Dark art of tango lifts opera with a passion

A surreal tango opera from Buenos Aires is all about the survival of a gentle muse

Olwen Fouéré as El Duende in the Cork Opera House production of Maria De Buenos Aires. Photograph: Clare Keogh

Olwen Fouéré as El Duende in the Cork Opera House production of Maria De Buenos Aires. Photograph: Clare Keogh


THE key to tango dancing is “to listen to your partner and to be guided,” says American choreographer John Heginbotham. As part of the rehearsal process for the Cork Opera House production of Ástor Piazzolla’s tango opera María de Buenos Aires, cast members are given regular tango lessons, led by professional dancers Hernan Catvin (from Argentina) and Simona Zaino (from Sicily.)

Tango, says Heginbotham, is a complicated, dark art form that originated as a dance of prostitutes, with, adds the show’s director Conor Hanratty, large helpings of struggle and pain, passion and sex.

This production is an Irish premiere. First performed in Buenos Aires in 1968, the opera tells the story of a girl from the slums who is seduced and corrupted by the underworld denizens of the city.

The title role is played by the West Cork-based Swedish singer Camilla Griehsel, who, according to Hanratty, “made the walls rattle with her powerful singing when we auditioned her in the Irish Theatre Institute”.

John O’Brien, the opera’s musical director, has wanted to stage it since he first listened to a recording of it six years ago. He was co-director of the Everyman Theatre’s Pagliacci, which won Best Opera Production at The Irish Times Theatre Awards earlier this year.

“Myself and Mary Hickson from the Cork Opera House have been trying to make work that is opera outside of the box,” says O’Brien. “We want to redefine opera. We applied to the Arts Council and were then able to get a creative team together.”

There is a cast of 16, eight of whom are actors and musicians, making the production very much an interdisciplinary effort. The local and international musical line-up includes Maurice Seezer, Kate Ellis, Carolyn Goodwin, Alex Petcu, Niwel Tsumbu, Una Palliser, Ciaran Moynihan and virtuoso bandoneon (accordion) player and tango musician Ville Hiltula.

As well as Maria, the other principal characters are the duende, played by Olwen Fouéré, and the payador, played by Nuno Silva.

“Each of these characters represents a different type of inspiration,” says Hanratty. “The duende is a folk spirit of Spanish culture. Maria is like the muse who is the reason the tango gets to be performed. The payador is like an angel who interacts with Maria throughout the opera.

“Maria brings tango to the city, with all its colour. But she realises that as well as the joy and life of the tango, there’s darkness and even death associated with it. The opera becomes more figurative than literal. It’s performed at a rollicking pace.”

With a set designed by Joe Vanek and lighting by Paul Keogan, the stage of the Cork Opera House will be transformed, at one point, into a waterfront bar, teeming with tango dancers, responding to the beat.

In the rehearsal space, there is a model of the stage that will be “an arena, a bullfighting ring and an amphitheatre in which everything happens – including some surprises”, says Hanratty.

He says that in the opera, Piazzolla “is very much riffing on the Catholicism of Argentina. The full name of Buenos Aires is Santa Maria de Buenos Aires. For an Argentine audience, linking together the tango and the patron saint of the city is not such a big leap.”

Maria has to walk through “the valley of the shadow of death”, says O’Brien. “I think an Irish audience, familiar with Catholicism and the Church of Ireland, will understand what’s going on.”

Piazzolla revolutionised tango in the 1950s by introducing new instruments, such as the saxophone and the electric guitar. Tango nuevo is the name given to this fusion of electronic and acoustic sounds – and tango nuevo dance is characterised by playfulness and attention to rhythm and melody.

Heginbotham says the initial hostile reception to tango nuevo is mirrored in the history of the city. “There was lots of conflict in this city, which was colonised. Maria is the representative of tango. This surreal opera is really all about her survival.”

Or, as Hanratty puts it, the story of Maria de Buenos Aires is very much a passion, played out in a city that is both beguiling and disturbing.

Maria de Buenos Aires previews at the Cork Opera House on Wednesday and Thursday and runs from Friday to Sunday as part of the Cork Midsummer Festival

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