A First Opera, a Last Dream: Inside Composer Gabriela Lena Frank’s 'El Último Sueño de Frida y Diego'

Gabriela Lena Frank

Then, two days later, it was off to Philadelphia to unveil a world premiere at Carnegie Hall: Pachamama Meets an Ode, a musical response to Beethoven’s First and Ninth symphonies.

“Between the opera and going to the Carnegie premiere, this is the first time I left Northern California and heard some of my music in two years,” she says, bright laughter punctuating her thoughts.

The coronavirus pandemic had brought projects like Pachamama Meets an Ode to a grinding halt: Lockdowns and safety measures had prevented its originally scheduled premiere in 2020. But now, with theaters and concert halls reopening, Frank’s schedule has grown hectic.

“It was pretty intense,” she says of the last few days. A break in the phone connection has given her the chance to steer her car safely home—an area with better cellphone reception. Now, she settles in to discuss what’s next on her agenda: the opera.

Called El Último Sueño de Frida y Diegoor, in English, The Last Dream of Frida and Diego—Frank’s inaugural opera begins with a depiction of an aging Diego Rivera, the world-renowned Mexican artist.

It’s the Day of the Dead, 1957, and Rivera finds himself alone, longing for his wife and fellow painter Frida Kahlo, who passed away three years prior.

In his grief, Rivera calls out to her. His cry pierces the underworld, where Kahlo must decide whether to visit him one last time—even if that means reliving the pain of their relationship and the agony of the mortal realm.

The opera is the culmination of over a decade of work, both for Frank and her librettist, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Nilo Cruz.

They had been mulling over the idea for 15 years, even experimenting with its concept in different formats. Frank points to their 2010 collaboration, La

Centinela y la Palomaalso known as The Keeper and the Dove—as an early iteration of a similar story.

“Before you write an opera, you get into shape by writing symphonies and by writing art song,” Frank explains. She credits another one of her compositions, the Conquest Requiem, with helping her prepare for the challenge of opera.

“A few years ago, I wrote a very large requiem, which is for a really giant choir, some solo singers, and an orchestra. And I made it very operatic because I knew I had the Frida and Diego opera coming up and I wanted to start getting into shape,” she says.

To keep all her projects separate in her mind, Frank reveals that she keeps a meticulous journal, charting each composition from start to finish.

“I really track where I am in the life cycle of any piece. Am I in the beginning stages of just scratching for ideas? Maybe I'm in a different phase. Maybe I’m in a phase of reading a lot of books—books about Frida, for instance,” she says.

Only once she had mapped out her opera’s 21 scenes and characters, she adds, “Then I could let my imagination just fly.”

Now, in a new two-part interview, Frank shares how she embarked on El Último Sueño de Frida y Diego—and how her heritage as a woman of Peruvian, Chinese, and Lithuanian-Jewish descent helped her identify with Frida Kahlo.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity. This is part one of a two-part interview.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Can I ask you how you met Nilo Cruz? [Cruz is Franks longtime collaborator and librettist for El Último Sueño de Frida y Diego.]

FRANK: We got set up! By my agent and his agent. They set us up to meet in a coffee shop in September of 2007. I was stopping over in New York on my way to Italy to do a residency over there for several weeks.

This was not too long after he won his Pulitzer, and my career was beginning to move, but I wasn't anywhere of the same stature as he was. We started talking. He had never worked with a composer before. I played him some of my music. And that was the beginning of a friendship with somebody that I absolutely adore and respect so much.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: How did the topic of Frida and Diego come to be the subject of this latest collaboration? Who had that spark of inspiration?

FRANK: Well, it was a haphazard journey to be honest. It was not my idea or Nilo’s idea. I was approached by a conductor who's no longer alive, a wonderful gentleman named Joel Revzen.

Joel Revzen was the conductor for Arizona Opera. And in 2007, he approached me and said, “We would love to do an opera about Frida Kahlo. Would you be interested?” This was a long time ago. It was 15 years ago. I didn't have the experience that I do now.

At the time, there was even talk that I would write the libretto, not just the music. And of course my publisher said, “No, you're not going to write the libretto. Sit down. We're going to find you a real writer.” [Frank laughs.] I was naive.

So the original idea came from Joel Revzen over at Arizona Opera many years ago. But opera is very difficult to bring into fruition. All the celestial opera gods need to be aligned. So the idea didn't get realized there, but in meantime, I met Nilo.

There was already an opera that is a biography of her story, by Robert Rodríguez, who I believe is based in San Antonio. It's called simply Frida. We knew that it was a successful opera, and we needed to do something that was different. Why tell the story of Frida again?

I played Nilo some of my music, and one of my pieces was about the Day of the Dead, something I've been fascinated with for a long time. I played him this piece, and Nilo said right away in our first meeting, “That's it. We need to marry Frida and Diego with the Day of the Dead in some way. That's our angle in, and this will be a fantasy. It will not be a biography.”

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: So the seed of the idea has existed as long as your relationship with Nilo Cruz then?

