South American music and dance traditions share the spotlight in the first full opera sung in Spanish at Florida Gulf Coast University.
“Maria de Buenos Aires,” a tango opera combining songs and spoken dialogue with choreographed ballroom dancing, will be performed at 3 p.m. Sunday, April 30, in the Music Building’s U. Tobe Recital Hall. The concert is free and open to the public.
“We have done scenes before but have not done a whole Spanish production,” says Thomas Cimarusti, a music history professor and artistic director-conductor for the program.
“This is a chamber opera. It’s short – about an hour and 15 minutes. Putting a full opera production together is very labor intensive.”
Special staging effects and performers singing and dancing in costumes will enhance the visual atmosphere of “Maria de Buenos Aires,” which dramatizes the life and afterlife of a woman of the streets. It is the only opera written by Argentinean composer Astor Piazzolla, who blended the traditional tango with elements of jazz and classical music. The afternoon’s program will open with music from another part of South America, selections from “El Condor Pasa,” a Peruvian zarzuela combining music and drama.
The program has been made possible by grants from FGCU and the Seidler Fund, Cimarusti says, which helped pay for professional choreographers and musicians to work with the student cast. The students have been working on the production as part of a class that includes performers and those working on props, scenery and stage management.
Cimarusti sees the project as an opportunity for FGCU and the Bower School of Music & the Arts to engage the Hispanic community on campus and around Southwest Florida.
The soprano describes “Maria de Buenos Aires” as “a dark, twisted, evil ‘Carmen,’ ” referring to the opera about a Spanish vixen who suffers a tragic end. Piazzolla’s poetic lyrics and surrealistic narrative describe Maria’s journey as she revisits Buenos Aires as a ghost.
Besides tango culture, the opera evokes street slang, working-class struggles and the passion defining daily life in the city. English translations will be shown on a screen in the recital hall.
“The emotions of the music are so thorough and saturated throughout the whole work that you almost don’t need that reference,” Pepe says.
Another aspect of the opera that’s unusual is the instrumentation. The small chamber orchestra is augmented by prominent use of guitar and bandoneon – a type of concertina or mini accordion-like instrument that is a signature sound of South American music, especially tango.
Cimarusti hired a professional bandoneon player for the performance.
“It’s the instrument of tango and one of the things that makes this work unique,” he says. “I don’t know if there are other tango operas out there – there may be. But this is a special piece. The music is so enticing and so beautiful.”
“We have a lot of students from South America, and there is a large South American community in Southwest Florida,” he says. “As a university, we are trying to become a Hispanic-Serving Institution, and this project was pitched to help facilitate that. We want to provide projects for students that embrace Hispanic culture.”
The Hispanic community doesn’t often see itself represented in classical music, says Daniela Pepe, a junior music performance major from Clearwater, Florida, whose family is from Venezuela. She sings the lead role in “Maria de Buenos Aires.”
“The average opera house does not perform pieces like this,” she says. “This a chance to see yourself and the culture of Latin America within an art form that has frequently excluded us or not thought of us.”
Productions like “Maria de Buenos Aires” can help change that, Pepe believes. She hopes to forge a career in classical music and opera and has been training in voice since she was 14. Her high school, an arts magnet, offered a classical voice program that enabled her to take weekly lessons. FGCU offered her a four-year full-tuition scholarship after she won a soloist competition at a Bower School music clinic.