In Opera Heaven: El Último Sueño de Frida y Diego

Photo: Jonah Raskin.

I love opera, especially Mozart’s, but I don’t love all operas. To the list of operas I do love, including The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni, I can now add El Último Sueño de Frida y Diego, which I recently heard and saw performed before an enthusiastic crowd in San Francisco. I sat in the last row of the balcony. A gay couple, who often attend the opera, urged me to see Madame Butterfly before it closed for the season. For a couple of hours, which went by quickly and pleasantly, I felt like I had been transported to opera heaven.

El Último Sueño de Frida y Diego is the first opera performed in Spanish at SF Opera, and the first to be written by a woman, Gabriela Lena Frank. It’s her very first opera. The libretto is by playwright Nilo Cruz, a Pulitzer Prize winner. The creative team is made up of individuals from nine different cultures, nationalities and artistic sensibilities. No wonder Lorena Maza, the stage director, says, “I believe projects like this one can help advance diversity and inclusion, helping us understand our different cultures and shared humanity.”

 El Último Sueño de Frida y Diego, which is translated as the Last Dream of Frida and Diego—their family names are unnecessary— tells a fabulous and a melodramatic story with comedy about Mexico’s two best known artists, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, who were husband and wife for a time and who also embraced other lovers. The opera takes place mostly in a cemetery on the Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, on November 2, 1957 when Diego died. It’s a big deal in Mexico and other parts of the world, including San Francisco where I make my home, and where Rivera and Kahlo lived and made art in the 1930s.

In two acts, with a large cast and a big orchestra, and colorful costumes, the opera oscillates between love and death, and between the redemptive power of art and the terrifying force of artistic impotence. Kahlo calls pot bellied Rivera “the frog”; he calls her “my dove,” He seems to need her as his lover and as his muse, far more than she needs him. Without her he’s next to nothing. Without him, she does quite nicely, thank you. This is a feminist production, though it wears its feminism lightly.

When the opera begins, Frida is confined to the underworld. Catrina, la Guardiana de los Muertos, (the Guardian of the Dead) coaxes her to return to the land of the living, not because she loves Diego and wants to live with him, but because she loves colors, wants to paint again and express herself.

The opera plays with the Greek myth of Orpheus, the singer, who descends into the underworld to retrieve Eurydice, the love of his life, reconnects with her briefly only to lose her forever. Frida and Diego come together in art and in death after he apologizes for the pain he has caused her. She accepts his apology and embraces him, thereby breaking Catrina’s rule about not touching and so she must return to the underworld. But she doesn’t return alone.

In real life, Kahlo experienced excruciating pain after a terrible and near fatal accident at the age of 18. Her relationship with the philandering Rivera brought her emotional suffering and psyche pain that sustained her art. His behavior was excused by the public and the critics. After all, he was a genius.

Frida was no less an original artist than he, though she lived in a misogynist culture. She painted herself again and again and documented her anguish, which has made her an international icon. Indeed, there’s a thriving industry that sells her life, her face, her body and her work to the extent that her fame has eclipsed Diego’s. The Ultimate Dream will make her even more famous than she is today.

It’s too bad that other Mexican muralists, such as José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueros, have been lost in the commotion to iconize Frida and Diego, who were both leftists and who rubbed shoulders with the exiled Leon Trotsky until he was assassinated in 1940. The opera says very little about the politics and the ideology that fueled Diego and Frida, though on one occasion she said, “I have a great restlessness about my paintings. Mainly because I want to make it useful to the revolutionary communist movement.”

Salma Hayek plays Kahlo and Geoffrey Rush plays Trotsky in the movieFrida, which boasts a screenplay by Clancy Sigal, among others. To do justice to Diego’s and Frida’s political passions would require another opera. It could have the same title as the opera I saw in San Francisco, only the dream would refer to their longing for a Mexican revolution that would end poverty and exploitation, colonialism and capitalism.

After it leaves San Francisco, the opera, which premiered in San Diego, moves in November to Los Angeles, where no doubt Diego and Frida will be viewed as the movie star celebrities they were in real life.

Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.