FRANK: That’s right. Frida, she’s been very patient because we explored a lot of other projects and a lot of other stories over the 15 years before this one finally got taken up by San Diego and Fort Worth and San Francisco [the three opera companies co-commissioning the opera]. She had to be very patient.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. Of all the many, many, many thousands of Mexican artists there are, those two are arguably the most famous. Nowadays they're as much a brand as they are art figures even. You see them everywhere, especially Frida. What could you explore through fantasy that maybe was missing from these other views of Frida?

FRANK: Very good question. It was on my mind, too: all of the representations of Frida that I've seen on candles and posters and t-shirts. Because you're absolutely right. There was just an explosion of interest in her.

There’s something about wanting to see Frida, especially since she did so many self-portraits. And there's something about her story that has really captivated people's minds and attention.

I think what this opera is doing is: It’s not just about Frida, first of all. It's really about her relationships with Diego and with Katrina [the keeper of the underworld in the opera]. It's about her relationship with the death and living world. And it's about her evolution. She transforms in this opera. She becomes a different Frida almost.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: You saw the first orchestra reading this past weekend. [The orchestra workshop took place at San Diego Opera on February 19, 2022.]What was that experience like? Again, seeing your music come to life in this way?

FRANK: Oh my goodness, I've been carrying around this music inside of me. [Frank laughs.] It’s like cooking a magnificent meal, but you don't get to taste it, and you've spent all these hours on it.

Of course, when we got the reading, I finally could taste it and I could say, “Okay, this needs to be a little longer. This needs to be a little shorter. I can't hear the singers here.”

I get very technical. It’s precious time and not a lot of hours in which to glean all the intel that I need to glean, to really carry this opera over the finish line. The musicians and the singers—when they're getting ready to premiere it in San Diego, when they're getting ready to do it in San Francisco next June—I don't want them to have to worry about anything except doing the music.

So for this opera reading this past weekend, it was hard work. I was tired at the end of each day, making all my notes and consulting with the singers, consulting with the instrumentalists to make sure everything's really comfortable, and then dialoguing a lot with Nilo and the other members of the creative team about pacing. We just want it to be a tightly knit and very successful production.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: I noticed, on social media, you said that at one point the score was 600 pages long.

FRANK: Oh, it's a little over that now. It’s more like 640, maybe. 640 pages.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Holy cow.

FRANK: Holy cow, yeah.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: I'm here wondering: Is that normal?

FRANK: I think that's just how long this opera is. And it is pretty epic.

I mean, operas, they're generally about two to three hours long, so there are a lot of pages. And after you do the orchestral score, you have to do the piano reduction. That's what the singers sing from. They rehearse with the piano. So you're not done. You have to go make it all work on piano. It's just a monumental feat.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: This is, again, a very dumb question, but 600 pages—do you carry it around in a shoe box or something?

FRANK: Oh, man. My mother and my father were with me at the reading, and it was so wonderful to have them there. My mom was cooking nutritious meals back at the room, so I could just study and concentrate.

But then my dad appointed himself my—what do you call it, when you go golfing? He was my caddy. [Frank laughs.] And it was his job to carry the score. He had to carry my pens and my notes and everything else. But it was a production. I had a little entourage, a family entourage, to help me out.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: When you talk about Frida Kahlo and her own exploration of identity, it seems like there's an analogy there: She is the daughter of a German photographer and mestiza woman. You likewise have two different cultures coming together in your person, in your blood.

I wonder how you dealt with growing up, straddling two cultures and having these diverse identities that braided themselves in you? Was that ever difficult trying to figure out who you were? Who Gabriela is? Between being Jewish and Peruvian?

FRANK: I always felt perfectly whole. I never felt like I was piecemeal or pieces of this, pieces of that. I just felt like I got to claim everything, all of these wonderful heritages.

Where it started getting confusing was how the world would treat me. For instance, my first day in the music conservatory as a freshman— I was 17 years old—I was practicing, and I had found this practice room.

I just felt so lucky to be in this beautiful music building. And I had only practiced for a few minutes when the door flew open and one of the piano professors was asking me to step away from the piano and leave. What was I doing? How dare I touch this instrument?

And then I realized—because he had seen me through the little glass window in the door—that he thought I was one of the maids. Because all the maids were Mexican. And that was confusing to me. For him, it was not possible for me to be a music student there. For me, it was.

And that's when I encountered challenges. It wasn't that I necessarily had a lot of these innate issues myself, if that makes any sense. Because in my family, my father doesn't treat me and my brother as if we are strange beings. And my mother doesn't treat us like we're strange beings.

And when she introduced Frida Kahlo to me as a little girl, I remember her first saying that she was a bajita, which means she was a little short woman, like me and like my mother. And she was brown, like me and my mother. And she was mixed race, like me and my mother. And she was creative, like me and my mother.

So that seemed normal. And then later, as I was exploring what it means to be mixed race, I did that often in reaction to how I was a puzzle. I was a conundrum in the eyes of many: I wasn't quite Latina enough. I wasn't quite American enough.

And we're still asking these questions of mixed-race people and underrepresented people when they go into a field. I think that leaves us all with questions about how to explain that and how to represent that in our work and our being.

Learn more about composer Gabriela Lena Frank by following her on social media, reading about her new opera, and exploring the website for her nonprofit, the Gabriela Lena Frank Creative Academy of Music. This is part one of a two-part interview series, based on a conversation with Frank in February 2022.