To experience the authentic passion of tango in a seedy red-light district of Buenos Aires, you don’t have to make an overseas trip, thanks to Opera San Antonio.
On Friday and Saturday evenings, the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts resident company will transform the Carlos Alvarez Theater into a functioning cocktail bar for an immersive performance of María de Buenos Aires, a 1968 two-act opera by Argentine tango composer Astor Piazzolla and Uruguayan poet Horacio Ferrer.
A theatrical playground
Just before the coronavirus pandemic hit San Antonio in 2020, the nine-year-old opera company added a third concert to its usual two major productions per year. The third production, performed during the winter season, was intended to allow the company to experiment with smaller and more casual productions in new venues.
At the time, General and Artistic Director E. Loren Meeker characterized the effort as “a real playground” for Opera San Antonio, and María is a full realization of that vision.
Seventy-five audience members will sit at linen-draped cocktail tables in rows in the center of the space, with another 90 in chairs to the sides, creating a nearly 360-degree theatrical experience. Performers will roam throughout the theater space as scenes unfold at a bar, on a small stage opposite and on an elevated platform overlooking the audience, sometimes positioned close enough to see the beads of sweat on the performers, said Director Brian August.
This is the fifth time August has worked on María as an immersive experience, pioneered by Tomer Zvulun, general and artistic director of the Atlanta Opera where this version of the opera was first staged in 2017. Each venue provided a nontraditional space for operatic performances, August said, including a nightclub in New York and an antique shop in Atlanta that regularly hosts burlesque shows and weddings.
The Atlanta performances sold out immediately, he said, as have the San Antonio performances, which August said attests to the popularity of such innovative stagings. Also important for Opera San Antonio is that this will be the company’s first opera in Spanish, though in a particular Argentinian dialect that carries traces of European languages.
August described the Ferrer libretto as “surrealist Argentinian poetry,” and said his tendency is to watch the performers rather than follow the English supertitles because their emotions and the drama of tango carry all the information necessary to understand the action.
María is tango
Argentine baritone Gustavo Feulien said being eye contact-close to the audience only enhances the storytelling aspects of opera, and his role in particular. “It’s so enjoyable from both sides, for the spectators and for us,” he said.
Feulien plays El Payador, who functions as a kind of therapist or analyst helping María understand the dark motivations that have brought her to her fatalistic relationship with tango.
María is played by Colombian soprano Catalina Cuervo, who said she’s closing in on her 100th performance of the role. Cuervo benefited from meeting Ferrer 12 years ago, learning the author’s vision of the María character’s essence.
She asked him, “Who is María?” He answered empathically: “María is tango,” the embodiment of the dance, which arose in the poorer districts of 19th-century Buenos Aires before becoming a popular craze in Argentina and later worldwide.
María’s tragic decline and death echo the trajectory of tango, Cuervo said, as the national dance was overtaken in the 1950s and ’60s by rock and roll and kids lost interest in their native culture. In Ferrer’s telling, “María is a prostitute,” she said frankly. “Because he felt that tango was a prostitute to the city of Buenos Aires, it was used and empowered, but then it was thrown to the garbage can.”
As audience members will witness up close, however, Piazzolla and Ferrer were aware that tango had the potential to rise again from the shadows, just like María does in the second act. Piazzolla reinvigorated traditional tango by incorporating elements of jazz and classical music, just as Zvulun, August, and Opera San Antonio are expanding audience expectations of opera.
Performances Feb. 10-11 will run 90 minutes inclusive of a brief intermission between acts, relatively brief for opera, August said. “You’re not out super late, you can actually even go have another drink after if you want, in the style of the show,” he said, laughing.
Tangoing is optional but encouraged.