The wife of former Argentine president Juan Perón was a celebrated and controversial figure
Madalena Alberto on playing Eva Peron in Dubai Opera’s production of ‘Evita’
Sometimes it pays to be blissfully ignorant.
When it comes to the London-based Portuguese actress Madalena Alberto, it helped her not to succumb to nerves when she was asked to audition for the title role in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s popular musical Evita.
As far Alberto was concerned, the former first lady of Argentina was just another interesting character to portray as opposed to a controversial cultural icon. “I was not really familiar with the show at all,” she says.
“So I auditioned, did the best that I could and they liked it enough and they gave me the job. It was that simple, really.”
That was five years ago when Alberto was already an established star on the English theatre scene.She made her debut in 1997 alongside Ian McKellen in Aladdin at London’s Old Vic and starring roles in international tours of Chicago, Fame and The Mask of Zorro followed.
But Evita was the show in which Alberto would make her name. She joined the cast in 2013 and the production moved from peripheral London theatres to rave reviews in West End. Alberto was even nominated for Best Actress in a Musical at the What’sOnStage Awards.
Now after three years away, she returns and dons those flamboyant costumes and wigs again for a new run of shows, which includes Evita’s regional premiere at Dubai Opera.
This time it’s different, Alberto explains, not only does she have a deeper understanding of Peron’s flawed character but the story holds an additional relevance at the present time.
“There have been some massive changes in the way I see her. It felt like I was rediscovering her… and that’s tied up to the social politics of our time in that we have more women speaking up in general,” she says.
“Regardless of what we might think of her, or what she may or may have not done, she is a very compelling and powerful woman. I don’t have to apologise for telling this story anymore.”
Alberto’s comment hints at the raw nerves that Peron’s life continues to inflame. Born in poverty in rural Argentina, Peron, nicknamed Evita, moved to the capital Buenos Aires in her early twenties to pursue a career on stage.
It was there she met and eventually married Juan Peron, an army colonel who went on to become the country’s president in 1946.
Peron had no interest in living the ceremonial life of a first lady. She went on to run the ministry of labour and courted the votes of the country’s lower class when launching her own bid in 1951 for the presidency, only to withdraw because of the early stages of cervical cancer, which claimed her life two years later.
In addition to strident opposition from the Argentina’s powerful military and ruling class, Peron’s reputation was damaged by allegations of hypocrisy thanks to her extravagant personal spending habits – the musical has 18 costume changes – as well as accusations of fascist sympathies because of her meetings with the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco.
This might well explain the reason why composer Webber and lyricist Tim Rice were careful not to portray Peron in a wholly sympathetic light: the Argentine revolutionary Che Guevara narrates the story in a tone more sarcastic than reverent.
“The way that it’s written is quite derogative,” Alberto admits.
“But that’s not a bad thing. With Che’s cynical reading of her, it allows the audience to make up their own minds about Eva. We know her as this powerful figure but at the same time she has her own vulnerabilities as well. She came from a poor family and all she wanted was to go to the big city and become an actress.”
With Evita’s story arc resembling a tragic fairy tale, its eventual adaptation to the big screen made sense.
But it wasn’t an easy road. The controversial subject matter initially scared off the A-listers of the late 1970s – Barbara Streisand rejected the role immediately while producers were not enthused at the prospect of Liza Minelli in the lead.
Interestingly, it was also reported that pop-stars Elton John and Barry Gibb from the Bee Gees were considered for the role of Guevara.
After director Ken Russell shelved the project, fellow British director Alan Parker revisited the story nearly two decades later and cast Madonna as Evita alongside Antonio Banderas as Che in the relatively well-received film.
While labelling the feature “a solid effort”, Alberto says Evita’s sprawling story benefited from the visual treatment.
On the more static environment of the theatre stage, it is the musical’s 15 songs, including the much-loved ballad Don’t Cry for Me Argentina, that convey the emotion and urgency of her life.
“I really believe it is the most demanding female singing role in musical theatre. Certainly before it was written, nothing else on that scale was created before,” she says.
“The score is very intricate and there is a lot of different styles. In some scenes there is a more a classic musical theatre approach while in others it is more belty and more contemporary and it moves at a quick pace. This is also done, of course, on top of all those costume changes.”
With Evita’s enduring appeal, not to mention the runaway success of the anti-slavery hip hop-inspired Hamilton in the US and the UK and the critically acclaimed Mandela, which toured Dubai Opera last year, it does pose the question of whether musical theatre can accommodate politics and pertinent issues to its stories."
While she would like to see more timely subject matter, Alberto says it remains an uphill battle.
“What I can see, especially in London, is that people tend to go to shows that they know already.
“It provides them a sense of emotional safety and the reassurance that they are going to have a great time,” she says.
“What happened with Hamilton is that it just burst out of nowhere and it took everyone by surprise. We need a new level of musical theatre, of storytelling, something which Hamilton achieved through its use of rapping, gender and race. I am positive that there are very interesting stories out there.”
One of which is a stage adaptation of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo.
“That would absolutely be a dream role for me,” Alberto says.
“She had such a rich and tragic life that I would love to take on. But it’s not easy. The topic is so sensitive and you have to work hard to give it justice. When it comes to these powerful figures, the trick is to tell the story well without taking anything away from it or it will just descend to banal storytelling.
Evita premieres on January 22 at Dubai Opera and will run until February 3. Tickets begin from Dh250 from www.dubaiopera.com