The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation
By Alejandra Serna, Florida Grand Opera Jose Maria Condemi
As we move closer to March, things are gearing up for an innovative new project at Florida Grand Opera. As part of the Knight Arts Challenge, the company is getting ready to present the first installment of Unexpected Opera in Unexpected Places, a program designed to reach new audiences by producing lesser-known works in unconventional spaces. South Florida’s first taste of this will be a sultry double bill of tango themed operettas - Robert Xavier Rodriguez's Tango and Ástor Piazzolla’s María de Buenos Aires – taking over the popular Midtown music venue The Stage on March 21-24. The vision for this exciting show comes from Argentine director Jose Maria Condemi, making his debut with Florida Grand Opera. This ingenious young visionary shares his views and gives us a sneak peek into the production.
Q: Before you decided to pursue an artistic career, you studied medicine. How did you make the transition from medical school to the operatic stage? What did your family think? A: I played the piano and painted from an early age and then, while in medical school, I became involved in theater. However, opera was not part of my upbringing or even my musical taste until my early 20's. But when I became familiar with the art form, I was instantly hooked. I quit my career and decided to pursue a new one in the field of stage direction for opera. My undergraduate degree at the famous Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires was indeed in Opera Directing. But when I did my Masters at the University of Cincinnati, I actually did in theater, with a strong emphasis in opera, of course. My family was a bit ... confused and not at all supportive in the beginning. As time went by, they grew accustomed to my choice and started to see it as a valid career path.
Q: What was your first exposure to opera? A: It was through the opera Carmen and, specifically, the Agnes Baltsa and Jose Carreras recording. I just was so drawn to the passion and drama of the music and I could not stop listening to it.
Q: You are in high demand as teacher and trainer for young singers. How does your background as a teacher and mentor affect your approach to stage direction? A: I LOVE teaching and I see myself doing more and more of it in the future. Working with young artists of all levels and talents forces me to keep thinking about my own craft and the different ways I can obtain what I need from my performers to achieve the vision I may have for the piece.
Q: You directed a very successful production of María de Buenos Aires with Cincinnati Opera featuring Catalina Cuervo and Luis Alejandro Orozco, who will also join you in Miami. What is your vision for this opera? How will the Miami production be different? A: My take on the piece is very much one of "poetic surrealism." I take those cues from the text and the Piazzolla's music. A great deal of the material is cryptic, surreal, and hallucinatory. The language is highly poetic, but in the style of the slums of Buenos Aires. Maria is a prostitute who is born every day only to die again at the end of each day. The production I created for Cincinnati Opera explores all of those components. The staging happens all around and in the middle of the audience and sometimes there is even simultaneous action taking place. There are some quite mysteriously poetic images: an angel, soccer playing, nightmares, some lighter comedic stuff, etc.
Q: You will also be directing Robert Xavier Rodriguez’s Tango? What is it like directing a work by a living composer? A: I have always enjoyed working with composers. In fact, as we chat I am at San Francisco Opera working on the world premiere of The Secret Garden, a new commission based on the famous book. Does not get any more exciting than to be able to discuss the piece with their creators!
Q: You worked with Maestro Tebar in Florencia en el Amazonas at Opera Colorado. How is your working relationship with him and why is the director-conductor relationship so important? A: I actually worked with Maestro Tebar even before Florencia, when we both worked in a production of Osvaldo Golijov's Ainadamar and I instantly knew I had met a great collaborator. I absolutely love working with Ramon because he is not only a consummate musician, but he also understands dramatic pacing and storytelling through music. I am thrilled to be working again with him!
Q: You’ve had experience directing a double bill in the past. What makes a successful double bill and how do you think María and Tango work together? A: I am very excited about this pairing of operas because the Tango piece is very light-hearted, almost like a wonderful little appetizer for the main dish that is Maria de Buenos Aires. So, in that regard, I think it will be a very successful double bill because they complement each other very well.
Q: How does your Argentinean background affect your vision and direction for this production? A: I cannot even discern that because, for me, there is no "separation" between the piece and my upbringing. I grew up so incredibly close to Piazzolla's music, to the culture of tango, and to its flavor that sometimes I actually have to work HARDER at thinking what exactly is that I need to convey. Not because I am not familiar with it, but precisely because I am so close to it.
Q: As a Hispanic artist, how does it feel to make your Miami debut with FGO? And doing a tango production, no less! A: I am terribly excited about the pieces we are doing and, in particular, about working for FGO. It is actually a bit of an irony that, just as I became an American citizen two years ago, that was exactly when the offers to do work related to my own culture and language started to appear: Ainadamar in Cincinnati, Florencia en el Amazonas in Denver and Utah and now Maria de Buenos Aires.
Q: In your own words, what can the people of Miami expect when they come see this production? A: They should expect a very different opera experience, not only because of the material (tango) but also due to the way we are presenting it - in a "nightclub' setting with the audience very close to the performers for a wonderfully intimate experience! Those that do not regularly come to the opera should attend because they will be gladly surprised to find out how much they will enjoy this double bill. And those hard-core opera fans will be equally thrilled to experience their beloved art form in a very different setting.
Catalina Cuervo. Photo by Philip Groshong for Cincinnati Opera.
Tickets for the March edition of Unexpected Opera in Unexpected Places are now on sale. General admission tickets are $25 and can be purchased through the Florida Grand Opera Box Office online at www.FGO.org or by calling 800.741.1010. You can also stay up to speed by following Florida Grand Opera on Facebook and Twitter.