The Music Plays On — John Adams El Niño

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Twenty years ago, John Adams’ nativity oratorio, El Niño, premiered at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris with soloists Dawn Upshaw, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and Willard White, a vocal ensemble from the Theatre of Voices — countertenors Daniel Bubeck, Brian Cummings and Steven Rickards), the London Voices, La Maîtrise de Paris, and the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, all conducted by Kent Nagano. Peter Sellars’ incredible libretto includes text from the King James Bible, the Wakefield Mystery Plays, Martin Luther’s Christmas Sermon, the Gospel of Luke, and several gnostic gospels from the Apocrypha, as well as poems by Rosario Castellanos, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Gabriela Mistral, Vicente Huidobro, Rubén Darío, librettist Peter Sellars, and Adams himself. He also quotes Gabriela Mistral’s “The Christmas Star” and incorporates a choral setting of “O quam preciosa” by Hildegard von Bingen.

El Niño follows the typical storyline of Jesus’ birth, however Part I focuses on Mary’s perspective while in the stable in Bethlehem, and while Handel’s Messiah is certainly a model for Part I, using women’s voices was of paramount importance to Adams and Sellars

The idea of incorporating Hispanic texts into the libretto came from Peter Sellars, who I’d asked to help me construct a libretto. We both call California home, and the intensity and genuineness of Latin American art and culture is one of the great gifts one receives by living here. Of the five Hispanic poets whose texts I’ve set, three are women. This opened up possibilities of adding another dimension to the story-telling. So much of the ‘official’ Nativity narrative has traditionally been told by the Church, and presumably by men. But seldom in the orthodox stories is there any more than a passing awareness of the misery and pain of labour, of the uncertainty and doubt of pregnancy, or of that mixture of supreme happiness and inexplicable emptiness that follows the moment of birth. All of those extreme emotional dramas surrounding the birth of a child are touched upon by these Hispanic women.

The four poems of the celebrated Mexican novelist and poet, Rosario Castellanos, play a crucial role. Again, Adams elaborates,

“The principal voice of this piece — we could say the heart of the piece — is that of Rosario Castellanos. I am embarrassed to confess that before beginning work on this piece I had never heard the name of Rosario Castellanos. And I suspect that 95% of North Americans likewise do not know her name. But that situation doubtless will change during the coming years as the astonishing gift of these Mexican poets comes to be recognized.”

Here is Rosario Castellanos reading her poem, La anunciación -

Part II centers on the aftermath of the birth, focusing on the early life of Jesus and King Herod’s slaughter of the Holy Innocents, has many corollaries to Berlioz’s L’Enfance du Christ. Another poem by Castellanos, Memorial de Tlatelolco, acts as a centerpiece for Part II and is the largest single number in El Niño.

Memorial de Tlatelolco

La oscuridad engendra la violencia
y la violencia pide oscuridad
para cuajar el crimen.
Por eso el dos de octubre aguardó hasta la noche
Para que nadie viera la mano que empuñaba
El arma, sino sólo su efecto de relámpago.

¿Y a esa luz, breve y lívida, quién? ¿Quién es el que mata?
¿Quiénes los que agonizan, los que mueren?
¿Los que huyen sin zapatos?
¿Los que van a caer al pozo de una cárcel?
¿Los que se pudren en el hospital?
¿Los que se quedan mudos, para siempre, de espanto?

¿Quién? ¿Quiénes? Nadie. Al día siguiente, nadie.
La plaza amaneció barrida; los periódicos
dieron como noticia principal
el estado del tiempo.
Y en la televisión, en el radio, en el cine
no hubo ningún cambio de programa,
ningún anuncio intercalado ni un
minuto de silencio en el banquete.
(Pues prosiguió el banquete.)

No busques lo que no hay: huellas, cadáveres
que todo se le ha dado como ofrenda a una diosa,
a la Devoradora de Excrementos1.
No hurgues en los archivos pues nada consta en actas.


Mas he aquí que toco una llaga: es mi memoria.
Duele, luego es verdad. Sangre con sangre
y si la llamo mía traiciono a todos.

Recuerdo, recordamos.
Ésta es nuestra manera de ayudar a que amanezca
sobre tantas conciencias mancilladas,
sobre un texto iracundo sobre una reja abierta,
sobre el rostro amparado tras la máscara.
Recuerdo, recordamos
hasta que la justicia se siente entre nosotros.

El Niño ends quietly, for only children’s choir and guitar, with the last word, “poem,” lovingly ending this two-hour piece.

The premiere at Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris was beautifully filmed —

And the original recording made with this cast is excellent.

Written by

Music Director of the California Symphony and Las Vegas Philharmonic

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