LOS ANGELES — If you went to modernist composer John Adams’ English- and Spanish-language oratorio based on the birth of El Niño — The Child — expecting to hear a garland of South American folk settings with infectious rhythms in the mode of Argentine musician Ariel Ramírez’ well-known Misa Criolla, well, that’s not what you got.
The much celebrated Adams, shortly turning 70 and receiving celebratory plaudits worldwide, especially in his home state of California, is the renowned composer of such operas as Nixon in China, The Death of Klinghoffer, and a host of choral and symphonic works that have already entered the standard contemporary repertoire. El Niño is stunningly scored for a large combination of musical forces in glorious sound that consistently grabs your attention.
Let’s face it, the Christmas story is a radical narrative. A Jewish baby is born to two nobodies, or three depending on how you count — some claim he had two daddies — and sets about to oppose all the tyrants and despots of the world with the simple power of love, compassion for one another, the inherent divinity reflected in each and every person, and the transcendent belief that another kind of world is possible without leaving this planet.
Described as a “nativity oratorio,” the work had its world premiere in Paris in December 2000, and its U.S. premiere the following month in San Francisco. It seems ages ago — before 9/11, long before talk of exclusionary walls to shut out neighbors — and yet those first performances also took place, as now, in an anxious time when the American president-elect had not garnered the popular vote and only won office through electoral and judicial sleight of hand.
Los Angeles brought it back in grand style this season, with the Los Angeles Master Chorale, the Los Angeles Philharmonic (about 45 strong for this outing), the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus, and a magnificent cast of soloists: soprano Julia Bullock, mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano, bass Davóne Tines, and a trio of countertenors acting as the narrator, much like the Evangelist in a Bach Passion, Daniel Bubeck, Brian Cummings (both in the original 2000 performance) and Nathan Medley. That jack-in-the-box phenomenon Grant Gershon, who seemingly masters any idiom and pops up everywhere in our L.A. musical culture, conducted all these forces with magical charisma in Walt Disney Concert Hall.
El Niño retells the Christmas story in two hour-long segments. The first half focuses on the 16-year-old Mary before the birth in the stable in Bethlehem — she swears to a doubting Joseph that she did not lie with any man and didn’t know how it happened. The second half covers the aftermath of the birth, King Herod’s slaughter of the Holy Innocents, and the early life of Jesus.
Like Handel’s Messiah, surely the world’s most famous oratorio, the text loosely follows the traditional biblical story. It incorporates text from the King James Bible, the Wakefield Mystery Plays, Martin Luther’s Christmas Sermon, and several episodes from the Apocrypha. So why the Latino title? Adams also includes poems by Latin American (mostly Mexican) writers Rosario Castellanos, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Gabriela Mistral, Vicente Huidobro, Rubén Darío, and additional texts by librettist Peter Sellars, and Adams himself. He also incorporates a choral setting of “O quam preciosa” by medieval composer Hildegard von Bingen, who has become a feminist heroine in recent decades.
The preponderance of women’s voices is intentional, the perspective often missing from a story that is in essence about childbirth. (As an aside, whenever anyone repeats that old philosophical cliché that everyone is born alone, please remind them that obviously a woman was also there!)
When we hear the term “El Niño” our thoughts turn to catastrophic weather conditions, storms and winds that upset the meteorological order. That famous birth, commemorated by Adams on its second millennium in 2000 instead of “some dopey futuristic project,” as he put it in a pre-concert talk, was also historically, theologically and in almost every other way, similarly subversive to the status quo.
What’s Tlatelolco got to do with it?
The poetical texts only obliquely comment on the Christmas story as such, however. Castellanos’ “Memorial de Tlatelolco,” about the horrendous 1968 massacre of protesting students in Mexico City, is the single largest number in the work, and you may at first wonder, What’s this doing plunk in the middle of a Christmas oratorio? Until you associate it with the story just referred to, the equally terrifying slaughter of the innocent children, all males under two years old, ordered by Herod after Jesus’ birth as recounted in the Book of Matthew, because Herod feared that the widely adored new infant might take his throne away! These young boys, by the way, were all Jewish, but they morphed into “Christian martyrs,” with a long history of commemorative choral works and art, to beef up the nativity drama. (Matthew is the only source for this episode, and many historians and theologians dispute that it ever happened.) However, new and very real “slaughters of the innocent” await once the GOP starts dismantling Medicare, Social Security and the Affordable Care Act.
Another episode recounted in the oratorio is the Jesus family’s Flight into Egypt to avoid persecution. Peter Sellars, who joined the composer and the conductor on the panel before the concert, spoke of that story as “never out of date because there’s always some pogrom.”
Appropriately, the text shines a bright light on excerpts adapted from the prophet Isaiah, who in other passages is often cited as foretelling the messiah. These are earthshaking words means to make the mighty tremble. Adams and Sellars include them to remind listeners that the nativity story is not essentially one of cuddly sweetness and holy grace, but an indictment against injustice:
Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!
Woe unto them that are wise in their own eyes, and prudent in their own sight!… Which justify the wicked for reward, and take away the righteousness of the righteous from him!
Woe unto them that seek to hide their counsel from the Lord…I will bring their fears upon them!
Are you listening?
Are you listening, o ye masters of men newly anointed to the cabinets of kings, ye servants of Mammon, ye afflicters of the low-born?
On Dec. 16, Peter Sellars’ film accompanied the performance, created for the original premiere and based on footage he and his crew made of participants in a Los Angeles high school program for young mothers about the same age as the biblical Mary. Particularly affecting were scenes of poor families huddled around firepits at the beach with the new infant being smudged with sage by native shamans. The film, the music and the story, all honor the newborn for the possibilities each life embodies, the hope and promise it’s our job to fulfill.
El Niño is provocative and terrifying, meant not to soothe with comfort and joy, but to touch the heart with the ultimate questions of human suffering and what our task is. Many believers learn their lessons from the example of Jesus; others may not accept the literal story, yet find a deep and resonating archetypal sustenance in it.
I count myself in this latter group. One of the most common expressions found in the Bible comes from angels and messengers who are constantly telling us, “Fear not!” I wish my readers a Christmas of courage in a dark time, a season of homage to the awesome challenges of birthing the new, and yes, joy and grace in rededicating ourselves to the struggle for human dignity. It’s an old story worth retelling every year.