Meet the soprano who played Frida Kahlo in Detroit this weekend

Mar 31, 2015 at 8:30 am

Last week, Colombian-born opera soprano, Catalina Cuervo, was nice enough to let us ask her questions. Cuervo played Frida Kahlo in Robert Xavier Rodriguez’s opera Frida last weekend at the DIA. She talked about her impressive résumé, Detroit, Frida, and pants falling down onstage.

Metro Times: If you don’t mind I’d like to ask you about your background. When did you decide to sing opera? Did you come from a musical family and/or begin training as a child?
Catalina Cuervo: As a musician, I started when I was five. At 12, I started playing electric guitar. I was actually a rocker. I went to rock music and I went to rock school for electric guitar. Then, at 18, is when I decided to come to the United States and study music and sound engineering. And I started singing at 18 actually. So a little bit after.

MT: That’s quite a resume! Were you a fan of opera then? Did you know you wanted to be a soprano?
Cuervo: I think there were a couple of influences in my life. When I started singing, to tell you the truth, I wanted to sing. Not necessarily opera. I just wanted to sing. But I really didn’t know my path right there. I was 18 and I knew I wanted to sing, but I didn’t really know where that was going to go? Now I like the opera because by great Aunt is the best soprano that Colombia has had in history. I grew up hearing her music and my grandmother telling me all these stories about her sister and about operas and zarzuelas and putting the music in my home and knowing about her. So I had a big influence because of my great aunt. Her name is Alba Del Castillo.

MT: Wow. Did she make records?
Cuervo: Yeah. She recorded. There’s not much online, to tell you the truth. There’s something on YouTube, like two or three videos, but she’s very well known in my country. Everybody knows who she is. She was a big star. She died before I was born, but my grandmother will always be talking about her and operas and zarzuelas and classical music and what she did, so it was a huge influence in my life. Then when I was about 12 years old my dad started taking me to the symphony in my city. And also to go hear sopranos and mezzos. I heard a mezzo from Colombia who is very famous when I was about 12 and it really made a huge impact on me. Her name is Marta Senn. So I did have that in the background. I knew about opera and I thought it was amazing. When I came to college and I started singing, I had the choice to choose between jazz studies and I chose opera. At my first lesson I discovered I had a huge voice which was a surprise for me. That’s how it started. I fell in love with the opera world and the stories and the singing pretty fast.

MT: Where did you study?
Cuervo: I started at Miami Dade College for my associate’s in sound engineering and music. From there, I went to University of Florida for my bachelor’s. From there I went to Roosevelt University in Chicago for Master’ and post-masters in music.

MT: Your bio mentioned that, in addition to being a soprano, you’re a model, fitness enthusiast and belly dancer. How do you find the time and energy to do all that? I can scarcely tie my shoes.
Cuervo: I worked as a belly dancer and as a model all through my college years, because obviously I wasn’t living from music. So I modeled and I was also a modeling instructor and an agent. I was a booker for other models and I did that for about eight years when I was in college in Florida. Then, when my career started taking off I still managed to do a little bit of television and a little bit of singing. I really love exercising. I exercise every day. Oh, and I’ve been a belly dancer my whole life and I also belly danced all the way through my college years. Both as an instructor and as a performer. I don’t do it anymore.

MT: Is belly dancing popular in Colombia?
Cuervo: It’s very popular in Latin countries and the reason I started belly dancing was my family is part Lebanese. I’m Lebanese from my mom’s side. So I was really in love with the music and I love dancing. I dance a little bit of flamenco and a little bit of tango, but I really love dancing and I was really good at it, apparently. I got paid to do it, so I guess I was ok. [laughs]

MT: Regarding your time in Detroit for the role of Frida Kahlo: How do you like it here? Feel free to be brutally honest.
Cuervo: Well, to tell you the truth, I haven’t had any time to see the city. I was going to go to the Ford museum and I had all these plans and I haven’t been able to do anything because I haven’t stopped. It’s been crazy. I don’t really know the city a lot. I can tell you about the people. The people here are so sweet and loving. Like, just right now, we went to the mall and every store you go in they treat you so well and they want to help you I really love the people in Detroit. I really do. Everybody’s just so nice. The city has been cold, though. The hotel, the opera house, the theatres…every place I’ve been the people have been so absolutely sweet and loves Detroit and is excited about the new Detroit and the way the city is changing. I really fell in love with the city, to tell you the truth.

MT: What brought you to Detroit and to working with the Michigan Opera Theatre?
Cuervo: The way that Frida came to me is because I did an opera with Florida Grand Opera, the company in Miami. They did an opera that I’m known for called Maria de Buenos Aires and when I did that opera there the composer of Frida [Robert Xavier Rodriguez] was there. And when I finished Maria de Buenos Aires he came to me and said, “You know what? I have this opera based on the life of Frida Kahlo and I think you’re perfect for it.” That was like two years ago. So then I said, “Send me the music. I would like to hear it.” And he did and I thought it was perfect for me, but that was the end of it. A year after that, Michigan Opera Theatre decided to do the opera and they contacted him and he recommended me.

MT: That’s quite a recommendation! Right from the composer.
Cuervo: Now, they did hear a couple of people. I had the recommendation from the man himself. [laughs] That was difficult to beat, I guess.

