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Spotlight: Orlando Opera paints the life of Frida Kahlo on stage

Cecilia Violette Lopez is a Mexican American soprano. She is playing the role of Frida in Opera Orlando's production at the Steinmetz Hall.
Orlando Opera
/
Opera Orlando
Cecilia Violette Lopez is a Mexican American soprano. She is playing the role of Frida in Opera Orlando's production at the Steinmetz Hall.

Opera Orlando will paint the life of Frida Kahlo on stage with songs in both Spanish and English.

Mexican American soprano Cecilia Violetta Lopez plays the role of FRIDA.

WMFE's Talia Blake caught up with her to learn more about the show, and what it means to her to play a Mexican icon.

Listen to the full conversation in the player above.

Talia Blake: Cecilia, thanks so much for joining me. First, can you tell me a bit about the opera FRIDA that you're starring in?

Cecilia Violetta Lopez: Frida is a production with Opera Orlando, and essentially what it is, is the autobiographical story of Frida. It's just her story told to music. It goes from the beginning, the early stages of her life, through her adolescence, when she has a horrific accident that left her bedridden. Then it shows her relationship with Diego, their marriage, their tumultuous marriage, I should say. Then it shows her all the way through the end and how she was addicted to drugs and alcohol for the pain. Then it goes all the way up to her death.

Talia Blake: As many of us know, Frida Kahlo was a Mexican surrealist painter, but was there anything surprising you learned about her as you prepared for this role?

Cecilia Violetta Lopez: Yes, I didn't realize how, because growing up Mexican American, we know who Frida Kahlo is, we identify her artwork very quickly, because she did a lot of self portraits. But all of the other work, it's not really known to us. For me, just as an artist digging into her and who she was, for example, I didn't realize that she was studying to be a doctor before she got in that accident. Then when she had to spend days in bed, that's when her father and her mother gave her the tools to paint essentially, and to pass the time, which I knew, but I didn't realize that her painting came before she met Diego. So for me, that was very interesting, and just to discover things about such a huge Mexican icon within our culture.

Talia Blake: Frida Kahlo has been accused by some of cultural appropriation, is that addressed in this opera?

Cecilia Violetta Lopez: Not really, and that's news to me, too. I didn't realize that, but no, in fact, this opera definitely shows Frida within her true Mexican culture heritage, all of what is Mexico and her Mexican roots is what shines through.

Cecilia Violetta Lopez sings as Frida Kahlo.
Opera Orlando
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Opera Orlando
Cecilia Violetta Lopez sings as Frida Kahlo.

Talia Blake: We talked about what you found that was really surprising. What's been the most rewarding part of taking on this role?

Cecilia Violetta Lopez: She's a really big historical figure. Me being little soprano me, I thought there were huge shoes to fill. There have been many great singers who have sung the role of Frida. I just think to myself, 'I hope to be able to raise to the occasion and tell her story like my colleagues have.' But just to know how iconic Frida was, it's really an honor. Being Mexican American myself, and being able to tell her story is just really a privilege, and I'm very fortunate, and it's very cool. Speaking from a Mexican aspect, because I'm telling a Mexican artist's story.

Talia Blake: It almost sounds like it kind of comes full circle for you and your life.

Cecilia Violetta Lopez: 100%. Yes.

Talia Blake: So it sounds like it's a very rewarding role for you, but have there been any challenges as you've been getting ready for this?

Cecilia Violetta Lopez: Yes, musically, it is a very challenging score. I'm not saying that the other roles that I've done, the more traditional roles, aren't difficult. But when it comes to, the music theory behind what composers did and writing their melodies, the ear just kind of follows that melody. For Frida, Maestro Rodriguez wrote very tonal. I want people to know that it's a tonal opera, but the melodies challenges your ear, because your ear wants to go somewhere else. And then Maestro went no, I'm gonna write this way. For me, it's been a challenge and that aspect because it's not your typical Puccini, it's not Mastane, it's not the roles that I'm used to singing. But it's a good challenge. It keeps me on my toes. It keeps everyone I think, in the cast on our toes, and it's just very musically satisfying to be able to dig into a score like this.

Talia Blake: It's kind of like one of those challenges where it's challenging but when you get through it, you feel so proud of yourself.

Cecilia Violetta Lopez: Yeah, it's like we walk away going, 'we did that.'

Talia Blake: Absolutely. Is it possible for you to give us like a quick little kind of example of what you're talking about?

Cecilia Violetta Lopez: Her aria, right before the development of the story happens, there's this beautiful melody, but then that goes from the higher registers to the lower stuff. It goes: (*sings*) Does is round my bed tonight, but I refuse to die. It's very up and then it goes down. And it's good, yummy stuff.

Cecilia Violetta Lopez poses for a portrait in her role as Frida Kahlo.
Orlando Opera
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Orlando Opera
Cecilia Violetta Lopez poses for a portrait in her role as Frida Kahlo.

Talia Blake: I see what you're saying, like a little bit of a roller coaster. You don't know where you're gonna turn. So that was awesome. But for people who may think an opera is not for them, why should they come see FRIDA?

Cecilia Violetta Lopez: I love trying to brainwash people on telling them to come to the opera. Only because I use myself and my family as an example. I discovered opera much later in life. I grew up working in the fields with my mom in southern Idaho, and she instilled in me the love of music, but it was Mexican mariachi music that I grew up singing. That, for me, was my life. That's how we communicated, my mother and I. We used songs to be able to express what we were feeling. Whether we were happy, or she was angry at me, (or) if she wanted to get something through my head. There was always a song that she could use to tell me like Nah this is what I want you to feel because a song says this. Later, when I was in my early 20s, I discovered opera. I went to the opera not knowing what to expect. I went to go support some upperclassmen friends of mine. I walked out of the theater just completely changed, mind-blown, emotionally distraught, because I was so invested in the story that was unfolding in front of me on the stage. I thought for sure the soprano was going to live. That was a pivotal moment in my life. When I saw what my classmates did up on that stage, I said I want to be able to do that. Now, just again, like we talked about a little bit earlier, how it was kind of full circle. For me, those moments out in the field with my mom were so magical, and now being able to sing in all sorts of languages in Czech, Russian, Italian, English, Spanish, or whatever. But with this different style of singing, it's just also very magical. And just to know that my upbringing, which is very, very humble, and just those traditional Mexican roots of being a mariachi singer, and now being an opera singer. I am a firm believer that opera is for everyone, and I use myself to attest to that. So I tell everyone to come.

Talia Blake: And I'm sure you're hoping to bring those same emotions to people when they come to see FRIDA?

Cecilia Violetta Lopez: 100%. Yes, the audience just expect to really ride the roller coaster of emotions when it comes to Frida and her life. It's a journey definitely both emotionally and musically.

Talia Blake: Okay, so if people want to come on this journey with you and see FRIDA, where can they find tickets and location information?

Cecilia Violetta Lopez: Well, first of all, you better hurry because Freda is close to selling out! So we're at Steinmetz Hall on January 26 and 28. Tickets can be purchased at operaorlando.org.

After a brief stint as Morning Edition Producer at The Public’s Radio in in Rhode Island, Talia Blake returned to WMFE, the station that grew her love for public radio. She graduated with a double-major in Broadcast Journalism and Psychology from the University of Central Florida (Go Knights!). While at UCF, she was an intern for WMFE’s public affairs show, Intersection. In her spare time, Talia is an avid foodie and enjoys working out.
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