The Birth of Nuevo Tango
Maria de Buenos Aires is dazzling audiences the world over after decades of relative obscurity. As new productions increase each year, Maria de Buenos Aires—an enigmatic work—is expanding and reshaping the operatic experience while simultaneously exposing new audiences to the rhythms and moves of tango.
Maria de Buenos Aires has become the synonymous with tango itself. But when Maria de Buenos Aires premiered 50 years ago in 1968, the music of its composer, Astor Piazzolla, was not the quintessential tango experience we know today. In fact, Piazzolla’s music and style were controversial and radical, rejected by tango aficionados. However, Piazzolla’s style won out, and his hybrid form of tango, jazz, and classical music forever changed—and expanded—the world of tango.
The origins of tango are impossible to uncover. Unlike other Western traditions, the history of tango was not hotly debated in newspapers. It was not worked out through contemporaneous notes from founding artists. Instead tango originated in the seedy underbelly of Argentina in the 19th century where it finally coalesced into a vibrant, dance tradition: vertical expressions of horizontal desires.
During much of the early 20th century, tango was almost exclusively a form of dance left to lowlifes found in Argentinian clubs, brothels, and bars. But as the elite of Latin America began traveling to Europe on their Grand Tours—and European aristocrats in turn traveled to Argentina—this second-class style was embraced as Argentina’s signature contribution to the world.
By the 1930s, tango was in the midst of its golden age. Until this era, musicians only accompanied the dancers, but as recordings of tango orchestras, bands, and soloist were sold across the world, the musicians of tango became equal collaborators in the dance itself.
However, as tango reached a new level of musical expression and dissemination, it became wrapped up in the politics of its day. As a symbol of Argentina, tango became associated with the nationalist policies of Juan Peron (whose wife Eva is explored in another genre-defying work of the 20th century, Evita). As a consequence of this association, tango was banned and encouraged according to political whims. During these uncertain times, tango once again went undercover, relying on anonymous rebels to keep the flame alive.
In the late 1930s a young bandoneon player, Astor Piazzolla, moved to Argentina from the United States in order to play with and learn from the great tango orchestras. While Piazzolla was born in Argentina to Italian parents, they soon moved to New York City where his global experiences, and exposer to different forms of music helped shape his signature style.
After several years mastering tango in Buenos Aires, he became restless. He wanted to compose, not just perform, so Piazzolla moved to Paris to study composition with a titan of 20th century music theory Nadia Boulanger. Piazzolla played his tango compositions for Boulanger and—understanding his true talent—encouraged him to combine his two loves: Western classical music and tango.
The result of this labor was nuevo tango: a fusion of tango, jazz, and classical music. But more importantly, Piazzolla introduced tango to the concert hall. Like Gershwin in Rhapsody in Blue, Piazzolla used every genre at his disposal to move tango musicians to the forefront of the tradition. Many tango-lovers were shocked and appalled. For them, tango was about the dance, and this new form of musical expression was anathema to their beloved tradition.
Over the decades, Piazzolla’s popularity grew and his mastery of tango and Western classical music—often in the same pieces—won out. With nuevo tango, tango found new life in the second half of the 20th century. Now, with a new cultural interest in social dance across the Western world, tango is thriving once more.
For many opera audiences, Maria de Buenos Aires stretches the definition of opera. But just as tango nuevo was originally rejected only to be accepted as a masterful step forward for the tradition, so too is Maria de Buenos Aires a bold step forward in the operatic canon. By going on this surreal, musical journey audiences are forced to consider the question, “What is opera?” Piazzolla defied his traditional boundaries, and doing so, brought new audiences to tango and opera alike. Like the unnamed pioneers of tango before him, Piazzolla fused his own experiences, influences, and desires through art, paving a new way forward to those who choose to join the dance.
Joshua Borths is the Director of Opera and Musical Theater at Capital University in Columbus, Ohio.