John Adams's enigmatic nativity oratorio, El Niño (2000), was given its first full theatrical staging, taking a very different approach from the original production by Peter Sellars.
"A transformative musical pilgrimage... Deeply moving.”
Charleston Post and Courier
"One does not need to be Christian or even religious... Many cheeks, as mine, were, mysteriously, wet.”
DC Theatre Scene
"A spiritual journey in sight and sound”
“A serene contrast... director John La Bouchardière transformed this hypnotic score from a liturgical piece into a quasi-opera by having each member of the choir enact a personal drama of abandonment, deprivation or restoration, both individually and with each other.
“The ensemble moved hypnotically through La Bouchardière’s elegantly minimalist set, in Scott Zielinski’s dreamlike lighting, and also through the darkened auditorium. Operatic treatment seemed natural for this complex score, with its solos, ensembles, and recitative-like declamations, its dizzying counterpoint, simple modal hymns, swooping glissandos, near-inaudible drones and piercing crescendos.”
Brought up to believe that biblical stories were metaphors, John Adams wrote El Niño “to understand what is meant by a miracle." While accepting the New Testament’s basic premise— that Jesus was the Messiah and thus the fulfilment of promises made to God’s people in the Old Testament—Adams looks beyond the literal description of events relating to the Nativity, towards what they might represent today.
“A Messiah for the modern age” (LA Times), El Niño tells the story of Christ’s birth in ways that reflect the time that has since passed. Compiled from a wide variety of sources, ranging from the Old Testament to late twentieth-century poetry, its texts examine both the original story and our relationship to it. In between are passages from the Middle Ages and Renaissance, the eras that strongly influenced how we see and understand Christianity today. In essence, Adams takes a contemporary perspective on the Nativity, seen through a medieval window.
During the Middle Ages, miracles were accepted as factually true, and official doctrine went largely unquestioned. By comparison, Adams’s use of unofficial gospels introduces unfamiliar stories that lie beyond our received knowledge; he shifts the viewpoint away from the establishment’s idealised vision of the Nativity towards one that considers the miracle of birth through modern female eyes, adding Spanish texts to the English of his religious upbringing to offer an earthier tone that reflects the increasingly polyglot nature of present-day America. Adams presents Rosario Castellanos’s “Memorial de Tlatelolco” as a contemporary parallel between Herod’s slaughter of the innocents and more recent massacres: here, the soprano rails at society for turning a blind eye to the slaughter of innocents in any age; Adams’s placement of this, just before the young Jesus performs his first miracles, suggests that only by accepting our own complicity in such crimes can we enjoy the rebirth offered by Christ. Thus, while Handel’s Messiah was an unqualified celebration, Adams’s El Niño asks sincere but challenging questions, not so much of the Bible as of ourselves.
As an oratorio, El Niño was not written in a dramatic form. The performers usually describe action rather than act it out; no one voice is allowed to become exclusively associated with a single character, as performers share and switch between identities; Adams does not even make time for practical issues like changing scenery or exiting the stage. In short, although he wrote El Niño to be performed either staged or in concert, Adams deliberately prevents the piece from functioning as conventional drama, as if—like conventional wisdom—that were inappropriate for understanding what might be meant by a miracle.
Adams does reference one theatrical form: the opening scene of the Annunciation is taken from a medieval miracle play, linking El Niño not only to the oratorio but to a long tradition of drama aimed at spreading the story of Jesus, including the puppet-plays that Franciscan monks used to convert indigenous Americans nearly 500 years ago. In such traditions, the life-like characterisations and realistic spaces of modern naturalism were not expected. Performers would travel by walking between various locations indicated on an open set, and the very distance between the identities of character and performer was indicative of the audience’s understanding of the drama itself. Somewhat in the matter of Berthold Brecht, it is not pretending to be the biblical characters in El Niño that creates meaning, but witnessing them.
John La Bouchardière, March 2014