The Spoleto Festival USA for 2014 just opened with a production of a John Adams masterpiece, El Niño, fully staged by John La Bouchardière. Here’s the essay I wrote for Spoleto’s book:
Is it possible to be touched by a sense of the miraculous today? In our guarded, cynical age, can we feel anything remotely similar to the experience of wonder that was the norm rather than the exception for most of human history?
Just before the turn of the millennium, John Adams began a risky new project to explore art’s power to re-enchant us. El Niño is the intensely beautiful and moving result. It’s a work that offers an unforgettable entrée into his musical world — and one that tends to keep a high position on the favorites list of the composer’s most ardent fans.
“I’m very interested in the dramatic staging of musical works,” says Spoleto Festival USA’s new Director of Choral Activities Joe Miller, “and so I proposed doing El Niño at the Festival. One of the aspects that draws me so strongly to it is how Adams presents different perspectives on such a familiar story. I also love novels written about the same event from many different character perspectives. Adams does something very similar here.” Miller explains that the libretto’s use of other perspectives from Latin American poets to supplement and comment on the biblical narrative of Jesus’ nativity calls for an extraordinary richness of musical perspectives as well: “It resembles a website where you click on a link and are able to continue exploring with more depth. Adams brings up these other references within the basic narrative frame.”
For example, the 20th-century feminist novelist and poet Rosario Castellanos (1925-1974), who came of age in the mountainous country in the south of Mexico, provides the textual source for some of the most psychologically pivotal moments in El Niño. One of these is her poem “Memorial de Tlatelco,” about the killing of hundreds of students by police during a heated political protest in Mexico City in 1968. Adams sets this as the dramatic climax of the second part. This soprano aria forms the dark heart of El Niño, the violent negation of all the hope encompassed by the imagery of birth. “Castellanos brings a grittiness and reality to this story, along with a sense of skepticism, that make the hopefulness the piece attains again have all the more meaning,” says Miller.
The conductor’s love affair with El Niño began when he was invited to prepare the choral forces for a high-profile performance at Carnegie Hall in 2009. Adams himself was on hand as lead conductor. “What he imprinted on me was his incredible attention to each detail of his score,” recalls Miller, “and his over-the-top enthusiasm for each of the characters, coaching the singers in nuances of the Spanish text.”
The prevalence of non-scriptural Spanish sources represents a key to Adams’s vision in El Niño. Working with his longtime artistic collaborator and friend, the director Peter Sellars (to whom El Niño is dedicated), Adams crafted a libretto from pre-existing sources.
Together they worked out a schema to interweave the well-known “plot points” as depicted in the New Testament — the Annunciation and mystery of the virgin birth, Mary’s visitation with her cousin Elisabeth, the humble surroundings of the birth itself, the homage of the Three Wise Men, Herod’s massacre of the innocents, and the flight into Egypt — with folk-like tales from the apocryphal gospels and poetry spanning from the Middle Ages to the 20th century — much of it by Latin American women poets.
By interpolating the voices of these women, Adams and Sellars wanted to add a fresh perspective to the conventional account of the nativity. A retelling of that specific narrative, Adams realized, could simultaneously serve as the basis for far-ranging meditations on the miraculous reality of birth in general. Mary’s experience of pregnancy in El Niño represents the pregnancy of women across time, much as the birth of Jesus figures the birth of all children.
“All of us know the nativity story, but what we don’t see and hear about is a palm tree bending on the command of the Christ child to quench the thirst of his mother,” remarks Spoleto Festival USA General Director Nigel Redden. “We don’t expect Spanish language poetry from other centuries to suddenly show up the middle of a depiction of the nativity. Through taking up this story John [Adams] is trying to remind us of what redemption means. But it’s a story that is fundamentally incomprehensible to us today in the way that it was for well over a millennium to people.”
An attempt to rekindle the sense of the miraculousness that fuels this story inspired the choices made by Peter Sellars for his inaugural staging of El Niño (which received its world premiere in Paris in December 2000). Sellars’s central concept was to emphasize the everydayness of the characters; their story unfolds in tandem with an accompanying silent film in which Latino actors from Los Angeles re-enacted a contemporary allegory of the Nativity.
“I think Sellars’s idea of a social allegory of outsiders is very valid,” observes Redden, “but we decided on an entirely different approach.” He invited the British stage director John La Bouchardière to develop a full-scale staging for the Memminger Auditorium. Ever since El Niño’s initial unveiling in a theatrically staged context, performances have tended to go in the direction of straightforward concert presentations in the manner of an oratorio — looking back to the role of Handel’s Messiah as an important model for Adams’s conception. This new production by Spoleto Festival USA therefore represents a significant new chapter in the reception history of a major contemporary masterpiece.
“I wanted to push it as far as possible in the other direction of a dramatic staging,” explains La Bouchardière, “whilst accepting the conventions of the piece itself. He points out that this aspect of El Niño; could be confusing to audiences expecting a linear narrative with one-on-one, naturalistic correspondence between the performers and characters. Instead, roles are fluidly exchanged. Both the soprano and mezzo-soprano, for example, represent different aspects of Mary, while the bass-baritone alternately sings the parts of Joseph and Herod and, at one point, even projects the voice of God. “It became important to find a way to play the story that would allow these characters to be consistent.”
La Bouchardière found a solution in his research into medieval miracle plays and didactic religious plays used by Franciscans in the New World (see p. X for director’s note), , providing “vessels” that anchor the biblical characters in a recognizable iconography. “They provide a way of accessing the nativity play through the medieval world — the last period in which miracles were believed in, in which the story was not told as a metaphor,” La Bouchardière elaborates. “John Adams, for example, was brought up to think of religious stories as allegories, and he wrote El Niño as an attempt to understand what is meant by a miracle. In our staging, the subject is not just the story of Jesus’s birth but the story of us and Jesus’s birth. We see the characters onstage reacting to the narrative, as in the Memorial scene itself.”
Redden draws an analogy with our internet age of too-much-information: “To some extent with so many instant answers at our disposal, we’ve lost the excitement and majesty of the unknown. This new production seeks a way not just to make the old familiar story surprising and fresh again but to have it captivate us with that newness as well.”
For Joe Miller, the music Adams has created makes this possible. “El Niño combines a sense of heat — the heat of the street — and pulsation with ingenious orchestration. There is both lyricism and athleticism to the vocal writing, and the music for the countertenors is pointillist. It all conveys a tremendous sense of light and wonder. El Niño is a very 21st-century work because it is so active and alive.”
(c) 2014 Thomas May – All rights reserved.
Filed under: American music, American opera, John Adams