Pittsburgh Current Staff Writer
For Carolina Loyola-Garcia, it’s not everyday that you get to embody one of your icons.
“It’s like somebody asking you to play God,” she says. “It’s like, how do you even start doing that?”
The icon in question is Violeta Parra, a Chilean composer, songwriter, social activist and visual artist known for helping found “Nueva Canción,” or “New Song,” a genre of Latin American music combining the folk genre with socially-conscious lyrics.
Quantum Theatre recounts Parra’s life with “Looking for Violeta,” which runs now until Aug. 25. A sonically colorful retrospective underneath a tent, or peña, in Frick Park — a nod to the singer, who used the traditional gathering place as a place of love and solace for indigenous peoples and the poor — “Looking for Violeta” blurs the lines between play, opera and historical biography.
The artistic process for “Looking for Violeta” began in 2017, when Quantum Theatre artistic director Karla Boos visited Santiago to attend the Santiago a Mil International Theatre Festival as preparation for the Pittsburgh International Festival of Firsts in 2018. Loyola-Garcia — a longtime Quantum artist who has appeared in “The Red Shoes,” “María de Buenos Aires” and “Ainadamar” — invited Boos to stay with her and her family in Chile.
“Her sister [Gloria] played Violeta Parra in the car as we drove around and I fell in love with it,” Boos says. “Gloria said at a certain point, ‘Oh my goodness, you and Carolina should do a show about Violeta Parra.”
Boos and Loyola-Garcia then began to gather the creative team for the production, some who have a connection to Parra and Pittsburgh: Composer and ethnomusicologist Emily Pinkerton of local folk duo The Early Mays studied Chilean folk music for her master’s and doctorate degrees, with an emphasis on Parra’s work; Santiago-born playwright María-José Galleguillos is Loyola-Garcia’s former collegiate classmate.
Although the composition process can be beautiful in its solitude, Pinkerton says she found joy in working with the entire team to create the music for “Looking for Violeta,” which features a five-piece band and an ensemble of singers.
“It’s lovely to have part of the composition process be in the live experience of everybody coming together,” she says. “It’s fun for composition to be that and not just you alone at your computer for hours and hours.”
The production also touches on Parra’s work as a visual artist. The set features fabric panels with sewn recreations of Parra’s arpilleras, folk tapestries made by Chilean women to protest Augusto Pinochet’s regime. Parra displayed her arpilleras, paintings and sculptures at the Louvre in 1964, becoming the first Latin American woman to have a solo show at the museum.
“Looking for Violeta” runs around 80 minutes, but the complexity of Parra’s life and Chilean culture goes beyond a show or a 500-word article about it. Loyola-Garcia hopes audiences take the time to learn more about Parra and Chilean culture after the musicians play their last beat and the cast takes its bows.
“I hope that this show will inspire them to research a little bit and go find more about her and listen to her music, which is beautiful,” she says. “I also hope to bring a little tease to Chilean culture to audiences here, which for me is a beautiful thing to try to do because it’s my adoptive home.”
For Boos, this work — three years in the making — is a chance to showcase Violeta Parra’s impact on music, art and history.
“It’s really wonderful to be making a work about this person who taught the world that artists have a voice and have a role to play in resistance of oppressive regimes and that they can unite people across boundaries,” she says.