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Chicago Opera Theater, Luna Negra Dance team for rarely staged tango opera

Peabody Southwell stars as Maritango oper“Maride Buenos Aires” Harris Theater for Music Dance.  | PhoBY Keith Ian Polakoff

Peabody Southwell stars as Maria in the tango opera “Maria de Buenos Aires” at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance. | Photo BY Keith Ian Polakoff

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♦ 7:30 p.m. April 20, April 24 and April 26; 3 p.m. April 28

♦ Harris Theater for Music and Dance, 205 E. Randolph

♦ Tickets, $35-$125

♦ (312) 704-8414;

Updated: May 20, 2013 6:10AM

Earthy, soulful and fiery.

Astor Piazzolla took these essential qualities of the tango and invested them with even greater depth and complexity, as he merged the traditional form with jazz and classical music and took it off the dance floor onto the concert stage.

Piazzolla’s nuevo tango style, which he pioneered in the 1950s and ’60s, became a hit with audiences of all kinds, and he remains one of the best-known composers of the 20th century.

Wishing to tap into the power and popularity of his music, Chicago Opera Theater, along with Luna Negra Dance Theater, will present the composer’s rarely performed tango opera, “Maria de Buenos Aires.” The production opens April 20 at the Harris Theater and runs for three additional performances.

The score will be performed by an eight-piece ensemble that includes the bandoneon (performed by guest artist Peter Soave), a kind of push-pull concertina that creates a deep-throated, sensual sound — long an integral part of the tango.

“Bandoneon is the instrument that really leads the color in the orchestra, and that’s also the part that Piazzolla played himself in performances of ‘Maria.’ It’s almost a character in the piece,” said Andreas Mitisek, Chicago Opera Theater’s general director, who also will conduct the work.

The 75-minute opera is usually set in the 1930s and ’40s, with many of the stereotypical elements associated with the tango. But for this production, which was first staged in 2012 by the Long Beach (Calif.) Opera, Mitisek wanted to do something more daring.

Written in 1968, “Maria” tells the story of an Argentinian everywoman who is born in the outlying slums of Buenos Aires. She moves into the city and is abducted and killed, shifting into a kind of shadow world before being reborn.

Mitisek, who at Long Beach also served as the production’s stage director, conceived the idea of setting the work during Argentina’s “Dirty War” in 1976-’83, when the country was terrorized by military juntas and at least 30,000 people disappeared.

In this production, which includes projections of period news footage and photographs of actual victims, Maria becomes a symbol of the desaparecidos and the opera’s shadow world represents the prisons, torture chambers and hidden graves.

“We’re telling a story of things that really happened,” Mitisek said, “and, in the end, I think it is more powerful than inventing a story that has an imaginative power but is still lacking the connection to reality.”

Gregorio Luke, a frequent lecturer on Latin American art and culture, plays the non-singing role of El Duende (The Narrator), who in this version is a survivor recalling his memories of Maria. Luke believes the opera’s updated setting offers audiences a powerful way to connect with the horrors that befell Argentina and remain very much a part of its psyche.

“It’s something that is everywhere,” he said. “Sometimes people try not to talk about it, but it is so present that I remember when we did this piece for the first time, that from the stage I could hear the sobs of some of the audience members, who were weeping over their own memories, their own Marias.”

For the title role, Mitisek chose mezzo-soprano Peabody Southwell because she is a compelling singer and a vivid actress willing to venture into tough emotional realms onstage.

“I’m trying,” she said, “to embody the energy of Argentina in the beginning, this sort of joyful, passionate, free woman, and then watch her be suppressed, tortured, raped and killed by this awful regime.”

Though Southwell spoke about the production after a day of rehearsals focused on its grim torture scene, she seemed unfazed.

“It’s much harder for me to do roles where I’m just skimming the surface of one human prototype,” she said. “Getting something where you really get to create this huge arc of a person and you get to go through the highest moments of a life and the lowest moments ­— that’s where the work is and that’s what for me is fun.”

Kyle MacMillan is a locally based free-lance writer.

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