Tango opera brings 3 Milwaukee companies together
You wouldn’t usually associate Richard Hynson, conductor of the Bel Canto Chorus and the Milwaukee Chamber Orchestra, with hot tango music. But he will conduct members of the Milwaukee Chamber Orchestra and singers from the Milwaukee Opera Theater in Astor Piazzolla’s Maria de Buenos Aires Thursday through Sunday. The Danceworks Performance Company is the third leg of this effort; artistic director Dani Kuepper and Simone Ferro, a UWM dance professor, are the choreographers.
As it turns out, Hynson, who grew up immersed in Episcopal church music, led the BCC on a tour of Argentina last summer. In Buenos Aires, he got a close-up look at the tango, as practiced on the street and in dance clubs.
“I might not have felt so comfortable with this if I hadn’t had direct contact with the tango,” Hynson said, in a joint interview with Kuepper and Jill Anna Ponasik, Milwaukee Opera Theater’s artistic director.
Ponasik hatched the idea and lured her collaborators into staging the 1968 work, which Piazzolla created with poet Horacio Ferrer. All she had to do to get them to buy in was pass around a recording of the music.
“The first time I heard it, I put it on to play while I was taking a shower,” Kuepper said. “I forgot I was taking a shower. I just stood there and listened.”
Piazzolla originally staged the piece as a secular oratorio with hints of staged action. In some ways, that’s not a bad idea. The opera has little in the way of plot. Maria is a shadowy figure who wends her way through a tango underworld of brothels and clubs, is murdered and then rises again, over the course of 16 numbers. Hynson said it’s rather like Alice in Wonderland, with Buenos Aires cast as Wonderland.
“The libretto is definitely in the language of myth and metaphor,” Ponasik said.
“Maria evokes the feminine sacred,” Hynson added. “She’s an allegorical figure, a ghost conjured up by the music.”
The score was something of an allegorical ghost, too. Piazzolla (1921-1992) worked with his own tango bands for decades. Their arrangements amounted to little more than sketches. Hynson has worked hard on such things as making sure that the rehearsal numbers match among his 11 musicians and the vocal parts.
“The score is just a blueprint,” Hynson said. “I’ve told all our players there will be places where they improvise.”
All agreed that dance would be integral to the production. Kuepper turned to Ferro, who is Brazilian, as co-choreographer.
“Tango is our jumping-off point,” Kuepper said. “Very few actual tango steps are in the piece. Abstract dance forms work really well with this story, because it’s not about a narrative. It’s about poetic imagery derived from Ferrer’s poetry.”
Christal Wagner is the dance version of Maria. Catalina Cuervo, a Colombian-born singer now based in Chicago, will sing the role. She stepped in at the last minute to replace a singer who had to bow out due to a death in the family. Cuervo, who recently finished a two-year stint as a young resident artist with Chicago Opera Theater, has a special passion for tango music. Not only that, she just played Maria in Chicago in August.
Ponasik couldn’t believe her good fortune in landing Cuervo — just barely.
“We close on November 12,” Ponasik said. “On the 13th, Catalina is flying to Buenos Aires.”
The three companies will present Maria de Buenos Aires at 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday, Nov. 10-12, at Calvary Presbyterian Church (the big red one on 10th Street and Wisconsin Avenue). Free tango lessons at 7:15 p.m. are included. Tickets are $20, $25 for reserved seats and $15 for students and seniors; call Danceworks at (414) 277-8480 or visit the online box office.
Singers: Catalina Cuervo, Nathan Wesselowski. Dancers: Dani Kuepper, Kelly Anderson, Melissa Anderson, Simon Eichinger, Sara Gonsiorowski, Liz Tesch, Kim Johnson-Rockafellow, Holly Keskey, Christal Wagner, Liz Zastrow. Narrator: Daniel Helfgot.