Thursday, September 30, 2021

In Conversation with Chía Patiño

The Stage Director of Orpheus & Eurydice

Born in Ecuador, Chía Patiño was the Artistic and Executive Director of the National Theatre in Ecuador for 10 years before joining the Butler School of Music at the University of Texas-Austin in 2019 as the Stage Director for the Butler Opera Center. Her path has been eclectic: she began as a pianist, continued as a composer, and began a parallel path as a stage director in 1998. She has staged zarzuela, musical theater, theater, and opera for numerous companies in the United States, Arab Emirates, Egypt, Guatemala, Colombia and Ecuador. Productions she has directed include: Tosca, Traviata, Transformations, Rusalka, Dido and Aeneas, Carmen, Sweeney Todd, Luis Fernanda, West Side Story, Les Miserables, La Flauta Mágica de Los Andes, Faust and Don Giovanni. In 2009, she was the music director of the mariachi opera commissioned and produced by Houston Grand Opera, Cruzar la Cara de la Luna. This is Patiño Seattle Opera debut.

SEATTLE OPERA: Is it true that you and Christina (Scheppelmann) have known each for a long time?

CHÍA PATIÑO: Yes, it is true. We first met at Washington National Opera. I was in the young artist program at the time and Christina was one of the big bosses. We have kept in touch, and over the years, we have tried to see each other. I missed her by a few days when she was working in Barcelona. Years later, we were able to connect in Madrid at a combined Opera America, Opera Latin America, and Opera Europa conference.

Teatro Nacional Sucre (Quito, Ecuador) © DianGabi

SEATTLE OPERA: Do you come from a musical family?

CHÍA PATIÑO: My family is very musical. My parents often fought over who has the best ear for music. My dad thought he did. The word ear in Spanish has two meanings. Either it can mean the body part or it can mean the act of hearing. My father always thought he had the best ear for music, because he had large ears. In actuality, my mother has the best ear for music. My sister is a pianist, living in London. All of my uncles and cousins are amazing amateur musicians. At family gatherings, there is lots of singing and playing the guitar and piano. It turns out that talent does run in the family genes.

SEATTLE OPERA: Can you point to a mentor who inspired you?

CHÍA PATIÑO: Doris Keyes, my piano professor at the University of Louisville, was very influential in my early training. She taught my sister first—the one in London. My sister was completely in love with Doris. My sister compelled me to come to America. At that time, I was not sure I wanted to study music. Doris made me see that I was a musician. Doris was married to a composer, she loved the idea of me becoming a composer. Sadly, her husband died in an accident the summer before I was to start studying with him.

La Flauta Mágica de los Andes, Teatro Nacional Sucre 2018 (source)

SEATTLE OPERA: Your adaptation of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, La flauta mágica de los Andes, was widely praised. How did it come together?

CHÍA PATIÑO: The reason we began thinking about an adaptation in the first place was that we did not have the orchestra needed to perform it.

SEATTLE OPERA: Really, please explain.

CHÍA PATIÑO: What we did have was a transcription of the music using traditional instruments from the Andes that was written for the Segundo Condor, the theater’s Andean Instrument Orchestra. The plan was still to sing the opera in German. One day, I was in a small village researching native clothing. I was visiting an indigenous dressmaker, telling her the story of The Magic Flute. At first, I didn’t think she would understand the story, but she did. She followed the story completely. We had the sound and I thought we needed the language. I translated the opera into Spanish and that delayed the project. Then I thought, why not add Kichwa (Quechua), the language of the indigenous people.

Flauta Magica de los Andes, (The Magic Flute of the Andes), Act 1, Queen of the Night

SEATTLE OPERA: The look was indigenous also?

CHÍA PATIÑO: The look was completely indigenous. We used indigenous artisans to build the costumes, which completely freaked out the designer. The indigenous people do not believe in cutting fabric. They wrap the fabric around themselves until it takes desired shape they want. Then they stop the loom, they don’t cut.

CHÍA PATIÑO: Those decisions were right. The project took almost three years to produce. Everything was time consuming; however, it was worth it! Many native people came to see it. People who did not know anything about opera still came. They only knew there were going to hear native singing and instruments and see native costumes. That was enough to bring them in, and they came!

La Flauta Mágica de los Andes, Teatro Nacional Sucre 2018 (source)

SEATTLE OPERA: What attracted you to Seattle Opera’s production of Orpheus & Eurydice?

CHÍA PATIÑO: I wanted to explore our relationship with death, especially in this time of COVID. In Latin America, the pandemic has been very bad—everyone knows someone who has died from it. I lost an uncle at the very beginning of the pandemic. Then I lost a good friend. On the night, I learned that my friend had it, I prayed for his life. I had not prayed since I was 15. I started praying because he has three kids and I really wanted him to pull through. I got reports from his brother and from his wife: he was diabetic, he was connected to a ventilator, his kidneys were in bad shape, his liver was damaged, his eyesight affected, and his lungs had collapsed. If he could come back, what type of life would he have? How would his family cope? He would have a tough life. For me, I thought it best that he pass away.

I began to question our obsession with life and living, especially when it isn’t the best thing for the person who is dying. For me to love my friend I had to accept that he had to die. After my friend died, I called Christina (Scheppelmann) and told her that I needed to change the ending. I needed to shift my perspective of Orpheus. If Orpheus really loves Eurydice, he has to accept that she must die. I could not have Orpheus drag Eurydice from paradise. That’s not heroic to me. If anything, I believe, COVID has taught us that we have to make peace with death. It is all right for a person to die, because it is their time. This performance is a meditation about the times that we are living through.

Seattle Opera presents Orpheus & Eurydice Jan. 12-30, 2022 at McCaw Hall. For tickets, casting, and more information, go to

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