MT: Are there any other works by Rodriguez you’d like to tackle such as The Tempest? He has such a prolific and diverse body of work…
Cuervo: I haven’t looked at any of his other operas and he’s very straightforward about what he thinks of a voice or what is good for somebody. He hasn’t told me about anything else, but he’s actually really excited about writing something different, too. He’s thinking about writing something for me, but I don’t really know what it is or what it’s about, but, from the moment he heard me, he said, “you’re perfect for Frida.” And I think he’s absolutely right. It really fits me well both in the character and voice-wise, it’s perfect for me. It’s really amazing.

MT: Were you a fan of Frida Kahlo’s work prior to landing the part?
Cuervo: For Latina women…I think that, for most of us, she is an idol. Because she was such a strong Latina woman and proud of being Mexican. And as an artist, I consider her, and I think most of the world considers her the best female painter in the world. In my family they really love the arts. I have an aunt who is a very important painter in my country and she idolized Frida all her life.

MT: Who is your aunt?
Cuervo: My aunt’s name is Nanzy Samur. She’s a very important watercolorist. That was my favorite aunt and I was always with her and she idolized Frida like crazy. So I grew up knowing of Frida and loving her. When I went to Mexico, I went to her house and I was obsessed with buying things of hers like, little paintings and shoes and accessories. I love Frida. So, when he [Rodriguez] told me about doing an opera of her life, I was like, “can there be a more perfect story in life than Frida’s for an opera? Like, seriously.” Because it’s like tragedy after tragedy, but still beautiful, you know? This is perfect for an opera.

MT: Were you at all nervous or apprehensive about playing Frida? Getting it right, you know? She and her work means so much to so many people all over the world.
Cuervo: I was very … not nervous, but concerned that I would be prepared enough to do justice to the type of woman she was. I knew there was going to be so many people sitting in an audience that have never been in an opera, but they’re there only because it’s Frida. You know, a lot of people that love and idolize her…I wanted to be able to portray her for them to feel like that was for her and not saying, “Oh, she doesn’t look like her or act like her or no, Frida wouldn’t do that…” So, I studied for this character three or four times more than I’ve studied for any other character because I wasn’t going to do a character analysis and then create a character. This was a person that…This is Frida, you know? This is how she is and I had to analyze her and be very knowledgeable about everything of her. The way she talked and moved. Everything. Her expression…I needed to have her strength. Yeah. You could say I was nervous. I was definitely concerned that I wouldn’t be good enough and the people would not see her in me.

MT: With this production, the Michigan Opera Theatre decided to do things a little differently and put it on at some venues that they thought would be more accessible to audiences that wouldn’t normally go to an opera. Too many opera is, unfortunately, considered as something for the elite.
Cuervo: It really isn’t, but people think it is. So, it’s a misconception. This was Wayne Brown’s idea. The new appointed director. David DiChiera [MOT General Director and founder] had, for many years, the idea to do the opera Frida. He was just waiting for the right moment. Then, Wayne Brown comes to the Michigan Opera Theatre about a year ago. He had the idea of doing an opera at other theatres and reaching out to new audiences. So, they combined both ideas of: Ok. Frida is the Opera to reach new audiences. Latinos, for example. Definitely the Latin community. But just an opera that people in the arts…people that love the arts, but maybe have never been to the opera, but they love the museum…they know of Diego Rivera. They know of Frida. So, there were many reasons why Frida would be the right opera for people that maybe have never come to the opera. And then the other idea was maybe to take the opera to other cities … So, it would be more accessible. Like when we did in Macomb for people that live around there. And we did it at the Berman Center for the Performing Arts. Most of the people that went to that one were people that lived around that area. It was more convenient for them to go there then come all the way to the opera house. This weekend we’re doing it at the DIA just because it’s the DIA and the exhibition is there. It’s going to be huge, you know?

MT: Did you have a chance to stroll through the exhibit?
Cuervo: Yeah. I’ve been there twice. I kind of know it by memory know. It’s kind of surreal to sing the opera where Diego and Frida have been…It’s so amazing. They’re paintings are there. I think it’s going to be amazing for people to go see the exhibition. Go look at the paintings. Maybe have dinner. And then go to the opera. I think it’s a brilliant idea.

MT: Me too. Ok. I’m almost done. I like to ask a silly question of the performers I get the chance to interview. Do you have embarrassing onstage moments that you’d like to share? Like maybe you farted one time?
Cuervo: Well, Sunday…I don’t get embarrassed easily, to tell you the truth, but this was funny. There was a scene where, for the first time, I make love to my high school boyfriend, Alejandro. And then, very quickly I need to put my clothes on again. And we get into the bus right before the bus accident. So, Sunday, I got to the bus and my skirt dropped to the floor. [laughs] And then, obviously, we played it up. I kind of played it off as were laughing about it as kids. Actually, there’s another story, but it’s not about me. We were at a dress rehearsal at the Macomb Center and there’s a moment where Diego Rivera and Frida get married and they’re walking toward each other. When we were walking, Diego Rivera’s pants went down to the floor. [laughs] There were people in there and it was ridiculous … I couldn’t stop laughing. They had to stop because I just couldn’t control it. It was too funny.

MT: What’s next for you? Are you going to take some time off?
Cuervo: I have about two weeks off. My next thing is a Spanish Zarzuela Los Gavilanes … and after that I’m doing The Merry Widow in the capital. In Bogota.

MT: Any plans to return to Detroit and work again with the MOT?
Cuervo: There’s definitely plans for more Frida and also other productions. They’re definitely very happy with my work and I’m very happy with them and hopefully I’ll get to come back and be here again for sure.