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New Orleans Opera Association opens 75th season with a tango opera

Maria de Buenos Aires opens Sept. 9

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The allure of tango dancing at Buenos Aires clubs draws Maria to the city. But things do not turn out well for the young peasant, and that may have been her fate. Maria "was born on a day when God was drunk," says the libretto of Maria de Buenos Aires. "She has the sound of three crooked nails in her voice." She becomes a prostitute and lives among thieves and brothel owners.

  Called a tango opera, a small-scale opera involving tango instead of a more classical style of dance, Maria de Buenos Aires is a lusty and surreal passion play created by Astor Piazzolla in 1967. El Payador, an Argentine folk musician, and El Duende, a spiritual counselor who also serves as a narrator, help tell her story, and other roles are filled in by a small chorus, which in one song psychoanalyzes Maria.

  One of the most performed Spanish-language operas, the show opens the 75th season for the New Orleans Opera Association (NOOA). The Saturday evening performance is presented in conjunction with Casa Argentina's annual gala (tickets are available to the public through Casa Argentina). The Sunday matinee includes tango lessons from professional dancers and a milonga, an open tango dance after the show.

  NOOA adds to its typical slate of grand operas at the Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts in the 2017-2018 season. A trio of chamber operas scheduled at different venues, a gala concert of opera hits and a jazz opera by Terence Blanchard help mark the milestone year and reach out to new audiences.

  "The thrust with opera (companies) throughout the country is to get out and about," says NOOA artistic director Robert Lyall. "[To] offer performances that are smaller-scale, more intimate shows that can be equally powerful and broaden the menu. We'll still be doing Mozart and French repertoire and requisite pieces in Italian, but there will be more variety."

  NOOA has focused on grand opera, the classic 19th-century French style with full casts, choruses and pageantry, and on Italian verismo, a style grounded in realism. With its chamber operas, NOOA is seeking to extend its appeal, particularly to young audiences.

  "There is interest in smaller-scale pieces that are more intimate," Lyall says. "People are seeking works ... that are contemporary and meaningful."

  Maria de Buenos Aires will be presented at the JW Marriott. It's in Spanish with projected English supertitles. In January, NOOA mounts Tabasco at Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carre. George Chadwick's 1894 operetta is named for the Louisiana hot sauce. In it, an Irishman passes himself off as a French chef to a Pasha, who commands the chef to spice up his cooking or face the consequences. In June, The Medium is an hourlong opera about a fortune teller who confesses to conning clients into believing they've communicated with their deceased children. But she's stuck when her clients refuse to believe they haven't spoken to lost loved ones.

  In October, NOOA reprises its 1943 debut presentation, a double bill of Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci. It's followed in November by Orpheus in the Underworld, Frenchman Jacques Offenbach's irreverent retelling of the Orpheus myth (the score includes the music that became synonymous with cancan dancing).

  Blanchard's Champion is scheduled in March. It recounts the story of world champion boxer Emile Griffith III. At the weigh-in before their 1962 fight in Madison Square Garden, Cuban boxer Benny Paret taunted Griffith over rumors Griffith was gay. In the fight, Griffith crushed Paret, who left the ring in a coma and died 10 days later, which haunted Griffith for decades.

  NOOA celebrates its 75th season with a concert featuring many of opera's most stirring musical pieces, including the "Grand March" from Aida, "Te Deum" from Tosca, the closing chorus from Turandot and Porgy and Bess' "O Lawd, I'm on My Way, " Summertime" and "It Ain't Necessarily So," Lyall says.

  Reaching new audiences involves overcoming some stereotypes about opera, Lyall says, such as, "It ain't over till the fat lady sings." Lyall notes that there was a time when "operatic acting was an oxymoron," and that large singers tended to stand immobile while performing. But that's no longer the case for operatic direction or the frames of modern opera performers. The appeal remains the complete experience with full choruses, symphonies and sets, he says.

  Many popular operas have plenty of drama. Maria de Buenos Aires has a tawdry story, but is it any more salacious than NOOA's typical offerings?

  "No," Lyall says. "We just did Tosca recently. In Tosca, you have the greatest hypocrite in opera, Baron Scarpia, lusting after Tosca while he is singing the "Te Deum' in church: 'Ah Tosca, you make me forget God.' Of course, he tries to rape her in the second act and she stabs him through the heart. Then to dramatize her exit when she goes to save her lover from being executed by the firing squad, they trick her and tell her it's a fake execution and kill him anyway, and she jumps off the prison wall. So no, opera is not short on interesting moments."

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