is often the case with war horses like “Don Pasquale,” FWO has decided to give the old work a new look and setting.

“The director [Chuck Hudson] has set the production in Hollywood during the dawn of talking pictures,” said Illick. “And the chorus will be populated with highly recognizable Hollywood icons. Audiences are going to say, ‘There’s Marilyn Monroe,’ and ‘There’s Groucho Marx,’ and so on,” said Illick.

The production will also, appropriately, feature some projections, including takeoffs on silent movies.

While “Don Pasquale” dates to 1843, the third work in the festival was debuted only last year. “Brief Encounters” offers “pocket operas” by the two biggest composers in contemporary opera, Mark Adamo and Jake Heggie, and a third by Illick. Each runs 15 minutes or less.

“Each of the three gives us a brief encounter with a couple. In [Adamo’s] ‘Avow,’ it is a couple who are about to be married. In [Heggie’s] ‘Again,’ the characters are taken from the old ‘I Love Lucy’ show. But in this setting, Ricky is abusive toward Lucy. And Fred and Ethel know, but cannot do anything about it. It is the dark piece of the set.”

The work by Illick is unintentionally linked (he swears) to “Maria de Buenos Aires.” Its title is “Feel the Tango.”

“I wrote it without knowing that we were going to be doing ‘Maria,’ said Illick, who will not be taking the usual royalty paid to living composers when their works are presented, because of his affiliation with the company. “It deals with a union where a certain amount of marital tedium has set in. But the couple visits a restaurant with tango dancing, and the passion and feeling of the dances helps them revive their marriage.”

A “Maria de Buenos Aires” Primer

The Tango

The tango is a dance form that arose in Argentina and Uruguay in the 1880s. Its popularity spread to America and Europe in the early 20th century. Over the decades, a wide range of tango styles have been established, including neuvo tango, ballroom tango, contact tango and salon tango. The style is known for its often studied precision of movement, the fluidity it requires of its practitioners and the aura of sensuality that frequently drives it.

The Bandoneon

The bandoneon (also sometimes spelled “bandonion”) is a concertina (an accordionlike instrument) invented by Heinrich Band in Germany in the 1840s. The instrument eventually found its way to Argentina in the 1870s, and soon became closely linked with the tango, despite the fact that the instrument had been developed to be used in religious services. The instrument is more complex and often larger than its more familiar cousins. It is typically played in a seated position .

Astor Piazzolla

Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992) was an Argentinian composer who is known almost exclusively for his tangos, although he composed works in other forms as well. He spent some of his formative years in New York City, and wrote his first tango there when he was only 11 years old. The family returned to Argentina when Piazzolla was in still in his teens. He was already an accomplished player of the bandoneon and, at age 17, moved to Buenos Aires to pursue that profession. While there, he studied with the important Argentinean composer Alberto Ginestera, and became acquainted with the American pianist Arthur Rubenstein. In 1946, Piazzolla formed his own tango orchestra. A few years later, he went to Paris, where he studied with the legendary French composition teacher Nadia Boulanger .

By the late 1950s, Piazzolla’s approach to the tango had evolved so much in terms of structure and instrumentation that the term neuvo tango was coined to distinguish his compositions from the established norms of the tango form. Piazzolla and his tangos enjoyed their 15 minutes of fame in the late 20th century when the classical music world in particular became more accepting of Piazzolla, who had composed a number of classically influence pieces over his career. Popular cellist Yo-Yo Ma was one of many classical artists who recorded CDs of Piazzolla’s music in the 1990s.

Piazzolla died in Buenos Aires in 1992, at 71, almost two years after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage in Paris that had left him in a coma.

Fort Worth Opera Festival

  • Friday through May 6

  • Bass Hall and Fort Worth Botanic Garden

  • Fort Worth

  • Maria de Buenos Aires (Bass Hall): 7:30 p.m. Friday and 7:30 p.m. May 5

  • Don Pasquale (Bass Hall): 7:30 Saturday and May 4; and 2 p.m. May 6

  • Brief Encounters (Fort Worth Botanic Garden Lecture Hall): 5 p.m. Sunday; and 7:30 p.m. Monday and Tuesday