“Maria de Buenos Aires” is virtually synonymous in the modern day with Colombian soprano Catalina Cuervo. She has performed the Astor Piazzolla and Horacio Ferrer work more than any other singer in its history, appearing in 16 productions to date and over 60 performances.
From her formative years in Colombia, Cuervo knew that she wanted to be on an opera stage. Her Great Aunt had been the famed coloratura soprano Alba del Castillo (the most famous coloratura soprano in Colombia’s history) and had grown up listening to her recordings, which her grandmother held to dearly.
She seemed set on a musical path, studying electric guitar at a school dedicated to rock music and heavy metal. And when her own teacher Hugo Restrepo told her parents that she had the talent to make it in music in the United States, the idea was that she would fly from South America to North America to study guitar. “But the moment I got here, I changed my major to classical singing.”
And she has never looked back, making a successful career as a soprano and, especially, as “Maria de Buenos Aires,” which she will perform with the New York City Opera on Oct. 22, 26, and Nov. 2.
So what is it that makes Cuervo perfect for Maria and Maria perfect for her? OperaWire recently spoke with the soprano about her journey with Piazzolla’s dramatic masterpiece ahead of her New York City Opera showcases.
OperaWire: Let’s start at the beginning. What was your first encounter with “Maria de Buenos Aires?”
Catalina Cuervo: I will never forget my first encounter with the work because it was an incredible experience on so many levels. It was in 2011 with the Chicago Latino Festival at the Chicago Cultural Center, which could fit around 400-500 people. Every show was sold out. We got amazing reviews and for me personally, I fell in love with the work and discovered a lot as an artist.
I am actually a lyric soprano, but the role of Maria demands to be sung in your chest voice. When I was asked to do it, I didn’t really know if it would work for me. But I discovered this part of my voice with this first production and realized that this work was perfect for me.
OW: What are the challenges of taking on this famed piece?
CC: The biggest challenge, especially as a Colombian, is being authentic to the style of the work. Every work of art requires a certain level of authenticity to be successful. This work is very Argentine and you have to fit into that mold with your accent, your Spanish, your attitude.
Colombians and Argentineans are very different. Not only in how we speak, but how we carry ourselves. So I needed to find that Argentinean mannerism and attitude onstage. I want people to feel I am Argentinean. It remains a major challenge for me.
OW: What steps have you taken to find this authenticity of style?
CC: First, I studied as much as I could about “lunfardo,” which is the slang or “language of tango.” So when you read the libretto, you might find yourself completely lost. So to better understand Ferrer’s lunfardo, I sat with as many Argentineans as I could to really understand it. And I actually went to Argentina to study with maestro Ferrer and ask him what he wanted from his text. This is the first step. Then there is dance and other things.
OW: How do you incorporate the dance into your interpretation?
CC: Not every production uses tango. In some, it’s used more than others. But obviously, I wanted to have some facility for when choreographers want to use dance in my work so I studied tango for six months before I did my first “Maria.”
OW: You noted that this role is quite different from other opera roles you are used to performing vocally.
CC: Vocally, I had to find that challenge of singing it in the tango style, but also remember that I am performing with an opera company because often, the opera companies are the ones presenting the work. But Maria’s singing is in the tango style and it is essential to find that facility. It can be really challenging for an opera singer.
OW: Who is Maria then in your opinion?
CC: When I went to Buenos Aires, I asked Maestro Ferrer who Maria was.
He said, “Maria is tango.”
He was inspired by the story of tango and how it started being this simple and virginal form, just like a child. Then it developed, it became famous. Everyone wanted to sing it, perform it, and consume it. And from there it went through a period where people in Argentina and Uruguay, they actually wanted to destroy tango. They saw it as old-fashioned and unnecessary. But then it had a rebirth.
That’s the story that Ferrer wanted to tell through a person. So, Maria starts off as a child with innocence and dreams. And then she turns successful and everyone wants her or to be like her. She has an entire city at her feet. Then she gets killed and then at the end, she has a rebirth. It is a second lease on life.
It’s a story that we have all lived through. All of us start off innocent, then find some success, and even hit rock bottom in some instances before life gives us a second chance. We see that in our professional and personal relationships all the time.
OW: So how do you create a living and breathing character from such an abstract and symbolic ideal?
CC: It’s a huge challenge. It depends so much on the director to figure out how he wants to tell the story. When I see negative reviews, most of the time it is because people didn’t understand the story because the director chose to tell an “original story.”
For me, as Maria, the most important thing is that instead of telling a radically different version of the story, it is all about telling the story as it was written and intended. If we stick to the authenticity of what Ferrer wrote, then the audience will likely enjoy it more.
OW: How is the story being told in this production at New York City Opera?
CC: This production by Tomer Zvulun is abstract and very close to what Ferrer wrote. It is not quite so linear, but it is more authentic to the original intentions. More than just telling the story, the production’s objective is to use the space. It was designed to envelop the audience in the action going on around them. It will be more immersive. We will be walking through the audience and sometimes audience members might miss details. But ultimately it is more about the experience of making the audience feel that it is immersed in the world of tango.
OW: You will be working with Jorge Parodi, who you have worked with on several occasions. Why is he an ideal partner for this work?
CC: I would love to take him everywhere with me. Maestro Jorge Parodi is a brilliant conductor. He is so sensitive and a wonderful human being. He is a pleasure to work with but he is also very firm in what he wants. He knows the music of this work to perfection. He knows the libretto inside out. Jorge Parodi knows “Maria de Buenos Aires” completely in all respects and he conducts it perfectly. I love his tempi, the colors, and energy of his orchestra, and how he finds different emotions and colors. Jorge Parodi is number one when it comes to “Maria de Buenos Aires.”
OW: You have performed this work all over but have yet to showcase it in Colombia. Is that in your plans?
CC: It is my dream to do it there. I think it would be a huge success. Colombia loves tango and a work in Spanish is a huge draw for the audience. For me, “Maria de Buenos Aires” would be perfect for Colombia. I am dreaming of doing it in the next few years. I honestly don’t want to wait past 2020 to do it there.
OW: In addition to “Maria de Buenos Aires,” you are taking on “Frida” with Florida Grand Opera, which you did a few years back in Michigan Opera Theatre to great success.
CC: Yes, it was a massive success and the performances were all sold out. And it looks like it is going to be a big success in Florida. From what I understand it has sold more tickets than any other production they are doing this season. And that’s great because the work wasn’t always a big success. After its world premiere years ago, it actually disappeared because it didn’t do well. So it’s nice to see it back up and running.
OW: Which side of Frida Kahlo do we see in this work?
CC: This work was written based on her main biography. That same biography was used for the film with Salma Hayek. It tells her biography from her 15 years-old until her death.
OW: What do you admire most about Frida?
CC: A lot of things, but for me, her love for her country is the most important thing. I see myself reflected in that. I have lived in the U.S. for 20 years now and I am Colombian-American. I love this country. It has given me my career and so many other things.
But I am still Colombian in my heart, in my way of thinking, in my love for my country. I love Colombia with all its defects and problems and I dream of going back. My accent is still very much Colombian, as are my mannerisms, my coffee.
Frida loved Mexico so much. She came from a wealthy family and a high social status. But she still put on her dresses from Tijuana when she went to the U.S. because she wanted them to understand what Mexican women wore.