As people took their seats at John Adams' El Niño at Spoleto Festival USA, figures made their way onto the darkened stage. Some made it farther than others, but all eventually collapsed in the mire. Some dropped from fatigue, others from desolation. Some came to help or investigate, but soon lay down in hopelessness. They were of all ages and races, societal outsiders and insiders. By the time the production opened, the stage was covered with fallen humanity.

El Niño is a 21st century retelling of the birth of Jesus, with iconic images mixing with current fears. Different perspectives of the same story are pieced together in a way that flows from illumination to gritty realism and back, showing how this story of miracles plays out in a contemporary setting.

A dramatic oratorio, El Niño is told through scriptural and non-scriptural texts, using lighting, puppets and projections to help narrate. The production at Spoleto Festival USA was directed by John La Bouchardiere, who designed a set both nimble and iconic. At the back of the stage, a row of austere alcoves held shadowed figures, reminiscent of a dark cathedral. When a biblical character was referenced, an alcove lit up with a stained glass window revealing the puppet figure.

El Nino © Julia Lynn Photography
El Nino
© Julia Lynn Photography
The puppets joined the story, beginning with the Angel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary.

Three countertenors provided the voice of the angel, as well as much of the narration, giving these pieces of text an other-worldly feel. Mary was sung by a mezzo-soprano and a soprano. The two voices of Mary might be puzzling in a staged opera, but here they show two sides of a very human 16 year old. She handled her annunciation, pregnancy and motherhood with as much mortal fear as religious ecstacy, as much rejoicing as mourning. Conversely, a single baritone sang the roles of Joseph, Herod and (sometimes) God.

As Mary and Joseph travel to Bethlehem (and later to Egypt), the narration was illuminated by shadow puppets that made their way across an impromptu screen. Intentionally primitive, these projections wobbled and loomed, like they have through history. We've told these stories through pictures and light for millennia. When they reached Bethlehem, Mary was both ready and not ready to deliver her baby. The text for the end of Act I is "The Christmas Star", by Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral:

“A little girl

comes running,

she caught and carries a star.

She goes flying, making the plants

and animals she passes

bend with fire.

Her hands already sizzle,

she tires, wavers, stumbles,

and falls headlong,

but she gets right up with it again” (excerpt)

A human chorus surrounded the travail and birth. When the baby was delivered, the chorus parted so we could see Mary and the baby. Where the baby lay, a light shoneinto the audience - so painfully bright nothing else could be seen.

Act II began with the wrath of Herod and his order of genocide.

El Nino © Julia Lynn Photography
El Nino
© Julia Lynn Photography
Following the slaughter, we heard “Memorial de Tlatelco”, by the 20th century feminist novelist and poet Rosario Castellanos, which tells of a mass killing of students in Mexico City during a time of political unrest. The text references how it's not covered in the news, and no one speaks of it. “Don't sift through the archives”," it says, “because nothing has been recorded there”. Instead of facing evil, we fill our news with celebrities and entertainment. Does it take a miracle to shine a light in the darkness? And would we recognize a miracle today if we saw it? Following the slaughter, stories of Jesus' miracles began. They read like folktales, with tinges of magical realism. Dragons emerged from a cave to worship the infant. A palm tree bent at the child's command, giving its fruit to sustain his mother. It's this idea – this miracle – of a child ministering to an adult that we were left with. In the end, the miracle is life and birth. It's the miracle of children, coming from chaos into light. We see miracles every day.

I love watching where John Adams' mind goes. He doesn't tell stories as much as immerse us in ideas, coaxing us into them through music. Like in Nixon in China, The Death of Klinghoffer and Dr Atomic, I came out of El Niño a little wiser, a little richer and a little fuller. Sometimes the light we shine on a particular element of a story is so bright, it's impossible to see what surrounds it. In El Niño, the lights come on where we do not expect them, and the darkness demands us to adjust and look.

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