At some point during the 80-minute running time of Quantum Theatre’s Looking for Violeta, the sun sets outside the tent on the Frick Park Lawn Bowling Greens, where the production is being staged. But you almost wouldn’t notice until a moment close to the end, when the lights inside the tent are darkened and you hear Violeta Parra’s low, sweet voice singing to the audience from beyond the grave.
That’s not a spoiler. Quantum’s new folk opera about Parra, a 20th-century Chilean musician and activist, is biographical, and Violeta’s older brother Nicanor tells us early on that the story is about her death. Looking for Violeta is Nicanor’s memory play; he travels through Violeta’s life attempting to understand why his sister took her life shortly before turning 50. In the end, though, this production is much more about life than death.
Carolina Loyola-Garcia is irrepressible as Violeta, embodying from childhood Violeta’s dogged independence and the intimate, profound relationship she shares with Nicanor, played by powerful bass-baritone Eugene Perry. They’re joined by a small ensemble playing multiple roles — Jerreme Rodriguez, first as Violeta’s father and then as several different lovers, is especially skillful at switching between characters.
But the ensemble’s MVP is Emily Pinkerton, who, in addition to singing, acting, and playing multiple instruments including the 25-string guitarrón Chileno, wrote the beautiful, Parra-inspired score. (Pinkerton and Loyola-Garcia collaborated on the show’s creation with director Karla Boos, Chilean playwright María José Galleguillos, and music director Daniel Nesta Curtis.) The music, together with the colorful costumes and wall hangings in the tent, really does make the stage feel like it’s been transported from Pittsburgh to Chile.
Parra is a lesser-known figure in the United States, but in Latin America, her music, which lifted up the songs of the working-class people of Chile, took on a significant political legacy. It’s obvious that everyone involved has extensive knowledge of — as well as an immense affection for — Parra and her story.
There are times when Looking for Violeta, in its urge to carry the audience through all of Parra’s most significant life events, might move too quickly through one of the many relationships or tragedies that make up her story, and it’s not a bad idea to read a short summary of her life before heading into the show. But the story is well worth knowing, and Looking for Violeta is an unbelievably satisfying way to experience it.