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‘You Find a Pride in There:’ Composer Gabriela Lena Frank on Exploring Your Roots

Gabriela Lena Frank

And at its heart is its namesake, Gabriela Lena Frank, a Bay Area composer at the forefront of classical music in the United States today. In the wake of the divisive 2016 presidential election, she and her husband Jeremy reimagined their new home in Boonville, California, as a laboratory for music-making, a place for experimentation and discovery.

But building a sanctuary for music—and finding diverse composers who could benefit from its mentorship—took time. “I could not instantly command into existence a cohort of diverse voices,” Frank recalls. “You do have to spend that time to find people.”

Slowly but surely, though, Frank discovered the musicians who would populate her academy’s first class of fellows. Many came through word-of-mouth recommendations. Many didn’t even go to a classical music conservatory. There were jazz musicians and folklorists, improvisers and opera singers.

Founded in 2017, the academy had hosted nearly 70 composers by its third year. As she reflects on the academy’s most recent batch of musicians, Frank finds herself inspired.

“They teach me as much as I hope I’m able to give them. I see them making braver choices than I felt I was making when I was their age,” Frank says.

Frank turns 50 this year. As she looks at the composers who make the pilgrimage to her Boonville academy, she notices generational differences: They seem more confident in setting boundaries and asserting their dignity, in ways big and small.

Frank has observed that they more likely to say “no” to gigs that cut into their family time. They seem less interested in competitions. And if they compose a work that incorporates a foreign language, they expect that language and its spelling and syntax to be respected.

It was different when she was younger, Frank explains. As a Peruvian American woman born with significant hearing loss, Frank didn’t enjoy the same sense of community and representation that she sees undergirding musicians today.

“We were not talking—the way we are now—about women composers or women of color,” she says. “There were not disabled composers. I was very isolated in many ways. I didn't have people that I could talk about these things with.”

As a younger composer, without support, she found herself in situations she would have preferred to avoid. “There were a couple of situations in which I consented to work with a conductor that I knew wasn't a good person, for instance, and I put up with it and then got out of there as soon as I could. And I see that my composers [at the academy] are doing a much better job now at not even getting themselves into that kind of predicament.”

But Frank now endeavors to provide the representation in classical music she lacked in her early years. Her music often draws directly from her heritage, weaving the sounds and stories of Latin America into requiems, string quartets and monumental orchestral works.

Her latest project, the opera El Último Sueño de Frida y Diego or The Last Dream of Frida and Diego, is an exploration of two Latin American icons, the artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, through the lens of fantasy. It imagines Rivera’s final days on earth, as he is guided into the afterlife by Kahlo, his late wife.

For Frank, being a successful artist means leveraging that success to help others. Issues like climate change and ecocide—the destruction of the environment—weigh heavily on her mind. She challenges the artists at her academy to think of themselves as ambassadors: “What can you do now to contribute repertoire? To contribute to your own country? To have a global presence of some sort?”

“I've been around for quite a while and—Pachamama willing—I'll be here another 50 years,” she says. “I would love to hit one hundred and be active and to see how things turn out. I want to see if we get ahead of the climate crisis. I want to see if we can have this incredible, rich, vibrant, classical art form and have a whole wonderful peaceful militia of art citizens out there doing incredible humanitarian work and writing beautiful music.”

“I need to be around to see this,” she adds. “The academy made me determined to live a long life.”

Now, Frank offers a glimpse at how traveling to her mother’s native country, Peru, shaped her into the artist she is today—and why she’s especially looking forward to the Bay Area premiere of El Último Sueño de Frida y Diego at San Francisco Opera.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. It is the second half of a two-part interview.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: How does family factor into your creative process?

GABRIELA LENA FRANK: I love the fact that two of the commissioning companies [for the opera El Último Sueño de Frida y Diego] are California-based, one in the Bay Area. It means that my family can enjoy my successes more easily than when I need to go to another state or even out of the country.

We plan to have a huge cheering section when San Francisco does it. My dad wants to buy a lot of tickets because I have a lot of hometown friends and family from over many decades. They're my biggest fans.

But my music reflects a deeper familial connection. I've always been really enamored with the cultures and the sounds of Latin America. And while my big expertise is going to be Andean Latin America—the music and cultures of Peru and surrounding countries like Bolivia and Ecuador—recently I've been doing a lot of reading and studying about Latin America closer to home. And that's right across the California border to Mexico.

I have a library of about 300 books, about the conquest in Mexico and in Peru mainly but all throughout Latin America. And there are so many important similarities between the distinct nations and nation states of Latin America.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Can you describe to me what prompted your first trip to Peru and what that experience was like?

FRANK: My first trip to Peru was not the magical homecoming that I imagined it would be. It was wonderful in some ways and very difficult in others. I had quite strong culture shock.

Growing up here in the ‘70s and ‘80s—and often being the only Latina in my honors courses in high school or college, especially in the music conservatory—I did not meet a lot of Latinos or people of color. I tended to long for identity and long for a place that was my own. This is really common with immigrants and children of immigrants, people in what we call the diaspora.

And then once I traveled there my first time, I kept going back. I couldn't help it. I was fascinated by it. The triumphs to me must have seemed so humble to my cousins or my aunts and uncles, but to be able to understand somebody’s Spanish? Or to taste a food or to hear some music or to go to a museum and look at an old pot or a sculpture from a pre-Inca culture and relate to it and realize, “My God, this is where I'm from. I get to claim this. This is who I am”? To feel that kind of membership was very important to me as an artist.

