Andreas Mitisek is only half-kidding when he says he's lost count as to exactly how many hats he will be sporting for the production of "Maria de Buenos Aires" his Chicago Opera Theater will open Saturday night at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance.
The company's general director will not only conduct the first staged performances of Astor Piazzolla's "tango operita" to be given in Chicago but he also will direct, design and administer the show, which originated in January 2012 at his other opera company, Long Beach Opera, in southern California.
"I guess you could say this production makes me what we would call in German a gesamtkunstler – a total artist," says the Austrian-born Mitisek.
It isn't ego but, rather, his passionate belief in the work that led him to make himself virtually the entire artistic team, not including the singers, dancers and instrumentalists. A bold and edgy interpretation such as the one he promises COT audiences is probably best realized without so many hands around to possibly spoil the artistic broth.
Mitisek is going for a grittier, more topical, more political interpretation than a literal reading of Piazzolla's colorful score and Horacio Ferrer's surrealistic libretto would suggest. The COT director sets the work during Argentina's 1976-83 "Dirty War" against leftists, when an estimated 30,000 people were kidnapped, imprisoned, murdered, tortured, or simply disappeared, at the hands of the ruling juntas.
In the original, Maria is an incarnation of the tango, a prostitute who is killed by pimps and thieves and is reborn as a mysterious, symbolic figure not unlike the Virgin Mary. In Mitisek's grittier version, Maria represents all the women who suffered during the "Dirty War," many of them raped and tortured by the secret police, their children torn from their arms and destined to grow up never knowing the identity or whereabouts of their parents.
"Piazzolla radicalized the tango as an art form, took it to a deeper level, intensified everything about it," says Mitisek. "In our staging, the tango becomes a dance of violence, more aggressive than it is carnal. The world of shadows in which Maria dies here becomes the world of the prisons into which she is swallowed up. Our reimagined story fits the music and text like a glove. We didn't have to change one word of the text."
Maria, sung by mezzo-soprano Peabody Southwell, is the ultimate metaphor for the heart and soul of Argentina, a symbol of the resilience of all who struggled against and fell victim to political oppression, and worse, during that bloody chapter in the country's recent history. Throughout the 70-minute opera pulse the bittersweet melodies and sensuous rhythms of the tango. The dance is transformed into a spiritual force too powerful to be snuffed out by despots.
When "Maria" was premiered in Buenos Aires in 1968, a number of critics didn't know what to make of Ferrer's oblique text. Piazzolla already had been accused of desecrating the classical purity of tango with his "nuevo tango" creations. Some critics complained that the libretto was all poetic imagery and no action. That will hardly be the case with Mitisek's production, in which prisoners undergo torture in the shadows while dancers from Chicago's Luna Negra Dance Theater move to Latin rhythms in the foreground. No tango cliches here.
"This is an intensely human story that will really touch people," Mitisek says. "Our version of 'Maria de Buenos Aires' is a history made up of wrenching, painful stories that are still going on in Argentina and other parts of Latin America. It's a history we need to remember."
The COT production will reunite the two singers (baritone Gregorio Gonzales and Southwell) and narrator (Gregorio Luke) from the 2012 Long Beach production. Mitisek will direct a nine-member instrumental ensemble made up of strings, woodwinds, percussion, guitar and bandoneon, the Argentinian concertina whose voice is practically synonymous with tango.
"Maria de Buenos Aires" may be regarded as the template of the kind of provocative music theater Mitisek wants to introduce to local audiences.
"My goal, really, is to do works that have relevance to who we are and what we are," the general director explains. "I'm not just looking for pieces with beautiful music that tell fun stories. I'm looking for musical and theatrical experiences that go beyond that. And COT is the ideal means to bring such experiences to Chicago audiences.''
Chicago Opera Theater's production of "Maria de Buenos Aires" opens at 7:30 p.m. Saturday and runs through April 28 at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance, 205 E. Randolph Drive; $35-$125; 312-704-8414, chicagooperatheater.org.
Chicago Phil sets 2013-14 season
The musician-governed Chicago Philharmonic under its newly appointed artistic director, Scott Speck, will increase its subscription concerts to five from four during its 2013-14 season at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall in Evanston.
Speck will conduct the season opener, Sept. 29, which includes Strauss' "Don Juan," Tchaikovsky's rarely heard Piano Concerto No. 3 (Kuang Hao Huang, soloist) and Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring."
Joel Smirnoff returns to lead the Nov. 10 program, which will include Brahms' Serenade No. 2 and Richard Strauss' "Metamorphosen."
The Feb. 16, 2014, concert, under Speck's baton, includes Wagner's "Siegfried Idyll," Mahler's Rueckert songs (Susan Platts, mezzo-soprano) and Strauss' "Bourgeois Gentilhomme" Suite.
Leif Bjaland is guest conductor on April 13, when the program holds Dvorak's Seventh Symphony and works by Vaughan Williams and Saint-Saens.
Speck will conclude the season on May 10 with Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in E minor (Ben Bielman, soloist) and excerpts from Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet" ballet.
The orchestra's current season will continue at 7 p.m. Sunday in Pick-Staiger with an all-Scandinavian program – works by Grieg, Sibelius and Svendsen – led by concertmaster David Perry.
For tickets and further information, call 847-866-6688; chicagophilharmonic.org
A number of Chicago musicians and ensembles will present concerts next week celebrating the 75th birthday of composer John Corigliano. Events are being gathered under the umbrella title "Forever Young."
The Gaudete Brass Quintet and Roosevelt University's student brass ensemble will take part in a free panel discussion and concert of Corigliano brass works, 6:30 p.m. Monday in Ganz Hall, 430 S. Michigan Ave.; 312-341-2238.
Fulcrum Point New Music Project under Steven Burns will perform Corigliano's original score to accompany the screening of director Ken Russell's 1980 sci-fi film, "Altered States," at 7 p.m. Tuesday in the Harris Theater at Millennium Park; 312-334-7777, harristheaterchicago.org.
Corigliano will serve as both curator and composer for the Chicago Chamber Musicians' second Composer Perspectives concert of the season, an all-Corigliano instrumental and vocal concert, at 7:30 p.m. April 24 in Ganz Hall; 312-819-5802, chicagochambermusic.org.
The Corigliano birthday festivities will conclude with pianists Ursula Oppens and Winston Choi playing his major piano works, at 7:30 p.m. April 25 in Curtiss Hall, 10th floor, Fine Arts Building, 410 S. Michigan Ave. The PianoForte Foundation is presenting the event; email@example.comTwitter @jvonrhein