When soprano Caitlin Lynch first delved into the complexity of John Adams' El Niño last year, she felt an immediate connection to the nativity opera-oratorio, having just had a child of her own. "I loved the music so much that I wanted to learn it, despite its difficulty," she explains. "The birth story is so rarely told from the women's perspective, which is funny, because we all have a mother that carried us. It's universal."
El Niño, Adams' female-focused take on the nativity story, begins its Spoleto Festival three-show run on May 23 at the Memminger Auditorium.
"This is more about Mary than Joseph ... or really even Jesus," explains director John La Bouchardière. "John Adams went about writing and creating El Niño, because he wanted to understand the miracle that was the birth of Jesus Christ. Adams wasn't denying religion — he was just exploring and trying to get his own sense of the miracle."
Adams' opera is a collage of ideas, but adheres to the traditional nativity story at its center. "The story follows the sequence of the gospel, but with commentary and moments of reflection," La Bouchardière adds. "There's a continual dialogue between then and now throughout the show."
Cast members change roles as the story progresses and are able to comment outside of the action. The libretto, over half of which is sung in English, includes Latin American poetry from female writers Rosario Castellanos and Sor Juana, medieval and Renaissance religious texts, and the conventional birth story from the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, including a previously omitted scene from Matthew where Jesus takes on a cave of dragons.
La Bouchardière, best known for his avant-garde British stage production and film The Full Monteverdi, admits that the collage of ideas, narrative, drama, and reflection can be confusing. "We've strived to make the show clear to the audience," he says. "Our plans for presenting the opera are a surprise, but my job is to make it understandable, and it will be."
Lynch doesn't see the complexity as a problem. "Adams uses texts we've heard a million times along with texts we've never heard," Lynch explains. "And somehow it totally clicks and makes sense as they are layered over one another."
El Niño is usually performed as an oratorio: a performance that includes the orchestra, choir, and soloists, but not costumes and theater. For the Spoleto production, La Bouchardière is planning unconventional staging for the unconventional piece, just like original director Peter Sellars before him.
Tapped by Spoleto USA General Director Nigel Redden, La Bouchardière has not directed a piece for Spoleto before and hadn't even seen Memminger Auditorium before rehearsal began on April 28. "I've taken a few video tours of the space, and it isn't a typical performance space," La Bouchardière laughs.
Stylistically, El Niño includes three countertenors, all of whom play the Angel Gabriel, among other characters, and performed in the original staging. "The countertenors really give the opera its medieval sound and quality," La Bouchardière explains.
"[The countertenors] are another example of how innovative Adams is," Lynch adds. "This is a refreshing look at a story that's been told time and time again ... a completely different presentation answering age-old questions."
El Niño, which premiered in December 2000, was also written for the millennium, says La Bouchardière. "Adams was looking for what the nativity story and Jesus' teachings mean for a modern world," he explains, referencing Adams' placement of King Herod's Massacre of the Innocents adjacent to Rosario Castellanos' "Memory of Tlatelolco," a poem lamenting the morning after and easy cleanup following the Tlatelolco Massacre 10 days prior to the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City.
"There's a clear parallel here drawn between both massacres," La Bouchardière continues. "This story and this opera are relevant in 2014. The big archetypal questions of birth continue to resonate. The confounding question is what should we do when we see terrible things happen? And it continues today."
Lynch was particularly drawn to Adams' interpretation of Mary's pregnancy. "Any woman that gets pregnant for the first time and is experiencing a life growing inside of her understands how thrilling and miraculous it is, but also how frightening and overwhelming as well," she explains. "Adams expresses all of that in the music. The piece is truly inspired."
El Niño reflects Adams' exploration and eventual discovery that the miraculous birth was too big to comprehend. "You can't easily grasp any of this — it's overwhelming," Lynch says. "So we, as performers and patrons, embrace the complicated and timeless nature of the piece and the ideas behind it."