Friday and Saturday: Latin operas traverse real, surreal lives of painter, dancer


The fierce and passionate life of artist Frida Kahlo and the artistic passions of a fictional character seduced by Buenos Aires come to the stage when Cal State San Bernardino’s Opera Theatre presents two short operas April 25 and 26.

Frida_Press_small“Frida” and “María de Buenos Aires” are the double-bill shows appearing in CSUSB’s Performing Arts Recital Hall. The curtain rises for both shows at 7:30 p.m.

“This year we wanted to present the opera in a different light and give it a Latin flair,” says Stacey Fraser, CSUSB opera director. “Opera is not just limited to one type of style of music or audience. It’s an art form that can transcend language and culture.”

This year, the production will be dedicated to former CSUSB music major Ulises Espinoza. The baritone-turned-tenor appeared in every opera Fraser has produced at CSUSB since 2008. Cast in “María de Buenos Aires” as Payador, Espinoza died suddenly from a serious health condition in mid-March. Just last year, he had signed a contract with LA Opera. He was 24.

For this year’s production,  “Frida” will be performed in the evening’s first half, and “Maria de Buenos Aires” performed in the second half.

“I suffered two grave accidents in my life,” Frida Kahlo once said. “One in which a streetcar knocked me down. The other accident is Diego.”

Kahlo was talking about Diego Rivera, the painter who contributed so heavily to the Mexican Muralist Movement and to her tumultuous life. The two had married twice. An accident in 1925 between a bus in which she was riding and a trolley car almost killed her.

Her art became her therapy. She made herself the subject in about one-third of her paintings.

It has been proposed that Kahlo was known better during her life as the wife of Rivera. But her life and her paintings stood tall when they gained their own cult-like following in the 1970s, some 20 years after her death.

In “Frida,” composer Robert Xavier Rodriguez’s music draws on the romantic idioms of Mexican folklore depicting the complexity of pain, ambition, love and passion of Kahlo’s life.

The part of Frida will be played by two people. On Friday night, Julia Tilley, a CSUSB alumna from Redlands, will play Frida, and on Saturday, Frida will be played by Hazel Morales, a CSUSB music student living in Colton.

Like “Frida,” “María de Buenos Aires” cuts loose its own passions. Here, however, those passions are poured into tango.

“María de Buenos Aires” is an opera with music by Ástor Piazzolla. His nuevo tango style is a mix of traditional tango with elements of jazz. Fraser thinks of the music for “María de Buenos Aires” as “opera fusion.”MariadeBuenosAires_Press1_small

In the opera, María, born in the slums of Buenos Aires “one day when God was drunk,” wanders into the city. There, she is seduced by tango. The opera’s first half follows her surreal life as a prostitute. In the second half, after her death, she is reborn as a virgin, is impregnated by the “word of the goblin poet” and then gives birth to the Child Maria.

The choreography for “María de Buenos Aires” is a collaboration with the internationally acclaimed Mojalet Dance Collective of San Diego. The stimulating combination of opera, dance, drama and tango set the stage for an unforgettable performance.

At the Friday performance of “Maria de Buenos Aires,” Abir Naim, a CSUSB music major who lives in Rialto, will play Maria, while El Duende will be played by music major Erick Valencia, also of Rialto.

With the passing of Ulises Espinoza, critically acclaimed singer and guest artist Gregorio Gonzalez will play Payador for the Friday performance. In the last year, Gonzalez has premiered three new operas in leading roles; as Julian Duarte in Roger Bourland’s “The Dove and the Nightingale,” as David Alfaro Siqueiros in “America Tropical” by David Conte, and as the lumberjack in “A Shipwreck Opera” by John B. Hedges. For the Saturday performance, CSUSB music major Richard Lindsey will play Payador.

Guest artists Faith Jensen-Ismay will appear as dancer Maria and Robby Johnson as dancer Payador, as the two performers share the roles of these two principle characters. Child Maria will be played by Twila Fraser.

The Latin theme for this year’s opera production is fitting, says Fraser. “This gives us the opportunity to tap into another audience in our community and generate more supporters of the arts.”

The opera kicks off the CSUSB music department’s Celebrate Music Week. The entire week of activities leads up to the 4th Annual Latin Jazz Fest, taking place during the Arts and Music Festival on May 2 from 4-9 p.m.

See more on the opera at “CSUSB Week of Music-Opera” on YouTube.

Tickets for the double-bill evening are $11 for CSUSB students, $13 for special admission categories, and $18 for general admission. Buy tickets online for “Frida” and “Maria de Buenos Aires” at or visit the music box office in the Performing Arts Building. Seating is limited.

Music box office hours are Monday-Friday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information on tickets and other music department events, visit or call (909) 537-7516.