Up Close and Personal: Tango plus opera equals unique music

Korby Myrick recently underwent a change of voice type from a lighter mezzo-soprano to a “dramatic” mezzo soprano, a heavier sound. (Photo courtesy Korby Myrick)

By Kenneth LaFave

The words “opera” and “tango” are rarely heard together, even when you are a professional singer.

“I just got the music today and I’m looking forward to learning the song,” says singer Korby Myrick by phone. “I love the tango.”

The song is called “Yo Soy Maria” (“I Am Mary”). But while Myrick, a veteran of more than 40 roles for Arizona Opera, has sung operatic music in Spanish before, she has never sung tango music, and she never thought an opera, of all things, would afford her that opportunity.

The opera in question is Maria de Buenos Aires, the first production scheduled by Arizona Opera for its ambitious 2018-19 season. While it is an opera in almost every sense – it tells a story through song on stage – its score won’t remind you of Verdi or Puccini.

Myrick will preview the opera in a free event at 2 p.m. Monday, September 24, in the Town of Oro Valley’s Council Chambers, 11000 N. La Canada Drive. The performance with commentary is sponsored by the Opera Guild of Southern Arizona, an organization devoted to supporting young opera singers and to educating the public in the art form. For more information, call 906.3792.

It’s one in a series of previews the guild will present this year, giving opera lovers and want-to-be opera lovers “the opportunity to hear singers up close and personal, as opposed to what can seem like several miles away in an auditorium,” Myrick explains.

It’s such a good idea, in fact, that Myrick and a fellow singer have started their own company to present concert versions of operas in people’s homes. “It provides a kind of immediacy you don’t get in large opera productions,” Myrick explains.

In addition to her Arizona Opera performances, Myrick has sung with Washington National Opera, Tulsa Opera, the Spoleto Festival in both its American and Italian locations, Opera Carolina, and the Pittsburgh Opera Theatre. She recently underwent a change of voice type from a lighter mezzo-soprano to a “dramatic” mezzo soprano, a heavier sound. Voice type for opera singers determines what kinds of roles they are cast in.

“I studied with a teacher who changed my life,” she says. “His name is Fred Carama. I’m now doing dramatic mezzo work because of him. Singing dramatic mezzo means you get to sing of lot of crazy, mean princess kind of roles.”

Myrick heard of Carama through the soprano Lise Lindstrom, whose career was stuck in a rut, but whose work with Carama led to lead roles at New York’s Metropolitan Opera.

While the lead role in Maria de Buenos Aires is not precisely a dramatic mezzo, it is a role with deep, rich low notes that suggests what Opera News said of Myrick: “Korby Myrick has emerged in a series of roles as a spectacular stage personality with a dusky mezzo and exotic looks.”

Maria de Buenos Aires was written by Argentine tango composer Astor Piazzolla as a celebration of the emotional charge of tango music translated onto the operatic stage. Piazzolla was both a classically trained musician and a master of the bandoneon – the accordion-like instrument that is a staple of the tango sound.

A famous story about Piazzolla relates that as a young man he sought out the advice of Nadia Boulanger, famous teacher to composers from Aaron Copland to Phillip Glass. At first, he submitted music that imitated the great composers of history. Then one day he played the bandoneon for Boulanger. “You idiot,” she said, “that’s you!” From then on, Piazzolla let the tango inform his compositions.

For more information about Arizona Opera’s production of Maria de Buenos Aires in Tucson and Phoenix, go to azopera.org