María de Buenos Aires: A Tale of Passion, Seduction and the Spirit of the Tango

An operetta filled with passion and the tango.
An operetta filled with passion and the tango. Photo by Pin Lim
It's not uncommon for operas to be filled with passion, betrayal and evildoers. An operetta about to be performed at Opera in the Heights — Maria de Buenos Aires — has all of that and one thing more: the tango.

The 90-minute straight through story tells the tale of Maria (mezzo-soprano Sishel Clavarie) who has arrived in the slums of Buenos Aires from a nearby suburb and been seduced into the underworld by the music of the tango. She becomes a prostitute. There are surreal aspects to the composition with poetry by Horacio Ferrer and music by Astor Piazzolla since Maria dies halfway through and then continues her story as a specter, reborn as a virgin and giving birth to what may be herself.

"I love Maria because it’s like surreal poetry set to music," Clavarie says. "And tango is a kind of music that has always had some allure to me. Maria, there is such a mystique around her. There's this woman trying to find herself and in doing so she loses herself to the city and to tango. And then she is reborn so there is a huge arc to the character. "

The tango music used in this operetta is not what most people expect when they hear the word tango, Clavarie and the stage director/set designer Grant Preisser say. "Celebrating not the ballroom tango, not the European tango, but really where it is the dance of the people and it's kind of where you’d gather on a Friday night and just hang out and everybody would be there," Preisser says.

"It’s not grand opera but again it’s the power of Piazzola’s music puts you immediately at ease. It’s mostly orchestral and dance music, " says Priesser who is making his debut at Opera in the Heights. "The music is so accessible and beautiful."

The surreal aspects so open to individual interpretation were also a large part of what attracted Preisser to this production, he says. "Maria is born. She represents old tango. She arrives in Buenos Aires and is sort of used by the city and dies and then becomes reborn as new tango. So it's basically a metaphor and sort of the evolution of tango in Buenos Aires.  It has a bit of a feminist bent to it in that a woman can sort of re-emerge and own her own power, " Preisser says.

Baritone Blas Canedo Gonzalez has the mostly spoken part of El Duende and Baritone Octavio Moreno sings the El Payador (balladeer role. JP Jofre is the Bandoneonista who plays the concertina.

Clavarie, who comes from Guadalajara, says when she was growing up her mother was always playing opera music but she didn't like it.  But as she listed to more classical music it grew on her, she says. She moved to Mexico City to study singing — and joined a rock band and was in theater troupe. "But opera always called me. It was the best combination of my two passions which are theater and singing." A chance encounter with a University of Houston professor while she was on scholarship in a singing training program in Mexico City led to a scholarship for her at UH. She went on to get her master's at Rice.

Preisser also had a somewhat circuitous route to being an opera stage director and designer. "I had a background in theater and I did my undergrad in voice. My first semester I was cast in the opera and going through that experience it really did bring everything together. Theater and production and music and voice and artistry. I did a few different things after that. I did interior design and taught. I could kind of do whatever I wanted I was looking at my experience in design and my love of opera and wanted to marry that together and going back and getting a directing degree was very exciting to me. Currently I’m a freelance director designer and work as companies hire me."

Clavarie sees her character as an innocent girl thrown into the world of tango. "She gets lost in it; she becomes bewitched by it."

"Piazzolla uses tango that is expressing desire and also expressing sadness, expressing melancholy and nostalgia. And there's waltzes and there's all sorts of tango that often you don’t hear very much," Clavarie says. "There are so many ways of expressing emotion though tango other than the cliche, the two lovers dancing in the heated moment and there's much more to tango than that."

Performances are scheduled for February 15-23 at 7:30 p.m. Fridays, Thursday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at Lambert Hall, 1703 Heights Boulevard. Performed in Spanish with English surtitles. For information, call 713-861-5303 or visit operaintheheights.org. $40.50-$94.50.
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Margaret Downing is the editor-in-chief who oversees the Houston Press newsroom and its online publication. She frequently writes on a wide range of subjects.
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