'Frida' returns to Detroit in fiery opera. Soprano just wants to do her 'justice'

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

Performing some of the most challenging songs of "Frida," an opera based on the vibrant yet complicated life of iconic Mexican painter Frida Kahlo as it returns to Detroit next week, opera singer Catalina Cuervo isn't standing at an easel or with Kahlo's husband, Diego Rivera. She's lying in a bed.

Pain was a constant in Kahlo's life after she was in a horrifying bus accident in Mexico in 1925 that left her with a broken spinal column, collarbone, ribs, pelvis and leg. But so was love, resilience and, of course, art.

"The most difficult singing of the whole opera is that scene. It's the most difficult music and adding to that I need to be in a bed and have a cast on," said Cuervo, speaking by phone interview between rehearsals in Detroit this week.

Opera singer Catalina Cuervo (left) who stars as Frida Kahlo in the opera "Frida" during a rehearsal with Ricardo Herrera, who plays Diego Rivera,  at the Michigan Opera Theatre in Detroit on February 15, 2021.

"Frida," which unfolds Feb. 26-27 at Music Hall, marks a return to Detroit for Cuervo, who also portrayed the legendary artist when the opera was produced by Michigan Opera Theatre in 2015. Cuervo, a Colombian-Lebanese soprano whose nickname is the "fiery soprano," was essentially handpicked by MOT founder David DiChiera to portray Kahlo for the 2015 production.

In fact, the entire original cast from 2015, including actor Ricardo Herrara who portrays Rivera and director Jose Maria Condemi, are back in Detroit for next weekend's performances. And Cuervo is thrilled.

"Nothing comes close to the magic of 2015 — not artistically — just energetically," said Cuervo, 40, who was born and raised in Medellín, Colombia, but now lives in Miami. "All of us are beside ourselves to be back and to have most of our team back. And the new members just clicked immediately. It feels amazing."

Opera singer Catalina Cuervo (left) who stars as Frida Kahlo in the opera "Frida" during a rehearsal with actor Corey Roberts at the Michigan Opera Theatre in Detroit on February 15, 2021.

Cuervo said portraying the beloved Kahlo — who is adored in American culture; "there's just been this awakening. She's everywhere," she notes — was quite a challenge and is still one. 

"In opera, we normally play women, or characters, that are based sometimes from books or a new story, but not an actual person that people know and know everything about," said Cuervo. "For me, it was a challenge, and it's still a challenge to be authentic and to make people feel in the presence of her and do her justice."

Still, she admits it's always a challenge to not put a little "Catalina Cuervo in the character.

Colombian soprano Catalina Cuervo plays Frida, an artist who was entrenched in far-leftist politics, in “Frida.”

"I remind myself constantly, 'This is Frida.' I really want to pay attention to the detail and do her justice as much as I can," Cuervo said.

The opera, composed by Robert Xavier Rodriguez, originally premiered in 1991. It tells the Mexican painter's story from her teens until her death in 1954 at the age of 47. It follows her marriage to Rivera and, of course, the couple's time in Detroit, where they spent one year while Rivera painted his "Detroit Industry" murals at the Detroit Institute of Arts. At that time, Kahlo was essentially unknown as an artist in her own right.

"Frida" is a "perfect marriage of music theater and opera," said Cuervo. "...The music has elements of ragtime, tango, Mexican ranchera, European classical composition. It's just a mixture of rhythms and sounds."

It was in Detroit that Kahlo had a miscarriage at Henry Ford Hospital, one of several she had throughout her life. Her wrenching 1932 painting, "Henry Ford Hospital," depicts the experience of her lying on a hospital bed with blood under her and fetus nearby. The end of that pregnancy is depicted in the opera.

Cuervo said one of the most surprising things she learned about Kahlo while portraying her was the painter's open marriage to Rivera. Both had relationships with other people, but unlike the Hollywood depiction of their marriage, with Rivera painted as a "cheater," "their marriage was open from the beginning," she said.

"She never felt he was unfaithful," said Cuervo. "The only relationship that she was really hurt by was with her sister because it was more of a loyalty thing."

Opera is in Cuervo's genes. Her great aunt, Alba Del Castillo, was the most famous coloratura soprano in Colombia's history. She died of cancer in her 40s before Cuervo was born but "I grew up hearing about her. She was the pride of my family," she said.

"My grandmother would talk about her all the time and was always telling me I was exactly like her," Cuervo said.

In fact, it was Cuervo's grandmother who continued to tell her she had a beautiful voice, even though she played piano and guitar, "and it really influenced it me. It really got into my head, 'Maybe I do?'" 

Opera actress Clodagh Earls, who plays Ensemble-Calaveras in the opera "Frida" during a rehearsal at the Michigan Opera Theatre in Detroit on February 15, 2021.

She moved to the United States after high school, eventually achieving a master's degree in music and performing professionally around 2011. In 2014, DiChiera found her.

Today, Cuervo breaks boundaries not unlike Kahlo. She's an opera singer but also a symphonic metal rocker who has performed in several bands. She's currently producing her first album.

"I've been a rocker my whole life," she said. 

Ultimately, she hopes Detroit audiences walk away from seeing "Frida" next week with a better sense of both Kahlo and Rivera. Kahlo went through profound challenges, but you have to keep "loving life," said Cuervo.

"This woman went through hell and back during her life," said Cuervo. "But Viva la Vita — it means 'Long live life' or 'Yay to life.' Whatever horrible things we go through, still life is beautiful."

mfeighan@detroitnews.com

'Frida'

Feb. 26-27 at Music Hall Center for the Performing Arts, 350 Madison Ave. in Detroit.

Go to https://michiganopera.org/season-schedule/frida/.