A New Perspective: Arizona Opera opens season with ‘Maria de Buenos Aires’

The Arizona Opera will open its 2018-2019 season with the tango opera Maria de Buenos Aires. (Photo by Jeff Roffman)

By Laura Latzko

Since its debut in 1968, Astor Piazzolla and Horacio Ferrer’s tango opera Maria de Buenos Aires has challenged audiences’ perceptions of opera by blending different styles.

The Arizona Opera will open its 47th season in Tucson on Saturday, October 6, with a production of the 50-year-old contemporary opera.

The surreal opera tells the story of Maria, a woman in the slums of Argentina who turns to a life of darkness and prostitution and comes back to haunt the city following her death.

The company, which performs in Phoenix and Tucson, will also produce Daniel Schnyder and Bridgette Wimberly’s Charlie Parker’s Yardbird, Giuseppe Verdi and Francesco Maria Piave’s La Traviata, Kevin Puts and Mark Campbell’s Silent Night and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Lorenzo da Ponte’s The Marriage of Figaro.

Arizona Opera President and General Director Joseph Specter says during the 2018-2019 season, the opera company will engage longtime patrons and new audiences by presenting traditional operas and more modern works.

“The program we have coming up this year is all about serving those folks who have been involved with the art form for years while at the same time finding opportunities through the repertoire to reach across our community more broadly,” Specter says.

The company will present its first two operas of the season at the Herberger Theater Center in Phoenix and the Temple of Music and Art in Tucson, both new venues for the Arizona Opera. It will move back to Phoenix’s Symphony Hall and the Tucson Music Hall for its last three productions.

Specter says the first two operas of the season will give audiences a new perspective of the art form.

“Our two-opera series has edgier, more contemporary works that I believe will stretch people’s imagination to what opera is, the stories it can tell and the people that it can reach,” Specter says.

The Arizona Opera started in 1971 in Tucson. During that time, cities throughout the country founded regional opera companies.

Throughout the years, the company has prided itself on showcasing cutting-edge works like the mariachi opera Cruzar la Cara de la Luna, the Wild West-themed Riders of the Purple Sage and Richard Wagner’s four-part opera series Ring Cycle.

The opera company will continue to showcase different flavors of opera music during the 2018-2019 season.

“We found the great chance to present Maria and Yardbird against each other, a jazz-influenced and tango-based opera, as a way of showing this breadth of musical language that the opera could access,” Specter says.

The company also engages with the community through book clubs, lectures, an opera and gelato film festival and a school engagement program.

Students from local colleges and universities, including ASU and the University of Arizona, work with and receive further professional training with the company.

For its shows, the Arizona Opera auditions and asks opera singers from around the country to return. Its production of Mara de Buenos Aires will feature Catalina Cuervo as Maria and Luis Orozco as El Payador, an ex-lover and guide trying to help the main character along the way.

Companies throughout the country have produced Maria de Buenos Aires in more traditional and modern venues, including bars, during its 50-year history.

Orozco has played El Payador in 19 productions of Maria de Buenos Aires. He debuted with Arizona Opera in the company’s production of Florencia en el Amazonas. Orozco says each production of Maria de Buenos Aires is different because of the directors’ visions.

“They all put their own flavor to it, their own taste. I’d imagine the best part of it is that it is so surreal and that you can interpret it a number of different ways,” Orozco says.

In the Arizona version, an actress, instead of an actor, will take on the speaking role of El Duende. Orozco says Maria de Buenos Aires highlights how opera is relevant to modern audiences.

“I think everybody who knows opera and is in the opera business or is an opera fan realizes opera is not really that outdated,” Orozco says.

“We are still struggling in 2018 with the same issues that they were in the 17th and 18th century of class divide, of political oppression.”

In the Arizona production, his character takes on a savior-like role.

“The character is a beam of light in Maria’s path. She chooses this life of darkness, and he’s the person that’s there constantly trying to be a light in her life,” Orozco says.

When he started performing in the show, the opera was challenging because of its improvisational style and use of Argentinian slang. He says within the surreal opera, the poetic language helps to create mental images for audience members.

“The real enchantment of the piece is the music, the way the music helps those images come to life, and it creates more of an ambiance for the audience,” Orozco says.

The dancers in the show also play a role in moving the plot forward.

“It’s almost like they become silent actors throughout it. They express the story through movement,” Orozco says.

The singer took an interest in opera while taking voice lessons as a percussion major. He said that one influential teacher introduced him to opera, and he was hooked.

“I think I fell more in love with the actual art form than with the performance,” Orozco says. “I love performing. I love being onstage, but I think where I really geek out is the actual art form of opera. I find it fascinating and just musically so interesting.”