Authentic Artistry

For the MOT’s production of Frida, costume designers went right to the source — contracting with Oaxacan women to create traditional Mexican outfits

One piece of textile can tell an amazing story. That’s what I learned on a recent journey to Oaxaca, Mexico, on behalf of the Michigan Opera Theatre for their production of Frida in March.

Textile weaving and embroidery are centuries-old traditions. The state of Oaxaca is home to the colorful costumes made famous by Frida Kahlo.

In addition to being a renowned artist, Kahlo stood out in any crowd because of the Oaxacan dresses she proudly wore. She embraced indigenous Mexican styles and as a result, museum curators and the fashion industry have paid homage to her iconic look. The clothes she wore continue to inspire designers and artists to this day.

Getting to Oaxaca was a journey that began in the spring of 2014 when I met with David DiChiera, creative director of the MOT, and Wayne Brown, the MOT’s newly hired president and CEO. They spoke about the possibility of working on an opera that had been in pre-production for months — an opera about the life of Kahlo.

I listened intently as DiChiera and Brown spoke not only about the opera but a comprehensive plan to build a relationship with the Latino community in tandem with the production of Frida.

“I would consider this endeavor a complete failure if the Latino community was not involved at every level,” said Brown.

I deeply understood what Frida would mean to the Latino population of Southeast Michigan and knew this was something I wanted to help bring to life. It was a once in a lifetime gig, and it was happening right here in Detroit.

I’ve worked on dozens of projects throughout my career where I’ve been tasked with “engaging” the Latino community. Yet in all my years, I have never worked with an organization that inherently understood the significance of having metro Detroit’s Latino community involved at every step of the production.

As the months progressed, the pieces began falling into place. The leadership of the MOT chose to use the work of famed composer Roberto Xavier Rodriguez. Then, opera singer Catalina Cuervo was selected to portray Kahlo, and Ricardo Herrera was cast as Diego Rivera.

But there was another fundamental part to this story that the MOT hoped would connect it with the Latino community even further. David Osborne, the director of production, and Monika Essen, costume designer at the MOT, expressed their desire to have the highest level of authenticity in staging and costuming for the first major production of Frida.

They chose to purchase traditional outfits, the kind worn by Kahlo, directly from Oaxacan women in Mexico. I was thrilled with the decision – this was an investment in community that even I could not have imagined. Buying the costumes would not only be an appreciative gesture to Kahlo’s homeland, but it would employ Mexican women and allow them to feel intimately close to the production.

With the help of cultural expert Adrian Ortega, photographer Cybelle Codish and I went to Mexico to research the weaving and embroidery traditions of the Oaxacan artisans who were making the costumes for the MOT.

“Textiles speak to us,” Ortega explained on our trip. “Weavers make an impression on a piece of cloth that is an archive of information passed down from generation to generation.”

There are many hidden layers to a single textile; the pattern can tell you what region it came from and the use of color can signify a tribe. Kahlo was not only making a stylish statement in her choice of dress, she represented her culture and native heritage. Kahlo’s mother was Tehuana Indian, a matriarchal community, and as a result Kahlo fell in love with her native roots. Through her dress she brought the story of the Tehuantepec women to the rest of the world.

Frida arrives at the MOT this month, and if you attend a performance, pay attention to the story that the costumes are trying to tell. The intricate patterns and embroidery reveal that one piece can take up to six months to complete — and that they are hand-sewn by women who continue their craft well into their 80s.

These Oaxacan women expressed great pride in their style of dress, and the costumes in Frida reveal a heritage and history that will live on well past the opera’s run in Detroit this spring.

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