There is a distinctly Latin America flavour to events in our Purcell Room this month as we celebrate the musical traditions of Argentina and Cuba in two nights of passionate performance.
Tangos for Angels and Demons sees septet The Tango Siempre celebrate the sound of the great Argentine orchestras through authentic traditional tangos, the nuevo tango of Astor Piazzolla, and contemporary works. Whilst Cubana Clásica - A Night at the Opera in Havana channels the spirit of the Cuban capital in a performance packed with new music by award-winning composers.
Ahead of these two performances we spoke to two of their key protagonists; opera singer Ann Liebeck discusses the links between traditional Latin American music and opera, but first bandoneonist, composer and arranger Julian Rowlands explains Tango music and its history.
Julian, let’s start with the basics; what is tango music?
Tango is urban music of the Argentine port city of Buenos Aires and the River Plate. It is the product of a cultural melting pot and the result of multiple layers of migration and interaction, each leaving its mark on the music without effacing the previous ones.
So, how is this urban music of Argentina linked with Cuba?
In the nineteenth century, the influence of Cuba on Argentinian music was huge, with the Habanera craze reaching Buenos Aires in about 1850, and dominating popular music for the rest of the century. The Habanera rhythm morphed into the original tango, the Tango Criollo of the Guardia Vieja, or old guard. However in about 1915 the whole basis of the music changed. Street bands started to be replaced by established quintets, sextets and 'orquestas tipicas' as the music became more mainstream.
The Habanera underpinning of the tango also disappeared and was replaced with a four-square march type rhythm, as a significant influx of European immigrants, primarily from Italy, moulded the music to their tastes. But the Habanera was still lurking below the surface, and returned in the form of subversive sub-rhythms and embellishments that pervaded the music, as well as in a new faster, jauntier tango, the milonga, that came on the scene in 1931.
How did Tango spread beyond South America and the Caribbean?
Tango was exported throughout the world and emulated by musicians from Tunis to Helsinki and from Paris to Istanbul. An interplay between the exported tango and the native form, a culture of ‘ida y vuelta’, or back and forth, also added layers of complexity. In Buenos Aires the tango orchestras continued to compete and innovate supported by a fabulously rich clientele. That is until in 1955 when the economy crashed and tango changed once more with the appearance of Astor Piazzolla's Nuevo Tango - a tango music primarily for listening.
Turning to you Ann, how does an opera singer find themselves in Tango?
I started my career in Vienna, singing Queen of the Night in the Magic Flute. But gradually I discovered the music of Latin America and its close links, through style and text with opera, specifically, and perhaps unsurprisingly, through performing in Carmen. Taking this interest further I developed an opera-tango fusion show Violetta’s Last Tango which we’ve performed across London, at Kings Place, artsdepot theatre and Wiltons Music Hall. The show explores those links in a commentary on love, loss, ageing and memory. The original arrangements in Violetta’s Last Tango are by Julian, who also produced the CD of the show.
So, how did you get into Tango specifically?
As it is for most people, I first got into Tango through dance - then Tango got into me. I had to prepare the Dance of the Seven Veils in Strauss’s opera Salome and so I began dance classes, which including Tango. It influenced the way I sang. There is a tradition to sing it freely and often off the beat, as in jazz, which was liberating after years of following a conductor in the theatre. I uncovered the surrealistic poetry of Tango song too, and share this with audiences in my own translations.
So you are now a Tango singer?
Well, I am a singer who sings Tango and I bring to it who I am. I’m lucky to work with Julian and Tango Siempre, who are experienced in this style, but I still love singing opera. At Southbank Centre I will sing a classical Cuban music programme alongside all the Tango, with Latin music specialists jazz supremo Omar Puente and Cuba’s star classical pianist Marcos Madrigal.
As Julian has described, the links between Cuba and Tango are strong.We have both been invited to perform in Havana in a new festival, Habana Clasica, which is incredibly exciting. As part of my work with young singers in Cuba I will also be co-directing a performance of Magic Flute there in December, taking me neatly full circle.