A Sit Down with the Maestro

Arts / Article

By Alejandra Serna, Florida Grand Opera

Florida Grand Opera is just days away from making its Design District debut with an out-of-the-box production between two tango-themed operettas presented at the popular music venue and bar The Stage. Opening March 21, 2013, the double bill features Robert Xavier Rodriguez’s Tango, a one-man show that turns reality into comedy by pulling from real-life events and news to tell the controversial story of tango’s evolution.

The chance doesn’t often arise to see an opera by a living composer, much less have a one-on-one conversation with one. This is why Florida Grand Opera jumped at the chance to have a sit down with Rodriguez to discuss everything from his musical influences to what it’s like to be your own librettist.

Florida Grand Opera (FGO): How did you find your passion for music? Opera, in particular? Robert Xavier Rodriguez (RXR): I started studying music in San Antonio when I was six. Even though I learned to play the piano, my teacher never called the lessons “piano lessons”; she taught “music,” so they were “music lessons.” My first lesson was not even at the piano, but at the blackboard; first, I learned whe. at music looked like. To this day, I can’t listen to music without imagining it written out in a score. Opera was an important part of my childhood. In those days, San Antonio had one of the few opera companies in the country, along with New York, Chicago, and San Francisco. All of the major singers of the world came through town. I also enjoyed listening to the Metropolitan Opera Saturday afternoon broadcasts on the radio. The opera came in on the country-and-western station, so I liked to tune in early, just to experience the culture shock of going from “Yore Cheatin’ Heart” to “Tuo Ingrato Cor.”

FGO: How did you first begin to compose? Do you remember the first thing you attempted to write? RXR: I started writing in grade school, but those pieces weren’t remarkable, so I hope no one ever finds them. Even though I enjoyed music, I knew that I didn’t have the temperament to be a pianist. Since, for me, being a musician meant being a performer, I thought that I would not be able to be a professional musician. In college, I decided to write words instead of music, but I still kept writing and studying music. Then one day, one of my classmates heard one of my pieces and said, “You can make music with a pencil.” I decided that she was right and I’ve been doing it ever since. Operas are the most fun to write because they are about people, and people are much more interesting than musical instruments. I also love the human voice. Just as the human body can be the most beautiful thing in the world to look at, the human voice can be the most beautiful thing in the world to hear

FGO: Who do you consider to be your greatest musical influence? RXR: I owe a great deal to my teacher in Paris, Nadia Boulanger. Her great gift was to help each of her students to find his/her own individual voice as a composer. Astor Piazzolla also studied with her. I once met Piazzolla in London, and we talked fondly about Boulanger. He told me that he had gone to Paris to learn how to write respectable European symphonies, but she said his music was the tango, which, of course, it was.  She had taught Copland in 1920, but for those of us among her last generation of American students, the challenge was to find one’s own personal identity in a time (the 60’s and 70’s) of both stylistic regimentation and fragmentation. Boulanger was a sure guide as I tried to find my path through the popular schools which were attracting young composers: from frosty total surrealism on one extreme to the first fanciful thawing of what we later recognized as post-modernism on the other. In my own case, I remember delighting in one small breakthrough when Boulanger said she saw in one of my early scores a little two-bar passage which, as she put it, “only you could have written.” For better or worse, I had begun to find my way. Prophetically, Boulanger offered me what I, as a serious young man, found a most unusual piece of advice: that I would only be half of a composer until I could find a way to express in my music the love of laughter which I enjoyed as a person. And so it was, twenty years and six comic operas later.

FGO: What inspired you to compose Tango? RXR: In my Boccaccio-based comic opera Suor Isabella (1982), there’s a scene in which a beautiful young nun is making love with a man in her cell, while the other nuns, looking through the keyhole, eagerly follow the action, in tango rhythm. The opera was scheduled for a premiere by the San Antonio Opera, but under pressure from the local Archbishop, the company cancelled the production. There was quite a scandal, with lots of front-page press. Soon after, the opera was premiered in Boston, and it’s still going strong. Later, my librettist sent me an article stating that Pope Pius X had declared the tango a sin in 1913. He joked that our opera had been banned, not because of his racy words, but because of my sinful music. Immediately, I knew that I had to find the Pope’s words and to set them as a tango. I went to the Lincoln Center Library and found a wealth of news clippings, from which I created a whole new opera.

FGO: What is it like to be both composer and librettist, as you are in Tango? Do you find it harder or easier than working with an independent librettist? RXR: I much prefer working with a separate librettist because I enjoy having other ideas to consider besides my own. In this case, however, I had plenty to inspire me, since the news clippings I found were so rich and unbelievably funny. The amazing thing about the opera is that every word of the libretto is true. You couldn’t make up stuff like this, because no one would believe it. As Mark Twain said, “Fiction is limited by the rules of probability, whereas real life is not.” Also, who could have guessed that this production would come after the election of the first Argentine pope? It’s just too good to be true.

FGO: Tango has been called “the triumph of sensuality and frivolity over clerical pomposity,” by the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram. What was the intent behind it? RXR: I don’t have any anti-clerical agenda, I just like a good story. Speaking of reviews of Tango, my favorite was from the New York Times, “Rodríguez…has moved from youthful, modish dissonance to a more popular style with technical facility and stylistic assurance. His music is definitely accessible, rather what Astor Piazzolla, the classically inclined Argentine tango master, might compose were he bolder about breaking the boundaries of the tango form.”

FGO: Why did you choose to have one tenor perform all the various roles as opposed to using multiple singers? RXR: In Tango (1986), a solo tenor enters as a tango dancer; he becomes a radio newscaster who reports on the tango craze (tango teas, tango baths, tango massages, etc.,); then he becomes a Cardinal who preaches a sermon against the evils of the tango, culminating in the Pope’s thundering denunciation. Rather than have a separate singer for each character, it’s much more fun to see one singing actor do all of those different parts, changing costumes, acting in accents from all over the world and doing all the dancing himself. It’s a death-defying tour de force — like watching an acrobat on a tight rope without a net.

FGO:What can Miami audiences expect when they come see this production? RXR: The music includes some irreverent quotations from Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms, all in tango style as the “infamous dance” emerges triumphant. The minuet from Don Giovanni is there, but instead of Mozart’s two country dances superimposed over it, there are three tangos in three difference meters. It’s an over-the-top crazy piece that has had many delightful performances over the years. I understand that the Miami production will be the most elaborate to date, so I can’t wait to see and hear it! Tickets for the March edition of Unexpected Opera in Unexpected Places are now on sale. General admission tickets are $25 and can be purchased through the Florida Grand Opera Box Office online at www.FGO.org or by calling 800.741.1010. You can also stay up to speed by following Florida Grand Opera on Facebook and Twitter.