Maria de Buenos Aires: An Operita on Argentina’s Dirty War


On Sunday, the Long Beach Opera returns to the Warner Grand Theatre. It hasn’t been a frequent visitor to the 80-plus year old house. But with the performances of composer Astor Piazzolla’s Maria de Buenos Aires, set for Jan. 29 at 2 p.m. and Feb 4 at 8 p.m., opera will be returning with a vengeance.

LB Opera produced Maria de Buenos Aires once before, in 1994, but this time around they are producing a Maria on steroids, setting the opera not in its original working-class Buenos Aires in which the tango was born but in a city torn by the Dirty War, the period of dictatorship from 1976-1983 in Argentina in which as many as 30,000 people (or more) were “disappeared,” arrested, tortured and killed in the name of a military dictatorship inflamed with the idea of destroying left-wing terrorism. Including the story of Los Desaparecidos has changed the opera from a poetical one to a political event.

With music by Piazzolla (the man who, along with the legendary Carlos Guardel, turned the tango into a potent modern dance form) and text by Argentine poet Horacio Ferrer, the “operita,” has been produced all over the world since its 1968 debut. Maria stars the rising young mezzo-soprano Peabody Southwell, a veteran of Long Beach Opera who has been seen in roles as diverse as Ramirez in Vivaldi’s Motezuma and The Fox in Janacek’s The Cunning Little Vixen; Mexican-born baritone Gregorio Gonzalez; and in the speaking role of El Duende, making his stage debut, Gregorio Luke, former head of Long Beach’s Museum of Latin American Art and now a prominent lecturer on art and literature.

For Luke, on the other hand, the experience is unique. He has become a prominent lecturer internationally with his presentations utilizing dynamic slide shows on painters like Siqueiros and Orozco, and on literary figures like Hemingway and Octavio Paz. But he has never before stood on stage in an opera.

“It is something that I have never done before, “ Luke said in a recent phone conversation, “and it is really very dangerous.”

Not physically dangerous, as if he was going to fall off the Warner Grand stage, but emotionally frightening. “It’s dangerous because once I open that emotional window I don’t know where I am going. I knew people who lived through that period in Argentina, and when I let things go I have very strong emotions. Sometime I worry that I’ll lose all control and weep on stage. It’s like unchaining a wild horse.

“If I were an actor I would know how to pull back, how to control my emotions, but I don’t have any of the actor’s inhibitions. I can get into the role but but it is hard to pull back.” For Southwell the role is also challenging. “I approach the role more from an acting point of view than as a singer,” Southwell said in a recent phone call. “I’m playing a character based on a whole generation of people who lived through this period. I wanted to learn much about what they went through. It was a brutal time when everything was hidden so there were no rules, everything was done in secret.”

Southwell has done many many roles for LB Opera, but this one she finds the most challenging.

“Everything I have done for Long Beach Opera has been challenging, but this role definitely is the most difficult. I am doing this ole less as a singer than as an actor, because I want to convey what these people went through. And I’m doing more as a mime than a singer, more as a dancer than I have ever before.”

For Luke one part of his suffering has been absolutely visceral. He has lost 17 pounds since he began rehearsals. “I find it hard to eat anything,” Luke said. “The scene where Maria gets raped on stage is hard for me. I have to feel the punch of the rape in my stomach, and when I do, I want to vomit. I can’t but I am always feeling that way.”

The rape scene is only part of what Southwell has to suffer in Maria, but she appreciates Luke’s reaction. “It is a rough thing to have to simulate a rape on stage, and it is good to have someone who reacts so viscerally to the scene. Not like an actor who has played many roles but like a member of the audience.”

I adore Peabody,” Luke says. “She is the greatest singer of our generation. She not only has a glorious voice but the courage to go where other people don’t. She is giving everything to this role. She has studied these victims of dictatorship and when she comes on stage she has the power to tell their story. She is the star.”


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