Born in Madrid, Fernando Operé calls himself “one of those weirdos”: a grad student who, upon receiving his Ph.D. from UVA in 1975, remained on campus as he moved up the ranks from assistant to associate and finally full professor of Spanish in 2002. But for Operé, who still speaks with the thick accent of his native Spain, his love of Thomas Jefferson’s University may only be part of the equation.
“I always loved theater, and I studied it in Madrid and Barcelona for many years before I came to the U.S. to do my Ph.D. Even though I realized I was into academia, into writing books, doing research and teaching, I missed it. So I thought, ‘What if I directed a play?’ My first production was in 1981.”
Every year for the last 34 years, the director of the Latin American studies program and UVA’s study abroad Hispanic studies program has produced and directed a play by a Spanish-speaking playwright from a Latin American country.
“For a while I had a group of music students singing songs and playing guitar. We even did presentations,” Operé said, referencing poetry recitals that stemmed from his own experience as a published poet who still gives readings throughout the country and overseas.
The small performances that began as Operé’s side project quickly became an annual event, hosted for years at The Prism Coffeehouse and more recently at Live Arts and the Helms Theater. Now dubbed the UVA Spanish Theater Group, his close-knit cadre of performers includes three faculty members, several lecturers and a handful of graduate, undergraduate and former students who live in the area.
“We have a list of people who come every year, people from the community and people from nearby universities like James Madison, Richmond and Longwood. They read the plays in literature or culture classes, and then they come so they can compare the written text to the show.”
While the shows provide ample intellectual fodder for students, Operé sees himself not only as teacher but also as a cultural connector.
“The Spanish community is growing in size. In the U.S. now there are more than 50 million Spanish-speaking people, more than in Spain or Argentina. I think those of us [in the UVA department of Spanish, Italian and Portuguese] feel that we should also serve the community in some way,” he said. “[These shows are] a link between the University, local high schools and the Spanish speaking community.”
Operé said he chooses Spanish classics by well-known writers like Federico García Lorca and Dolores Prida. He provides a summary in English so non-native Spanish speakers can better follow what happens, and each run of shows typically fills the house.
This year, the UVA Spanish Theater Group will perform La nona, a famous Argentinian play by Roberto Cossa about a 100-year-old woman in Buenos Aires who literally eats her middle-class family out of house and home.
“When the play premiered in 1977, it was sort of a critical analysis of modern life,” Operé said. “You have these typical Argentinians who never work in a typical Argentinian-Italian family. It’s funny and bitter, one where you laugh and then it leaves you with an uncomfortable feeling.”
Operé will perform alongside his students as 80-year-old Francisco, a candy shop owner whose wares are completely consumed when la nona’s family marries her off in an attempt to get rid of her.
His ability to participate in the shows he directs allows the professor to maintain his own passion for performance. “When I took classes in Barcelona, I realized it was really difficult to make it in theater,” he said. After a few years of underground performances, he decided to pursue his love of academia and moved to Virginia.
Now that Operé teaches a variety of classes in Spanish and Latin American literature, culture, poetry and theater, he uses the annual Spanish Theater Group performances as a tool for students to write their own reviews and criticism. Ultimately, though, “theater goes beyond what happens in the classroom,” he said.
“In theater class you deal with the text and only the text, but a play on the stage is many more things,” said Operé. “I tell my students, ‘Everything I tell you in class is in the library, but here, in the theater, we are going to make you cry or make you laugh. Theater is magic.’”
La nona runs February 6-8 at UVA’s Helms Theater.