Happy 100th birthday Astor Piazzolla (born 11 March 1921). In this feature Jon Bungey investigates singer Ann Liebeck’s plans to celebrate the tango master on his centenary…tonight:
Astor Piazzolla took the dance music of Argentina to a world stage. On the centenary of his birth, a show devised by soprano Ann Liebeck, Violetta’s Last Tango, salutes his genius.
Every style of music has its visionaries – artists who go beyond the limits of a genre to explore new sound worlds. Jazz has Charlie Parker and Miles Davis for starters; pop has Lennon-McCartney and maybe Brian Wilson or Bowie or Kraftwerk – but I’ll leave you to argue that one.
In the sensual, rhythmic realm of Argentinian tango there is one undisputed master – Astor Piazzolla who in the 1950s and ’60s emerged as king of nuevo tango. Incorporating jazz and classical harmonies and enlisting new instruments – saxophones, the electric guitar – he raised the music born in the backstreets of Buenos Aires to a new level of artistry. Like Parker or Miles, Piazzolla was initially scorned by traditionalists but the virtuoso of the bandoneón (the button accordion central to the music) is today regarded as a key Latin American composer of the 20th century.
Piazzolla was born on 11 March, 1921, and to mark the centenary in the UK a stream of soprano Ann Liebeck’s show, Violetta’s Last Tango, celebrating his music, is going up on YouTube (BELOW) . A CD has also been re-released. Since 2013 this “operatic dance-drama” has drawn audiences at venues across London including Kings Place, the Purcell Room and Wilton’s Music Hall. It features two singers, two tango dancers and four musicians – among them the great Cuban jazz violinist Omar Puente and Julian Rowlands, multi-instrumentalist and producer of the CD.
Some 20 tango songs interspersed with opera quotes help to tell the story of an ageing singer adrift in a Buenos Aires bar mulling over a lost love. It evokes a bittersweet world of faded glamour haunted by memories of a lost past, and all spiced with some splendidly sinuous dancing and the outstanding singing of Liebeck and fado singer Nuno Silva.
Liebeck has had a long international career as a lirico spinto soprano (put simply, she has no trouble with the high notes). What drew her to this heady music nurtured by poor Italian immigrants to Argentina? “Years ago I did a Naxos recording of Carmen and in a lot of ways that character epitomises tango. And me being an opera singer, that’s what brought me in,” she says. The recording has also pointed Spotify listeners to her Latin passions.
“I haven’t got a typical opera sound. I don’t go … [utters melodramatic cry]. I was always really interested in putting myself right in the middle of the music and putting over the words, which is what jazz singers also do well,” she says.
“It may seem weird that this British-Irish-Scottish girl could get into tango but I love this music,” she says. “I just want to get these tunes out there because they’re really gorgeous and speak to people.”
Since lockdown, the show’s songs have done well on Spotify – more than 16,000 streams when Liebeck last looked, which is good going, she says, for a style that some see as niche.
So where should the tango newbie start? “Oh Piazzolla, I think. Most people do know Oblivion – I sing the Milva version in French – or Libertango. Piazzolla isn’t always easy but there are all kinds of versions. A lot of artists have done fantastic work trying to make the genre a bit more mainstream. And people always love the dances because they’re so beautiful.”
Last year, but for Covid, Liebeck would have been mounting another show at Wilton’s in Wapping that she has developed. Marlene in Havana is inspired by a cabaret performance by Marlene Dietrich on a visit to Cuba in 1957. This features Cuban hits and tangos along with songs from the Weimar Republic and the Edith Piaf songs to which Dietrich lent her icy glamour.
However, for Liebeck the lockdown lay-off was not entirely unwelcome. Organising shows, recruiting performers, let alone the minor matter of galvanising an audience from the stage was taking its toll. “I was exhausted,” she says. “I was due a kind of recharge.”
When venues unlock their doors again she will be refreshed for the challenge and there are hopes of taking Violetta to Berlin. “I’m not young any more. I’ve had a long opera career but there are a lot parts that women of my age can play. At this stage of my life, though, I’m not conforming to other people’s ideas, I’m really being me. I’m listening to my inner voice and just trying to follow it.” Astor Piazzolla, the man who broke the rules of tango to bring the sounds in his head to life, would surely have approved.
Violetta’s Last Tango by Ann Liebeck and Julian Rowlands is released on CD by Cowslip and is available on iTunes, Amazon, Spotify (below) and from anneliebeck.com