Q & A: Venezuelan Soprano Maria Brea on Singing at the Metropolitan Opera in ABT’s ‘Like Water for Chocolate’

By David Salazar
(Photo Credit: Eliana Brea)

For two-plus hours, the American Ballet Theatre’s “Like Water for Chocolate” takes the audience member on a rapturous journey about star-crossed lovers, Tita and Pedro, struggling with death and loss over the course of half a century. The work, choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon and with music by Joby Talbot, is an adaptation of the iconic novel by Laura Esquivel.

The experience is immersive, with Talbot’s score adapting folkloric Latin American music while infusing it with European classical approach; one of the most prevalent musical leitmotifs is a percussive triplet figure that almost seems to personify fate and struggle. Meanwhile, Wheeldon’s choreography molds traditional ballet with more modern physicality and dance.

The experience builds much like one would anticipate from modern ballets, until at the end of the story, after 25 years of struggles and separation, Tita and Pedro strip down (the stage also strips everything away) and dance a pas-de-deux that culminates in them ascending amidst an engulfing projection of fire. But what makes this experience all the more epic and transcendent is that after two hours of just orchestral music, suddenly, we hear a voice. A voice singing in Spanish. At the Metropolitan Opera, where the language has rarely featured in most of this century and the last (until of course “Florencia en el Amazonas” makes it belated Met debut nearly 30 years after its world premiere in 1996).

For American Ballet Theatre’s production, that singer is Venezuelan soprano Maria Brea, who competed in the 2022 Operalia Competition and was a finalist of the 2022 Paris Opera Competition. Brea has appeared with such companies as Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, Boston Philharmonic, Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra, The Richmond Symphony, New Camerata Opera, and Teatro Grattacielo.

Brea spoke to OperaWire about her experience singing in Spanish with the American Ballet Theatre at the Met Opera as well as her upcoming projects and hopes for the coming season.

OperaWire: How did you get involved with this production of Like Water for Chocolate for ABT?

Maria Brea: I was recommended by a Metropolitan Opera current director. I am grateful for her and for her believing in me. Our music director at American Ballet Theatre made a call to the Met and she kindly recommended me for it! Since then ABT dancers, conductors, pianists,  Orchestra and administration have become like a family to me.

OW: You sing a poem by Octavio Paz at the end of the ballet. What is this poem about and how do you think it connects with music and the work?

MB: This poem is overflowing with passion and inevitability. It beautifully captures the challenges of love and the triumph of two souls becoming one. It perfectly encapsulates the moment in the Ballet where Tita and Pedro finally unite after years of struggle. The words are sensuous, mirroring the dance, and the music evokes a Strauss-like orchestration, at times creating an intimate atmosphere, especially during the guitar solo (which happens to be my favorite part because I get to make music with my colleague Mexican composer and guitarist Tomás Barreiro).

OW: This is your first time singing at the Metropolitan Opera. What did it feel like to perform at that iconic venue and in Spanish?

MB: The very first rehearsal at the Met Opera was led by no other than Maestra Alondra de la Parra who I got to do four performances with. I was trying not to cry, I felt so much in my soul and I kept asking myself “Is this real?” I am one of the first Venezuelan women to sing in this iconic house and in 12 years that I have been living in NYC I have not had the opportunity to see any singer from my country sing on that stage. I felt proud and emotional. To sing in Spanish, especially after the Met hasn’t had this language featured on its stage for years and leading to a season where we will have the pleasure of seeing the first opera written by a Latin American Composer on the Met stage, it felt meaningful.

So many Latin American audience members came to me after the performance and expressed how pleased they were to hear Spanish at the Metropolitan Opera House.

OW: You also performed the piece in LA earlier this year. How were the two experiences different?

MB: LA was magical. We had an incredibly warm audience that filled the Segerstrom Theatre, the Pacific Symphony Orchestra was fabulous just as ABT Orchestra and our audience here in NYC. The main difference for me was doing the show for the first time and now having matured it, it feels more comfortable and more personal too. Every performance is different and every performance is an opportunity to do something better.

OW: Next up, you head to Maine for the Hogfish’s festival where you will perform in CarmXn as well as in a couple concert programs. What can you tell me about CarmXn, how is it different from the Bizet classic and how does it affect your approach to Micaëla? 

MB: Our take on “Carmen” is to re-think the original story, through improvisation and exploration of different views on gender as well as the experience of immigrants in the USA. I believe that it will give Micaëla perhaps a new depth of compassion towards the other characters. I have done this role 12 times and I am so excited to approach it with a new technical/emotional perspective.

OW: You will also be performing in a few recitals. What will you be performing and what do those pieces mean to you?

MB: In terms of recitals I’ll have the opportunity to play the Venezuelan Cuatro as well as the Maracas. I’ll bring some songs from where my grandmother (who was Afro-Venezuelan) was from, as well as other traditional songs. I will also be singing in Felix Jarrar’s project/recital and premiering some of his gorgeous music.

OW: As we wrap up 2022-23 and prepare for 2023-24, what were some of your most memorable performances of this past season and why? What are you most excited about next season?

MB: I am super grateful for this past season! It took me to so many different places in the USA, I went to Latvia for the first time and went back to Venezuela after nine years to get my passport and got to sing three last-minute recitals. I was the first Venezuelan Opera Singer/soloist to sing with the Boston Philharmonic and I got to sing with a Venezuelan Conductor for the first time at Tucson Symphony Orchestra. I got to collaborate with so many friends, opera stars, legendary conductors, and sang from Händel to Golijov, from Symphony Hall to the Metropolitan Opera, and from Spanish to German, Portuguese to Ladino, and more.

What I look forward to the most in the 2023-2024 season is to return to the role Donna Anna with Vero Beach Opera; to sing for the very first time in Canada; to sing “Messiah” in Spanish with Phoenix Symphony; and to do my very first two recordings. I hope to be able to travel more with my twins and family during this upcoming season.


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