Fort Worth — When setting out to write an opera for children, turning to an award-winning book aimed at that audience is a good idea. That is what composer Joe Illick and librettist Mark Campbell did when they selected Frida Kahlo and the Bravest Girl in the World by Laurence Anholt. This book is part of Anholt's “Artists Books for Children” series of books that introduce famous artists to the youngest generation. The work was given a world premiere last weekend at the Rose Marine Theater, presented by Fort Worth Opera.
Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, who has herself become a pop culture icon, was known for painting in a folk-art style to explore topics of race, class and the long-term effects of colonialism. The plot, based on a true story, concerns a young girl, Marianna Morillo Safa, and her trip to the artist’s studio to have her portrait painted. The Safas home is filled with portraits of all of the family members by the famous artist and it is her turn. So, we can assume that they are of some means.
Marianna (played by Robin Steitz at the performance reviewed; the roles are double cast) is sent to the studio alone without any family member going with her, which is an odd twist considering that you would expect some adult to accompany her. Nevertheless, going alone sets up the premise of the opera. She is afraid to even knock on the door. Rumors have run wild about the artist, even that she is a witch. However, Kahlo (Kayla Nanto, who also plays the Mother) greets her, assuages her terrors and invites her in. She discovers that many wonders await her once inside the studio, including a menagerie of animals — a monkey, dog, and a parrot (here represented by puppets designed by Cindy Page and played by Megan Koch, Christopher Curcuruto, and Lwazi Hlati). All turns out splendidly, as does her portrait, and the artist and child become fast friends.
Campbell’s libretto is a marvel: clever and informative yet easily understood. It explores the universal fear of the unknown. Best of all, it involves the audience in the action.
Illick’s music is equally clever and written for piano solo. Using minimal musical resources and eschewing anything that smacks of virtuosic display or “opera-ness,” his music is tuneful and features Latin rhythms. He uses dances, such as the habanera, to keep his score light on its feet. If there is a criticism, it is that his characters don’t really have a lot of distinctive music of their own to easily differentiate them from the other cast members.
Speaking of cast members, all in the production viewed were excellent and drawn from the Fort Worth Opera’s Studio Artists group. This is a training program for aspiring opera singers and the quality raises every year.
Richard Morrison’s comic book-inspired set is flexible, with Marianna’s home on one side of a rotating set piece and Kahlo’s studio on the other. Colleen Power’s costumes are authentic and Cindy Page’s puppets are adorable. Music director Charlene Lotz did a fine job at the piano, supportive but never intrusive. All of these elements are drawn together by the inspired stage direction of Octavio Cardenas.
The piece is designed to tour and will go into area schools starting in 2020. This is a much better idea than bussing the recalcitrant students to the theater. For one thing, it doesn’t take them away from studies for the whole day. For another, bringing such a clever show to them is more effective than the groan-inducing experience of dragging them to an “opera.”
It's also a brilliant way to generate interest in the Fort Worth Opera’s 2021 world premiere of composer Gabriela Lena Frank and librettist Nilo Cruz’s The Last Dream of Frida & Diego.
The children’s opera really needs to be seen to be appreciated, so the FWO as posted two clips on its YouTube page. We’ve also shared them below.
In the video at the top of this review, Marianna, sung by Robin Steitz, is frozen outside of the studio, afraid to even knock on the door. She implores the audience to “help me knock on the door.” Kayla Nanto portrays Frida, who greets her. In the clip below, Marianna meets all of the animals that live with the artist. Lwazi Hlati works the dog puppet, Christopher Curcuruto is the parrot and Megan Koch is the monkey. And, once again the audience is involved by joining in making the animal sounds.