If you have thought about going to an opera, but have been hesitant or intimidated by the high art and foreign languages, the Sandy Springs Performing Arts Center has your chance to see what it’s all about.

The Atlanta Opera’s “Discoveries” series, aimed at first-timers and audiences in search of new types of works, is coming to Sandy Springs Oct. 5-13 with “Frida,” the story of iconic Mexican artist, feminist and activist Frida Kahlo.

Catalina Cuervo as the title character in “Frida.” (Philip Groshong)

“‘Frida’ is meant for a smaller venue,” said Catalina Cuervo, who sings the opera’s title role, in a phone interview from her home in Miami. “There is so much acting and it is important to be able to see facial expressions and hear the conversations in the story. Theaters like the Byers Theatre are perfect for this opera, and this venue is perfect for first-time opera-goers.”

The series of which “Frida” is a part brings opera to alternative, smaller venues, like the Byers Theatre at the Performing Arts Center. And the Atlanta Opera offers tips to make your initiation into opera a pleasant occasion and, perhaps, a discovery that you really like everything about this genre of theater.

First of all, wear something comfortable. There is no dress code. You will see a range of dress from jeans to evening clothes. Most audience members wear something in between, but if you want to strut your style, it’s your opportunity to do so.

Operas are usually sung in foreign languages and often have complex plots. But, at virtually all opera venues, you will know what’s going on thanks to supertitles which the singing and action with English translations projected above the stage.

One thing that may not be familiar to first-timers: If you arrive late, you’ll have to wait out the first act in the rear of the theater until intermission, when ushers will show you to your seat.

The Atlanta Opera also recommends reading a synopsis of the opera beforehand to give you an understanding of the characters and story and what is happening onstage. “Frida” is a straightforward story that portrays the artist’s dramatic life from her youth to her death at 47 years in 1954.
Kahlo is considered one of Mexico’s greatest artists, known for her folk art and surrealist style. She is equally known for her dramatic and tragic life, her affairs and her two marriages to famed Mexican artist/muralist Diego Rivera.

“Frida was one of my heroes when I was a kid in Colombia,” said Cuervo. “My aunt, who was a painter and an artist in every way, introduced her to me and I learned about this woman, who, back in the 1930s and ’40s was living her life like a modern, independent woman.”

With the role comes challenges and responsibility for Cuervo. “So many people love Frida Kahlo,” Cuervo said. “She is Mexican. She is Mexico. Mexican people own her. Every time I sing this role, I need to be the best I can for Mexican women and for their country.”

Cuervo said that when she steps onto the stage, “I am not Catalina. I am Frida, as a strong Latina woman and artist.”

A scene from “Frida.” (Philip Groshong)

Known as the “fiery soprano,” Colombian-born Cuervo, made her Atlanta debut with The Atlanta Opera in 2017 as Maria in Piazzolla’s “Maria de Buenos Aires.”

The biographical opera by composer Robert Xavier Rodriguez premiered in April 1991. It gained prominence in its revival in 2015 by Michigan Opera Theater with Cuervo as Frida. She performed the role again in 2017 with Cincinnati Opera. Rave reviews and sold-out shows continued for a number of shows in Florida this year.

“Frida was pretty complicated,” said Cuervo. “She was probably bipolar and was very dramatic and intense. She goes against the rhythms of life, and Frida sings against the beat. The music incorporates all her moods and struggles, from love and happiness to confrontations and tensions. [Rodriguez] used all the tools of composition for the audience to feel all of this along with Frida.”

Cuervo said she enjoys the musical challenges, too: “I love this opera. Its drama demands two voices for Frida – her romantic soaring soprano, the head voice when I go into ‘soprano-land,’ and her dramatic lower voice, the chest voice when I go into ‘contralto-land’. I sing three octaves during the performance.”

But it’s also easy for audiences to enjoy.

“This is not opera as you know it,” she said. “It is not Puccini, Verdi or Mozart. I think of it as a cross between opera and Broadway.”

Cuervo said that at many performances of “Frida,” as much as 80 percent of the audiences are seeing opera for the first time. “There is big, beautiful opera singing, catchy music, and the story is easy to understand,” she said. “It is mostly sung and spoken in English and some Spanish with English supertitles. It is in an intimate space that allows a good experience.

“I am excited to bring ‘Frida’ to new audiences, a new stage and a new city.”

Oct. 5, 9, 11 & 13
Sandy Springs Performing Arts Center
Byers Theatre
1 Galambos Way, Sandy Springs
Tickets $28-$68

–Judith Schonbak