Arizona Opera and Poet Laureate Alberto Rios Collaborate on Arizona Lady

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Arizona Opera's falls season opens with a collaboration that sets a high bar.

Arizona Poet Laureate Alberto Ríos recently collaborated with Arizona Opera for its production of Arizona Lady, an operetta set in Tucson in 1925. Think gold rush, rodeos, and horse thieves. It’s opera on the lighter side, with plenty of music, dance, and comedic elements. And it features a new English-Spanish translation by Ríos and Kathleen Kelly, who conducts the production. Ríos is a Regents' Professor at Arizona State University, where Kelly earned her undergraduate and graduate degrees in music. The opera was originally written in German.

“I suppose it was kismet,” Ríos says of getting involved. He’d run into Ryan Taylor, general director for Arizona Opera, during a Victoria Foundation Awards ceremony (which presents an award in Ríos’ name) just as Taylor was starting to think about mounting the production. At the time, recalls Ríos, it felt like “a gift from outer space.”

“Arizona Opera is trying to do things of intrinsic interest to Arizonans,” Ríos says. Arizona Lady, written by composer Emmerich Kálmán after he fled Nazi Germany and traveled to the Southwest, fit the bill. Arizona Opera describes it as a love letter to the state, inspired by Kálmán’s passion for the desert landscape. The original libretto (that’s opera speak for text) was written by Alfred Grunwald and Gustave Beer.

The piece was written in 1953, performed in Switzerland in 1954, and in Berlin in 2014. Chicago Folks Operetta performed Arizona Lady with a new English translation in 2010, but Arizona audiences are the first to see a production featuring German, English, and Spanish. Arizona Opera is the first major opera house to perform the work, which it premiered first in Tucson. One Tucson reviewer —- who praised the singers, chorus, and orchestra — noted that rope tricks drew the biggest audience applause. 

It plays from Friday, October 16, through Sunday, October 18, at Phoenix Symphony Hall. Never fear if you're not fluent in three languages. Arizona Opera will project English supertitles onto a screen above the stage. Asked why other U.S. companies haven't mounted the work, Taylor said, "Where else should it be produced but in Arizona?"

Arizona Lady is about a horse called Arizona Lady raised in Tucson, Ríos says. She goes on to win the Kentucky Derby in 1925. But this is opera we’re talking about, so naturally the horse is surrounded by colorful characters with plenty of woes. 

Although he’s credited as a translator, Ríos actually did something more. He wasn’t directed to reproduce the German text, but rather to capture its essence. “I had free reign to write in the spirit of the opera, which allowed me to find the poem of the moment,” Ríos says. “That was a real gift.”

Still, he describes it as a “daunting challenge,” explaining that the different languages used in this production of Arizona Lady reflect “different tools for expressing the world and cultural realities.” A direct translation would have been nearly impossible,” he says. “Ultimately, the language I worked in was the great grey in-between language.”

Although he’s not a regular opera-goer, Ríos saw Arizona Opera’s October 2014 production of the mariachi opera Cruzar la Cara de la Luna, which explores the lives of family members separated by the U.S.-Mexico border. “When that opera and those mariachis started playing, it just turns you to tears,” he recalls. “Opera is a doorway into something only music can give you.”

Ríos says his first opera encounter happened during middle school in Nogales, where his chorus teacher Mrs. Walker used to weave opera into class time. “I was just a shy kid and didn’t know what was going on in the universe,” he says. “All around the classroom she had pictures of opera stars,” he recalls. “I wanted to know what they did.”

“What I remember most is the force of the sound,” he says. “It was impressive to me.” Ríos says he remembers being struck by the fact that it was loud, like yelling, but had no evil intent. “Anything in an extreme form — a brilliant blue, an exquisite taste, a bright light — we’re attracted to them.”

“Loud is a kind of magnet,” he explains. “If we hear it, we turn towards it. It carries something of the luminal or the edge.”

Arizona Opera performs Arizona Lady Friday, October 16, through Sunday, October 18, at Phoenix Symphony Hall. Tickets are $25 to $160. Find more information on the Arizona Opera website.

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