If you’ve seen a Florida Grand Opera production in the past thirty years, you’ve experienced the work of choreographer Rosa Mercedes. Opera and ballet enjoy a longstanding romance, with many works featuring intricate ballets, and Mercedes has been the artist behind FGO’s dance sequences since 1992. Most recently, audiences raved over her work in our season opener, La traviata. Mercedes’ choreography is also an important feature of I pagliacci, opening on January 27.
Rosa Mercedes started dancing at age 6, and was dancing professionally by age 16. She trained in ballet and modern jazz, historical dance, flamenco, and many other styles in both Europe and New York. As a dancer, she performed all over the world with a variety of Spanish dance companies, opera, and zarzuela. “That’s how my love for the opera art came,” she says.
She began choreographing during her dance career, and fell in love with that, too, increasingly working in opera choreography. Soon, she was a regular with Florida Grand Opera. “Florida Grand is dear to me because that’s where I met my husband, but also, I did so many productions,” she says.
Choreographing for opera is different than for a dance concert. “You have to work with the stage director intimately. It’s a team collaboration. You’re part of a story and you play a role within the story of the opera. If I do a dance concert and I pick my own music, it’s my own creation. In opera, it’s about the vision of the director. What is the story they want to tell with the choreography, if the dancers have a specific role … there’s a lot you have to put in the pot and mix it, and the choreography comes out” says Mercedes. “I don’t like when I go to operas and the dance looks like part of something else. It has to be integrated.”
In I pagliacci, the dancers play members of the travelling commedia dell’arte troupe at the center of the plot. “Commedia dell’arte is also movement. I want to enhance what they characters are going through,” says Mercedes. The dance in Pagliacci reflects the feelings of the main characters, what they’re going through, in a poetic way. That’s what the director asked me for, that’s what I try to do.”
The stage director in this case happens to be Mercedes’ husband, Jeffrey Marc Buchman, with whom she frequently collaborates. “It’s a process. He inspires me. We inspired each other. He has ideas, he comes to me, and we develop. It’s really, truly a collaboration. It’s wonderful.” It’s a treat for them to work together on I pagliacci, especially since they both have a long relationship with FGO. “Florida Grand Opera is the guilty one,” she laughs. “We met working together on a production called Fiesta Española, featuring three pieces by de Falla.” Buchman was a Studio Artist at the time, having had a substantial career as a baritone before turning to stage direction. They’ve been married for 25 years.
In addition to choreography, Mercedes teaches movement to singers. “Dance is in the opera. The singers also have to move. I coach movement for singers in roles like Carmen, Hoffman, even Butterfly, because everything moves. It’s not only dance.” She gives workshops and masterclasses at universities and festivals to help singers understand their bodies better and be better actors. “It’s important, because this —“ she indicates the part of the throat housing the vocal cords — “is a muscle, but it’s connected to the rest of the body. And today, in productions, it’s not like 40 years before. People do a lot, and you have to prepare physically.” Mercedes’ dedication to teaching movement to singers extends to her choreography jobs, where she often helps the singers with movement. “I’m there for everything that happens with movement,” she says.
Mercedes doesn’t have a favorite opera to choreograph or even to watch as a fan, although she does admit a bias for Puccini. However, she is adamant that she loves everything. “I think every time I do one, that’s my favorite,” she says. “Choreographing opera, dancing opera, gave me this ability to be versatile. Going from a minuet to a flamenco piece in Carmen, to Aida classical ballet. With that versatility, you’re never bored, you always have to be on the edge of your seat. To me, that’s what’s so amazing.”
And I pagliacci?
“Pagliacci has it all,” Mercedes says. “For the dance lovers in this town, they should come and see it, because it has major dancing, besides amazing singing, amazing lighting. Dance in opera is very important.”
Enjoy Rosa Mercedes’ work in I pagliacci, opening January 27 at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami and February 8 at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale. Tickets are available at fgo.org, or call 800.741.1010.