Long Beach Opera’s Frida

Theatre review

Frida Kahlo is a pop-culture icon. It’s easy to see the appeal– the effortless cool in her photographed portraits, the engaging unease in her self-portrait paintings. Long Beach Opera (LBO) avoids the superficial trappings of mass-market (think: Che on a shirt) appeal in their production of Frida. They beautifully place Kahlo’s political and social radicalism, the very essence to her identity as a woman and an artist, in the forefront.
Frida is staged outdoors in an adobe-influenced amphitheater at the Museum of Latin American Art (MOLAA). The production smartly includes a companion photo gallery for browsing before the show. It contains intimate portraits of the enigmatic Kahlo rendered by her lover– photographer Nickolas Muray– and these images confirm her instant iconoclasm. A lover’s blatant presence in her life narrative should come as no surprise to the already initiated; Kahlo and her husband Diego Rivera were known for their unfaithful, torrid marriage.
Kahlo’s cultural sway seems permanent– some guests, for example, arrived to Frida with traces of her fashion: red flowers in their hair, an indigenous texture on their dresses. A story like Frida risks mythologizing its eponymous lead, but thankfully Frida keeps us grounded as it describes her life (and death) in an impressionistic, raw swirl of an autobiography. An ugly, gruesome bus accident shatters the innocence of her childhood and leaves her a semi-permanent invalid. She pursues painting as she recovers from the accident’s trauma and begins a vexing, passionate marriage with Rivera, a famed muralist in his own right.
Frida embraces the multicultural contexts that Kahlo, and us as the audience, live in. Librettist Migdalia Cruz’s lyrics freely flow between Spanish and English (most but not all of it is translated for the audience). Robert Xavier Rodríguez’s music choices are inspired and, fittingly, span an array of genres. At times the music dips into Mexican folkloric melodies, and then back into more American flourishes. The choice is a clever one and mimics Kahlo and Rivera’s flip-flopping between their indigenous Mexican roots and American modernism.
Frida explicitly acknowledges the leftist roots of Mexican modernism. This is a refreshing antidote to artist biographies that often invisibly side-step their political radicalism. Kahlo is a self-taught painter– outside of institutions– and the projections of her paintings on the backstage remind us of their searing power. Her work suggests a deeply personal self, unapologetically indigenous and womanly. Her direct addresses to the audience tell of a woman who is sexually libertine, bisexual (before the term) and proud of her sensuality. Rivera is tricky, as he appears both a radical– his murals are a Communist-tinged antidote to art elitism– and a sell-out. Of course, this tension between the mass market and revolutionary ideals still swirls around Kahlo’s current image.
Laura Virella (Frida Kahlo) is a talented vocalist, and she smoothly displays Kahlo’s development from vulnerability and defeat into a self-actualizing power. Bernardo Bermudez (Diego Rivera) matches her energy and captures Rivera’s moody, brooding tendencies. It’s also worth commending the versatility of the supporting cast of four, who fluidly swap in and out of new roles for each scene as they go toe-to-toe with the leads.
Frida is an impassioned, thoughtful take on Frida’s complicated persona. Its mix of opera and theatrical styles, music genres and two dynamic lead actors make it worth a night out at the opera.

Frida continues at the Museum of Latin American Art, 628 Alamitos Ave., with shows on Saturday, June 24 and Sunday, June 25 at 8pm. Tickets are $49-$150. For reservations and information, call (562) 470-SING (7464) or visit longbeachopera.org/tickets.

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