Classics, Collaborations and Kahlo

The Cincinnati Opera mixes it up with favorite productions and innovative works

click to enlarge "Frida" - Photo: John Grigaitis, Michigan Opera
Photo: John Grigaitis, Michigan Opera
Cincinnati Opera’s summer season combines the traditional with two recent works based on the lives of fiercely independent women, along with exciting debuts and technical wizardry.

The company’s website lists three operas for subscription packages, but artistic director Evans Mirageas insists that the season itself is not shortened in any way, especially with additional performances for all productions. “It’s four operas, period,” he says. Even if all four are not included in the subscription.

The season kicks off with La Bohème, Puccini’s most popular score with gorgeous melodies and brilliant orchestral touches, inspired by love among artists in Paris’ bohemian quarter. 

La Bohème’s conductor is drawing as much attention as the cast. Louis Langrée, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra’s music director, makes his Cincinnati Opera debut. For the former resident of Paris, it’s a perfect setup: conducting his orchestra in an opera about Paris in his new hometown.

“It’s one of his favorites,” Mirageas says. “When we sat down to determine what Louis wanted for his company debut, I don’t think he missed a heartbeat before answering La Bohème. Et voilá!” 

This co-production with English National Opera was last seen in 2010 and features a cast of newcomers and returning artists. Soprano Nicole Cabell, last year’s Rodelinda in Die Fledermaus, sings the fragile seamstress Mimí. Her lover Rodolfo is tenor Sean Panikkar, making his Cincinnati Opera debut. Soprano Jessica Rivera returns to sing the tempestuous Musetta and Russian baritone Rodion Pogossov is her on-again, off-again partner Marcello.

The production design drew inspiration from black-and-white photos taken by French-Hungarian photographer Brassaï. Director Natascha Metherell, who co-directed Cincinnati Opera’s 2010 staging of La Bohème with Jonathan Miller, returns, fully in charge this time around.

After this classic comes a more modern performance. Artist Frida Kahlo’s turbulent life was already operatic before Robert Xavier Rodríguez’s Frida premiered in Philadelphia in 1991. 

Kahlo’s provocative, colorful and often grotesque paintings reflected a life of struggle, defiance, political activism and excruciating physical pain, which was the aftermath of a nearly fatal accident that occurred when she was 18. And then there was her stormy marriage to painter Diego Rivera.

Rodríguez’s score garnered praise for its vivid renditions of Mexican musical styles, incorporating Classical and Popular motifs to evoke Kahlo’s fierce dedication to life — ¡Viva la vida! was her motto. Since its premiere, Frida has been produced throughout the world. Cincinnati Opera audiences will see the production mounted by the Michigan Opera in 2015.

The dynamic mezzo Catalina Cuervo, who dazzled audiences in 2012 as the titular role in María de Buenos Aires, returns as Frida, a role she performed for Michigan Opera. Production photos reveal Cuervo’s startling resemblance to the formidable artist and, by all accounts, she inhabits the part. The same holds true for bass-baritone Ricardo Herrera as Diego Rivera, a role he sang with Cuervo in 2015. 

Director (and University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music alum) Jose Maria Condemi plans to use the ensemble cast to bring Kahlo’s paintings to life. 

At the end of July, The Magic Flute returns to weave its fantasy of love, high idealism and some of Mozart’s most entrancing music. The company’s production comes from the Komische Oper Berlin and is based on a concept by 1927, a British theatrical group that combines live animation, music and stage action. 

In a 2012 interview, Komische Oper’s artistic director Barrie Kosky noted the difficulties in staging this work. But after seeing the groundbreaking work by 1927, which combined silent film, music and movement, Kosky knew he’d found a creative team to take on the challenges.

“It’s basically a silent movie come to life and the characters are conceived as some of the iconic silent film stars,” Mirageas says. The bird catcher Papageno is a tribute to Buster Keaton; the lustful Monostatos looks like the original Nosferatu, Max Schreck.

The opera’s dialogue has been greatly reduced and will be projected as supertitles, with piano accompaniment by Mozart — “a silent film by Wolfgang Mozart, so to speak,” says Kosky.

The cast includes veterans of this production who know the technical demands, including director Daniel Ellis and conductor Christopher Allen. Tenor Aaron Blake returns as Prince Tamino and Rodion Pogossov is Papageno. Newcomers include Jeni Houser as Queen of the Night, Tom McNichols as Sarastro and Kim-Lillian Strebel as Pamina.

Rounding out the season is the most eagerly awaited work: Missy Mazzoli’s Song From the Uproar, with a libretto by Royce Vavrek and a multi-media co-production with the always innovative concert:nova. 

This is another story of an extraordinary woman who defied convention to follow her own path. You’ve probably never heard of Isabelle Eberhardt, who was born in Switzerland in 1877. When her parents and brother died in quick succession, she left Switzerland for Algeria, dressing as a man, converted to Islam and fell in love with an Algerian soldier. Eberhardt survived an assassination attempt and, following a failed suicide attempt, died in a flash flood at the age of 27. Miraculously, her journals survived.

Song From the Uproar premiered in 2012 and was immediately hailed for its haunting score that incorporates Eberhardt’s words into Vavrek’s libretto. Abigail Fischer was enthralling as the original Eberhardt and she reprises the role for the Cincinnati Opera.

This opera was a breakthrough for Mazzoli, an acclaimed and sought-after composer, especially for opera. Her latest work, Breaking the Waves, based on the Lars von Trier film, premiered in October in Philadelphia to rave reviews. Mirageas compares her with two of the greatest composers for opera: Giuseppe Verdi and Benjamin Britten.

“She has a gift very few composers have: the ability to set the historical and locational world of the piece,” he says. “Her music transports you into Eberhardt’s world.” 

Performances are in the Aronoff Center’s Fifth Third Bank Theater and tickets are going fast, according to Mirageas. Mazzoli will be here for the opening.

Tickets are also being snapped up for Frida, but if you can’t make it, the Cincinnati Opera’s free community concert Opera in the Park, featuring Spanish and Mexican music, takes place at 7:30 p.m. Sunday, June 11 in Washington Park.

The CINCINNATI OPERA's 2017 season runs June 15-July 21. For Subscriptions and tickets, visit

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