by Grace Chinowsky
(This article was originally published on Real Change and has been reprinted under an agreement.)
Frida Kahlo never let turbulence and tragedy stifle her artistic voice.
The late painter from Mexico City, renowned for her dreamlike self portraits and portrayals of Mexican folk culture, pivoted from heartbreak and devastating health complications by painting her experience on canvas. Seattle Opera revived Kahlo’s artistic fearlessness in its bilingual adaptation of Laurence Anholt’s picture book “Frida Kahlo and the Bravest Girl in the World,” depicting the artist’s work and worldview in song before an audience of children and families.
Anholt published his book in 2016 as part of his larger series on “famous artists and the children who knew them.” The tale centers around Mariana, a young girl in Mexico City who dreams of being painted by Kahlo, like the rest of her family, but also fears the painter after hearing rumors about her circulating around town.
Seattle Opera’s adaptation of the book consists of just five opera singers, one pianist, and two simple set pieces, and brings Anholt’s book to life with a powerful English and Spanish libretto written by Mark Campbell, with music by Joe Illick.
Though the production has so far only played twice to live audiences here in Seattle, the show flexes the opera’s strides toward inclusivity while preserving musical and narrative meanings. The opera offered one sensory-friendly performance and one regular show, both of which ran about 35 minutes long and ushered youth participation with colorful costumes and playful musical reprises.
The opera opens with Mariana, played by soprano Hallie Schmidt (although the role is co-cast, so you may catch Mary Rose in the role instead), sporting a bright-orange dress and hair bow while examining a cabinet adorned with portraits of her family that Kahlo had painted. She introduces her mother Alicia (Virginia Elizondo), father Eduardo (Darrell J. Jordan), brother Eduardo Jr. (Chad DeMaris), and grandmother Rosita (Clarice Alfonso), who urge her to visit Kahlo’s famous house, Casa Azul, after noting that Mariana is the only member of the family who does not have a portrait done by the artist.
The set then shifts to represent the front of Kahlo’s house, where Mariana perches, poised to knock on the painter’s door but filled with nerves. Brooding piano swells as Mariana anxiously recounts how she’s heard Kahlo is a witch who has a skeleton above her bed and red eyes. Mariana counts to 10 in Spanish — with the audience — and knocks on Frida’s front door. Her gentle rap gradually morphs into a beat backtrack behind the piano.
Kahlo, also played by Elizondo, emerges with a flower crown, cane, bright-blue shawl, and yellow shirt. She introduces herself and her pets — a parrot, monkey, and dog played by Jordan, Alfonso, and DeMaris, respectively — who each sing, along with the audience, spirited jingles representing the sound of their animal, evoking the style of “Peter and the Wolf.”
Kahlo then sits at an easel while Mariana tremulously relays her anxieties. In one of the most pivotal moments of the performance, Kahlo tells Mariana that her portrait would “look at us unafraid” despite her fear, an acknowledgment of Kahlo’s view on making art about tragedy and pain.
The artist, whose most well-known works portray her tumultuous experiences with illness, disability, divorce, and femininity, viewed her art as expressions of unapologetic reality, not documents of despair.
Kahlo’s boyfriend and renowned muralist Diego Rivera (Jordan) then appears. He adoringly sings Kahlo’s praises in a tenor serenade while reinforcing “art can happen anywhere” — a clever message given Rivera’s preferred medium, the mural.
Rivera leaps into a grand jete while Kahlo hit a high note, and the pair then falls into a lilting harmony that serves as an uplifting reminder that “the world is better with art.”
After Rivera exits the stage and Mariana lauds his strength, Kahlo gently tells Mariana that women are stronger than men, comparing her bow to a warrior’s helmet. The message is relatively unorthodox for a repertoire that contains many archaic and borderline-misogynistic themes, and it represents an outwardly feminist display that the late painter may have appreciated. Some art historians have recognized Kahlo as a feminist figure because of her presence in the Communist political arena, refusal to comply with restrictions imposed on married Mexican women, and rebellion against feminine gender norms by retaining and even emphasizing traditionally masculine features, like her famous monobrow.
Kahlo then briefly describes her experience and recovery after a bus accident when she was 18, which left her bedridden for months and with lifetime chronic pain. She explains to Mariana that she didn’t believe she was an artist until her father bought her painting supplies while she was recovering from the accident, reflecting on the bravery she showed by exploring a new passion during a painful time.
Kahlo’s background inspires Mariana, who returns to Kahlo’s house every day for weeks until she finishes the portrait. The girl and woman clasp hands, and Kahlo asks Mariana to promise to be strong. The show closes as Mariana’s portrait joins the family wall, while the cast finishes the performance in a golden harmonization.
Parents in the audience frequently dabbed their eyes, while their children — many donning homemade flower crowns in Kahlo’s signature style — appeared captivated with the performance.
“Frida Kahlo and the Bravest Girl in the World” draws lessons from Kahlo’s creations and career by encouraging youth to conquer their fears through art. The cast projected stunning, seasoned vocals while curating a more participative experience for younger audience members through call-and-responses, chants, and singalongs.
Kahlo resisted the mold of gender, politics, and art by immortalizing her perspective with paint. Seattle Opera’s “Frida Kahlo and the Bravest Girl in the World” moves an ancient genre toward a refreshing direction — just like the late painter and her work.
“Frida Kahlo and the Bravest Girl in the World” will be performed at Powell Barnett Park at 10 a.m. on July 22 and Aug. 13. The opera will be performed at Highland Park at 10 a.m. on July 23 and Aug. 12. Seating is general admission, and tickets are free.
📸 Featured Image: Darrell J. Jordan, left, and Virginia Elizondo share the stage in “Frida Kahlo and the Bravest Girl in the World.” (Photo: Sunny Martini, courtesy of the Seattle Opera)
Before you move on to the next story … The South Seattle Emerald is brought to you by Rainmakers. Rainmakers give recurring gifts at any amount. With over 1,000 Rainmakers, the Emerald is truly community-driven local media. Help us keep BIPOC-led media free and accessible. If just half of our readers signed up to give $6 a month, we wouldn't have to fundraise for the rest of the year. Small amounts make a difference. We cannot do this work without you. Become a Rainmaker today!