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The poet of the opera

by Matti Tuomisto

The most prolific and most popular opera librettist in Finland today is a writer, poet and musician from Peru: Maritza Núñez. The opera Frida y Diego by Kalevi Aho, commissioned by the Sibelius Academy, is to be premiered at the Helsinki Musiikkitalo in October 2014.
Maritza Núñez has been living in Finland since 1986 and and made her breakthrough here here with two works for the stage. Inspired by real people, they demonstrated her command of both intimate monologue and large-scale theatre. 

Gabriela Mistral – nainen joka keksi oman elämänsä (which translates as A Woman Who Invented Her Own Life) is based on the story of the Chilean Nobel Prize-winner, poet, feminist and diplomat. A monologue play, it was performed 50 times in Finnish at the Jurkka Theatre in Helsinki in the mid-1990s and concurrently in Spanish in Chile and Venezuela. The Japanese composer Keiko Fujiie wrote an opera about Gabriela Mistral called Niña de cera.

The play Sueños de una tarde dominical was in due course premiered in Lima, Peru, in 2000. Not long afterwards, a version in Finnish, entitled Sunnuntai-illan unelmia (Dreams of a Sunday Afternoon) was staged at the Turku City Theatre, and later in English in California and in Spanish in Malaga. Among the historical figures in this blend of realism and poetry are the Mexican artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera.

A play about freedom

Kalevi Aho saw Dreams of a Sunday Afternoon in Turku and liked it immediately. The characters were, he thought, “operatic”. Núñez got in touch with him and the idea of a joint opera began to take shape.

“At first, I intended only to adapt the play as a libretto,” says Núñez. “But I’d visited Mexico again in the meantime and spent days on end immersed in the archives, and I was getting nowhere working on the old version. So most of the text for the opera Frida y Diego has been rewritten.”

The material for the opera is profound and operates at many levels. The characters – such as Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Leon Trotsky’s second wife Natalia, the artist David Alfaro Siqueiros, the French writer André Breton and the Italian activist and photographer Tina Modotti – are so strong that she could, Núñez says, have created a monologue about each of them. The form was therefore something of a challenge.

At the centre is a love story framed by the eras of four dictators, Franco, Mussolini, Hitler and Stalin. The public and the private lives are one and the same. While some of the scenes in the opera are violent and fractured, there are some that are cabaret-like.

“It’s possible to pick out many different emotions and levels simultaneously: love and politics, eroticism, sexuality, art. Ultimately, Frida y Diego is an opera about freedom.”

Peru – Moscow – Helsinki

Maritza Núñez considers herself privileged as an artist. She was born in the Peruvian city of Lima in 1958, into a family where the arts were part of everyday life. Her mother, Carmen Luz Bejarano, was a notable poet and her father a scientist who loved classical music and the surrealism of Salvador Dalí. Even as a child, Maritza went to the cinema, visited art museums and heard music by Sibelius; the Violin Concerto and the Second Symphony were among her father’s favourite works by the Finnish composer.

Studying arts was not easy in Lima, but Maritza was able to begin taking piano lessons when she reached her teens. She wanted to go to Europe, and her chance came when she was 17 and won a scholarship to a college in Moscow. She later went on to the Gnesin Music Academy and qualified as a choral conductor.

“When I came to Finland in 1986, the language was a problem at first. Even though I’m temperamental, and I feel the rhythm of a southerner inside me, I’m basically shy. But Finland’s cultural life is intensive and democratic, and the fact that I’m near the sea in Helsinki means a lot to me.

“You can also have your own space here, the right to an inner world and a chance to listen to your own silence.”

Writer and librettist via music

Looking back, Maritza Núñez wonders how she entered the arts via music, seeing that her mother was a poet.

“I realised later just how music has enriched my whole life. Literary expression has the same melody, rhythm, silence, counterpoint and textures as music, the study of which develops a sense of form.” Núñez reckons that being herself a musician has benefited her as an opera librettist.

Núñez’s literary output includes both prose and drama. She is also a poet, which helps to make the message of the libretto concise.

“An opera libretto has lots in common with the script of a play or a film, but there are also some fundamental differences. The libretto text inhabits a musical space. It inspires composers to create their own musical universe.”

Núñez writes only in Spanish, but her works have been performed in various languages. She gets back into Spanish mode on her visits to Malaga and Lima, where several of her works for children have been performed. The themes have ranged from juvenile crime to child prostitution, and from ecological crises to bullying at school.

Now a Finnish citizen, Maritza Núñez has taken news of Finland’s operatic boom to Peru. People in Lima now even speak of her as a Finnish-Peruvian writer, and not just a Peruvian one.

Virtuoso librettist

Maritza Núñez already has 33 opera librettos to her name. The first was for Niña de cera by the Japanese composer Keiko Fujiie, premiered in Kyoto in 1996. Then came two by Timo-Juhani Kyllönen. The pace quickened, and in 2012 a record eight works received their first performance.

This year, 2014, will see two premieres. One is the full-length opera Frida y Diego by Kalevi Aho, to be premiered on October 17 with Markus Lehtinen as the conductor and Vilppu Kiljunen as the stage director, and the other is Suyai by the Chilean composer Eduardo Cáceres.

For 2015-2017 there are plans afoot for a host of opera premieres with librettos by Maritza Núñez. The Finnish composers include Lauri Toivio, Timo-Juhani Kyllönen, Max Savikangas, Tuomas Turriago and Uljas Pulkkis, and projects have tentatively been discussed with Harri Vuori, Ville Matvejeff, Jennah Vainio, Olli Virtaperko, Pekka Jalkanen, Matthew Whittall and others.


This article was commissioned jointly by the FMQ and Rondo.

Matti Tuomisto is a freelance music journalist and media entrepreneur specialising in arts management.

Translation: Susan Sinisalo

Photo: Angelica Lunardi

Frida y Diego will be performed at the Moscow Chamber Opera Theatre named after Pokrovsky on 12 and 13 December, 2017. The new production is directed by Arne Mikk.