María, sung by Catalina Cuervas, reaches toward the sky as she dies.
María, sung by Catalina Cuervo, reaches toward the sky as she dies in the tango operetta María de Bueno Aires. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

North Americans like their heroes to have strong muscles and perfectly combed hair, but in Argentina, heroes and heroines tend to be broken people from the underclass who struggle to survive.

After gaining this insight from a friend of the librettist, Metropolitan Opera assistant stage director Sarah Erde has used it in her direction of Alamo City Opera’s San Antonio premiere of the tango operetta María de Buenos Aires. The heroine is a prostitute in the bordellos of Buenos Aires, “born on the day God was drunk.”

Performances are scheduled for Saturday, June 9, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, June 10, at 2:30 p.m. at the Buena Vista Theatre on UTSA’s downtown campus. Tickets, priced between $15 and $50, are available at or

María’s love of tango pulls her into a surreal, ethereal world enlivened by Argentine poet Horacio Ferrer’s words and composer Astor Piazzolla’s mesmerizing tango rhythms, which Erde describe as both sweet and brutal.

“For Ferrer and Piazzolla, María was the perfect heroine because she was a person struggling for redemption, a misunderstood person, a forgotten person,” Erde said. “I’ve chosen a style of magical realism, because María first is dead and the poet calls her back from the dead, then she is alive but is killed.

“In the second act she is a ghost and then as a ghost she gives birth to herself. So I figured we are not in reality, we are in heightened reality – magical mystical reality. I’ve tried to be as true to Ferrer’s extraordinary text as possible.”

Ultimately, she said, María’s story is one of “redemption, resurrection, immortality, transfiguration and salvation.”

Columbia-born Catalina Cuervo, who has played María in more productions of María de Buenos Aires than any other soprano, will perform the role in the Alamo City Opera production. She has sung the role in productions by the Florida Grand Opera, The Atlanta Opera, Cincinnati Opera, and Syracuse Opera.

The cast of dancers and chorus also features baritone Jose Rubio as El Payador and returning artist Blas Canedo-Gonzalez as El Duende. The story will unfold through the tango of Dallas-based dancers Jairelbhi and George Furlong. World-renowned bandoneón (concertina) master David Alsina of Miami will highlight an authentic tango orchestra led by conductor Kristen Roach.

Erde said she set the operetta in a Buenos Aires nightclub in the 1940s, “the golden age of tango, full of glamour and magic,” relying on the tango’s theatric quality.

“It’s very honest,” she said. “You’re meant to bare your soul honestly to the audience. I felt that was viscerally and visually communicated in the high 1940s age of tango.”

The Alamo City Opera’s set, lighting, and costume designers have transformed the stage into a realm that evokes her vision, leading the audience to a sensual state of mind. An English translation of the narration and singing will be displayed above the stage.

Mark A. Richter, general and artistic director of Alamo City Opera, has been producing opera of varying scale in San Antonio for 25 years. He believes the form of small opera, such as María de Buenos Aires, is perfect for San Antonio’s audiences and culture.

“Not to take anything away from grand opera, which is very powerful,” he said, “but people across the country are looking for new elements of entertainment, and intimate opera is flourishing.

“Little companies are coming up and doing contemporary operas, and presenting ingenious new works that are part of contemporary politics. This is a time when people are very proud of their diversity and able to finally speak out about it. But they also are harrowing times that make up what opera is all about.”

For the 2018-19 season, Alamo City Opera is staging productions that focus on transgender issues and on being a soldier, Richter told the Rivard Report.

“We have to have contemporary opera,” Richter said, “or we are creating and producing in a vacuum.”

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Nancy Cook-Monroe

Nancy Cook-Monroe is a local freelance writer and public relations consultant. She has written about San Antonio arts and civic scenes since she could hold a pencil.