It's something then that Frida [Kahlo] and Diego [Rivera] explored too. They were very fascinated with their heritage and really fascinated with pre-Colombian art. You find a pride in there. You find a long lineage. It makes your everyday doings seem more important to you.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: I know of the Peruvian community in Paterson, New Jersey, and on the East Coast. But—this could be my ignorance—I’m not aware of a big Peruvian community here in the Bay Area…

Growing up, did you have representation in the community around you, beyond your mother?

FRANK: Not really. I really didn't. My mom was la peruana, the Peruvian woman. That said, in the ‘70s and ‘80s, we were getting Peruvian musical groups that were coming up [to the Bay Area]—and not just from Peru but from Bolivia and sometimes Chile and Ecuador, countries that shared the Andean or the mountainous ancestry. So we would go to these concerts. A lot of them were at La Peña [Cultural Center]. It’s still in Berkeley. It's still active.

Those are some of my best memories because I loved the music so much, even more than classical music. I loved that folkloric music. And I saw people that looked like my mom. They had a certain Peruvian look that was different from Puerto Rican or Mexican. Some of them even looked part-Chinese, like her.

And often at these concerts, they would be serving Peruvian food that looked like the Peruvian food my mom was cooking in our Berkeley home—that I ate growing up. The music was what really brought food and culture to me outside of my mother.

And I would come home having almost committed to memory all of the songs. I would sit down at the piano and just start playing them. My memory would just kick in. It just made sense to me, this music. And I'm quite sure that if the opportunity had presented itself to study folkloric Andean music, I would have done that and not classical. [Frank chuckles.]

But I had a wonderful neighborhood piano teacher that introduced me to Beethoven and Bach at the same time that I was periodically exposed to live folkloric music. It was just enough, obviously, to initiate this lifelong interest as a composer.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: When you mentioned you had culture shock the first time you went to Peru, what kind of culture shock did you experience when you first arrived?

FRANK: Well, it didn't occur to me to get my Spanish up. Because I couldn’t understand anything!

And then I remember I was getting sick from the food. I wanted to eat everything, and I couldn’t. I felt rejected by the land. I couldn't drink the water. I was getting lost in the city. I didn’t understand how the bus systems worked. I couldn't tell the difference between a good neighborhood and a bad neighborhood. It just didn't look like what I recognized from home. And then I remember I was getting sun-burned. The sun was too hot for me. I felt weak. I mean, I was just a mess. I just could not function because it was not what I grew up in.

But then I would have these other experiences. Like, I would hear some music and I would recognize that. I had experiences that almost frightened to me. I remember the first time I drank coco frío. Basically, you take an actual green coconut, a young coconut, and they're stored in these carts with ice in it. And vendors, they’ll take these green coconuts and take a machete and cut them open and put a straw in and give it to you to drink.

I know I'd never had coco frío before. But when I saw that, I knew what it was going to taste like. And when I drank it, that's exactly what it tasted like. I was like, “This is a little too weird for me.” [Frank laughs.] But I feel like there's something about genetic memory. I don’t know! Somehow I had moments like that, always, always.

And I blended right in—in a way that I don't in the U.S. Nobody looks at me when I'm walking down the streets in Peru. I look like a Peruvian. I’m the right height.

And then each trip would get easier. I didn't get as sick from the food. And I would figure out how to bargain in the markets. I was terrible at bargaining when I first got there, and it made me feel very panicky. So you just get to know the ways of the land.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: What part of Peru is your mother from? Is she limeña [a woman from Lima]?

FRANK: No, she’s from Chimbote, which is in the norte. And it’s famous por sus anchovetas. It’s famous for its anchovies. It’s a fishing village, and I was, for some time, in Piura and Chiclayo, which are cities that are nearby.

I have family all throughout Peru, and some live in Lima now or Callao, which is a suburb of Lima. The other town that I have a lot of family in is Huánuco, which is in the central Andes, right on the edge of the jungle. And they’re especially known for their brass-instrument culture. They have a lot of parades and a lot of bands.

And they have a good music school there, founded by Daniel Alomía Robles, who is often credited with having composed El Cóndor Pasa [a zarzuela that would later inspire Simon and Garfunkel, as well as other musical groups]. He is sort of the Peruvian Bartók, in that he spent a lot of time writing down melodies. There’s a three-volume set of his work. I have a copy of it.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: In all the years that you've been working in this field, has it gotten any easier for Latin composers or composers who are outside of that European or North American paradigm to work their way up the ranks, so to speak?

FRANK: It's better, but it's been very slow. There’s been an emerging interest in just the last couple of years, in large part because of the murder of Mr. George Floyd.

I think I have a bit of a “let’s wait and see” attitude about how much industry will really embrace these voices that are being discovered, like Florence Price and many others. I'm hopeful. I'm more optimistic than I've ever been.

I have a music academy that I founded, and one of the goals of the music academy is to champion these diverse voices that are maybe out-of-the-box candidates for traditional classical music. But I think they are extremely needed. We have cut ourselves off from so many talented people by not embracing them fully enough. And the rewards are really great, I believe, if we provide more pathways.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: What do we need to do to make those pathways wider so that more people can feel accepted and represented in this field of classical composition?

FRANK: We train. We find and accept more people of color into the music conservatories. We diversify the repertoire so that we're not only training young musicians on Bach and Beethoven. We need to give them Florence Price and we give them Teresa Carreño. We give them composers from Asia and Africa.

And then we hire more musicians in our ensembles that are of diverse backgrounds. We put them in leadership positions and commission more works. And we do the hard work of research because turning to the usual sources—libraries and publishers—will yield mostly European voices. So we have to dig more to find them.

Learn more about composer Gabriela Lena Frank by visiting her website or following her on social media. Her first opera, El Último Sueño de Frida y Diego, opens in San Francisco in the summer of 2023.