Ten years ago, Marcus Küchle first heard the music of legendary Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992), courtesy of a former Indiana University classmate. If it wasn’t life-changing, it made Küchle a Piazzolla fan, with a special fondness for Piazzolla’s tango opera Maria de Buenos Aires.
“That captivating quality of his music never left me,” recalled Küchle, Cincinnati Opera’s (CO) Director of Artistic Operations.
A few months later, Küchle discussed staging Maria with Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra (CSO) clarinetist Ixi Chen, who was forming the chamber ensemble concert:nova. Chen could not yet make the commitment but she was hooked.
“We love Piazzolla and did his music in our first season. I am very intrigued with chamber opera and bringing opera to smaller audiences.”
Küchle took it to Evans Mirageas when he arrived in 2005 to take over as CO’s artistic director. Mirageas was enthusiastic “and we tried more than once to find the right way to produce this unconventional masterpiece.”
Nearly a decade later, after a series of dead ends, the stars aligned perfectly. In December of 2011, CO and concert: nova announced two performances of Maria as part of the 2012 season.
The ultimate validation: Both sold out more than a month before July 25’s opening night.
Piazzolla was one of the 20th century’s most prolific composers, with more than 1,000 works in his catalog. He is the acknowledged creator of nuevo tango music, fusing classical and jazz elements with traditional tango and adding brass, woodwinds and the electric guitar to the ensemble.
Despite often-vicious criticism from tango purists, Piazzolla’s music is the touchstone for contemporary performance.
In 1967, Piazzolla invited Uruguayan poet Horacio Ferrer to collaborate on a tango opera. Ferrer published a history of the tango and even played the same instrument as Piazzolla — the bandeón, the Argentine version of a concertina. “Ferrer inspired him to put his music a new form,” says Ixi Chen.
A hybrid of opera, music theater and performance piece, the surreal storyline follows Maria from birth to her arrival in Buenos Aires, where tango seduces her and leads to a life of prostitution. She is murdered and resurrected, becoming the embodiment of tango.
Maria premiered in 1968 in Buenos Aires and is rarely performed, although it’s acquired cult status. It might be a “small opera,” but its challenges are formidable. In addition to specialized singers, the cast requires actors, a bandeón player, tango dancers and the right venue.
“We are very venue driven,” said Chen, whose ensemble has performed in warehouses, restaurants, the Freedom Center and the 20th Century Theatre. “We wanted this to be intimate and have the audience be part of the scenery.”
Music Hall’s stage was out, but the adjoining ballroom was just right, with the advantage of a built-in bar. “Maria is set in a bar, so we developed a theater-in-the-round layout,” Küchle explained. “Tables for four are scattered throughout, with three smaller stages at different elevations.” The rest of the audience will be seated on risers surrounding the playing area. Total seating: 432.
The cast features Catalina Cuervo, a native of Medellin, Colombia, who has sung Maria in two productions. “She really embodies the role and she was incredible in the audition,” Küchle says. Mexican baritone and CCM student Luis Orozco takes on five characters, and world-renowned Colombian actor Jairo Cuesta portrays Duende, the mysterious narrator.
Securing the talents of Tony award winning dancers Fernanda Ghi and Guillermo Merlo was a major coup. “They are amazing dancers, incredible,” Küchle says, crediting local tango dancer and instructor Patricia Paz with putting him in touch with the duo. “They’re not only concert dancers, they make it a theatrical experience.”
And the ultimate icing is director (and CCM alum) José Maria Condemi, a native of Buenos Aires. “We hired José Maria to direct La Traviata before we decided to do Maria, and the timing was perfect,” Küchle says. “He’s always wanted to direct Maria. He told me, ‘I really love this piece. I’m from Buenos Aires and I understand what they’re saying.’ ”
That’s another challenge — no space for subtitles, so Condemi is creating narration to guide the audience through the action.
Chen and Küchle are confident that there will be future collaborations. But there’s another challenge. Neither one has a ticket.
“I’ll probably be standing in the back by the bleachers,” Küchle says, wryly. Chen will be next to him (Maria has no clarinet part) and she doesn’t mind.
“We should always have such problems!”
MARIA DE BUENOS AIRES is sold out. To check for availability, call the Cincinnati Opera at 513-241-2742.