Vidas Perfectas: World Premiere of Spanish Opera Set on the Border


by Cindy Graff Cohen
Photos by Cindy Graff Cohen 

A man plays a piano in a Mid-western bar, a pair of young people elope, old people fall in love, dogs fight at just the right time, and the captain of the football team wants to rob a bank, intending to return the money the next day. The action takes place in, consecutively, a park, a supermarket, a bank, a bar, a living room, a church, and a backyard. Sounds like an absurdist comedy? Experimental drama? An opera for our time? Perfect Lives, written as an opera for television by one of the world’s top post-contemporary composers, Robert Ashley, can’t be pegged that easily.

IMG_0460Perfect Lives, composed of seven 26-minute video episodes, aired on television across the world in 1984. The work, which took Ashley four years to produce in collaboration with musicians and a videographer, was hailed as the first opera for the television generation.

“It sits on the edge of what is performance art and operatic art—you could liken it to viewing a living art installation,” says David Grabarkewitz, director of the El Paso Opera. “This type of storytelling doesn’t really exist.

It’s oddball and eclectic, a wonderful combination of video, television and live performance.

It’s coming to El Paso and Juarez July 12 and 13, but in an exciting incarnation: a new Spanish interpretation of the work, entitled Vidas Perfectas and set on the Border. The production debuted to rave reviews in April at the Whitney Biennial. Now we’ll get to watch one of the 20th century’s most audacious visual stories/musical scores, right in the comfort of our own Tricky Falls theater Downtown and on the patio of the Museo de la Revolucion en la Frontera in Ciudad Juarez.

IMG_5403Vidas Perfectas was produced by Ballroom Marfa, a Marfa-based arts space and nonprofit organization promoting and producing a wide variety of cultural events. “In 2012, Alex Waterman, who was translating and adapting Perfect Lives into Spanish, was in Marfa for another project and told us about Vidas Perfectas,” says Melissa McDonnell Lujan, the organization’s deputy director, who is now a board member of El Paso Opera. “We were excited about it and gave him funding to help develop the work, which fits our mission to work with artists to realize projects that might not otherwise get finished.”

Waterman worked closely with Ashley on the project. Sadly the great composer did not get to see its premiere at the Whitney; he died four days before the Biennial opened.

Audience Becomes Part Of The Experience

In Perfect Lives, scenes of the Midwest and bold graphics run in the background while Ashley narrates, “Blue” Gene Tyranny plays the piano, and two singers play different roles. For the backdrop of Vidas Perfectas, photographers shot footage of Border landscapes in and around Marfa in February. True to the episode settings, they shot scenes in a park, store, bar, bank, living room, church, and backyard, all in the Marfa area.

phpThumb_generated_thumbnailjpg-1The performers who appeared at the Whitney will be and will bring a variety of “Spanishes:” the narrator is not a native speaker, but teaches Spanish; the pianist is from Cuba; the actor is from Mexico; and the actress is from Spain. Waterman will be directing each of the episodes.

All of the performances will be recorded and filmed, including shots of the audience, for the forthcoming television and DVD program and music CD. “It will look like a television sound stage,” says Lujan. All seven episodes will be compiled and edited for television this fall and then Vidas Perfectas is set to tour internationally.

Contemporary Arts Aficionados Welcome

“We knew that El Paso Opera would be a perfect partner,” Lujan says, and El Paso Opera leaders were thrilled to be part of the production and filming. Grabarkewitz expects that this event will draw a different crowd than the grand operas enjoyed in Chavez Theatre. The ticket prices-$7.50 for standing room/open seating, $25 for reserved seats and $50 for VIP tables with lounge and food service—make the event accessible to a broad range of people who seek out the unusual in literature, music and art.

The event is just right for mem-bers of El Paso Opera’s BRAVO! Alliance, a group of primarily young professionals (although some members are older) who flock to events that combine culture and fun. “We’re modeled on the PopRally at the Museum of Modern Art,” says BRAVO! president Stefanie Uribarri, who lived in New York while working at Columbia University. “MoMa threw these amazing artistic events that were the best parties in town.”

More than 80 art enthusiasts joined Uribarri in launching BRAVO! Alliance at Loft Light Studio in March 2013; stars from the El Paso Opera’s production of Barber of Seville helped entertain the crowd. The next major party is the Black and White Beach Ball on August 9 at a private home with a pool.

“HavingVidas Perfectas at Tricky Falls will be a social experience that shows that opera is fun and not snooty,” Uribarri adds. “People who are open to a creative, less traditional version of opera will enjoy this original production. In every great city, you have great art and El Paso is emerging as a city that nurtures original art.”

July 12, 8 p.m. Tricky Falls Theater,  209 South El Paso Street, El Paso: Episodes 1-4

July 13, 7 p.m. Museo de la Revolucion en la Frontera, 16 de Septiembre and Avenida Juarez, Juarez: Episodes 5-7

July 18, Ballroom Marfa, 108 San Antonio Street, Marfa: Episodes 1-4

July 19, Ballroom Marfa, 108 San Antonio Street, Marfa: Episodes 5-7

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