Unique and instantly recognisable, the art of Frida Kahlo offers a powerful reflection on issues of race, gender and identity. And since last year’s exhibition of her work at the V&A, the iconic quality of her work – including her familiar self-portraits has gained in stature.

Now, in the same month as her voice is alleged to have been heard for the first time, released by the National Sound Library of Mexico, Oxford is to host a world premiers of an opera based on her inner thoughts.

The performance on Wednesday is part of the ongoing Oxford Festival of the Arts – the multi-disciplinary spectacular covering everything from dance and drama to literature, music and sport, which was founded, and is principally sponsored, by Magdalen College School.

The work was composed by operatic prodigy Paul Max Edlin, who used Kahlo’s diaries to create an opera based on her life, love and work.

Arditti Quartet performed an early iteration, Frida Sketches and now the finished work, simply called Frida, receives its world première at the Jacqueline du Pré Music Building at St Hilda’s College.

The Oxford Times:

The production takes the audience on a journey from the Mexican artist’s childhood to her death, reflecting on a range of key aspects of her personal life including the lifelong injuries she suffered in a bus accident while aged 18, after which she returned to her childhood love of painting, and her marriage to fellow artist and communist Diego Rivera.

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A monodrama for mezzo-soprano and chamber ensemble, the piece will be performed by East London Music Group and mezzo-soprano Katie Bray – who was awarded the Joan Sutherland Audience Prize in memory of Dmitri Hvorostovsky in Saturday’s Cardiff Singer of the World competition.

Edlin says: “As a composer who has been surrounded by visual art all my life and for whom surrealist painting is particularly relevant, Frida Kahlo’s work excites me.

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“I am so grateful to the Diego Rivera & Frida Kahlo Museums Trust for permitting me to set her poetic diaries to music. These diaries are extraordinary in that they are a mix of sketches and paintings and poetic commentaries – some even seemingly ‘stream of consciousness’, such as this passage: ‘no moon, sun, diamond, hands – fingertip, dot, ray, gauze, sea. pine green, pink glass, eye, mine, eraser, mud, mother, I am coming’.”

He adds: I was inevitably drawn to these diaries and their world. I have an instilled love of opera from my soprano grandmother and an admiration for surrealism from my artist mother.

The Oxford Times:

Katie Bray

“I grew up knowing these two art forms, surrounded by surrealist paintings, often in the making.

“This work is hard to pigeonhole,” he goes on,

“It is fundamentally a mix between a song cycle and an opera, but the narrative drama that it follows puts it, in my mind at least, into the latter category.

“One of my greatest friends, from my Royal College of Music days, is Dame Sarah Connolly. She has sung my work, both at the RCM and since.

“I instinctively write for her mezzo voice, so it is extraordinary that Sarah is talking about her life and work directly before the premiere of Frida.

Frida was written in a series of 12 tableaux and reflections, giving the work the feeling of a gallery, which grows in length. By the end of the work, the reflections become the tableaux.

The Oxford Times:

He adds: “It is performed by the East London Music Group, which consists of some of the finest young musicians of their generation, created and directed by the very talented Matthew Hardy.

“They are joined by Katie, who sings Frida.

“Katie is a sensational singer and performer. She imbues that inner strength and searching quality that I recognise in Frida, in Sarah Connolly and my own painter mother and singer grandmother.

“The work is scored for a small ensemble – it had to be intimate to properly reflect the intimacy of the diaries.

“A mix of woodwind and strings are joined by the surreal and magnificent Magnetic Resonator Piano (MRP). This exceptional augmentation of a conventional grand piano allows the instrument to sound in totally new ways, yet free of any artificial amplification.

“The sounds are all entirely natural. Furthermore, the flute and clarinet have to create what are called ‘multiphonics’. These are also entirely natural sounds, yet they create chords and mixes of notes. The instrumentation allows for a huge palette of colours, often otherworldly and surreal.

Director of the Oxford Festival of the Arts, Dr Michelle Castelletti said: “The subject matter remains relevant today.

“Just as Frida Kahlo identified and represented herself through her art, image, and clothes, so the representation of this première within the Oxford Festival of the Arts programming will help identify it and what it stands for as a festival: embracing new commissions and a true representation of the arts of today.”

The release of Kahlo’s recorded voice – reading from her essay Portrait of Diego during the pilot of a radio show El Bachiller – has sparked both excitement and controversy with some family members doubting its authenticity. If real, it will be the only recording of the enigmatic artist in existence.

*The Oxford Festival of the Arts continues until Sunday, July 7, with an eclectic line-up of events. They include outdoor screenings of Coco and Shakespeare in Love, under-10s cricket, and rowing and lawn tennis tasters on Sunday, and a screening of Fritz Lang’s 1927 masterpiece Metropolis with a live organ accompaniment on Monday on July 1.

  • Frida is at the Jacqueline du Pre Music Room at St Hilda’s College, Oxford, on Wednesday as part of Oxford Festival of the Arts
  • artsfestivaloxford.org