'El Niño' by John Adams: The Nativity in Verse and Music

woo-1552-elnino-storyJohn Adams combines opera and oratorio to tell the Christmas story.

Every year, starting in late November, it seems almost impossible to avoid hearing "holiday music."  And these days, that's exactly what it's called -- that or perhaps "music of the season" -- to keep things ecumenical.

But let's face it.  Much, if not most of that music is aimed at one specific holiday:  Christmas.  And given the origins of the Christmas holiday, it's ironic that so much of that "seasonal music" is strictly secular -- songs like "Jingle Bells," "White Christmas," "Sleigh Ride" and "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus."

Yet, despite that proliferation of secular holiday music, we still find tremendous depth and variety in Christmas music that openly celebrates the holiday's true origin -- the birth of Jesus.  From the world of classical music, the most familiar tribute to the Christmas story may well be Handel's Messiah.  But there's so much more to choose from that the examples can seem endless.  There are Christmas concertos, and Christmas cantatas.  And yes, there are also Christmas operas.

One of those is a drama called Christmas Eve, by Rimsky-Korsakov -- but we don't hear it all that often, even at Christmas time.  (Then again, one of its most famous numbers is called "The Witches Sabbath" -- not exactly traditional, Yuletide fare.)

On the other hand, there's an American opera that has actually become a Christmas tradition:  Gian Carlo Menotti's Amahl and the Night Visitors, written for TV in 1951 and long an annual favorite.

And, since the year 2000, there has been another work of American classical music that also tells the nativity story, in a way as fresh as the new century in which it was born.  It's El Niño, by John Adams, one of the 21st century's most successful opera composers.

El Niño combines biblical and apocryphal gospel texts with deeply felt Latin-American poetry, while at the same time blending the narrative style of opera with the illustrative world of the oratorio.  The composer has said that his goal was to create a piece for singers, chorus and orchestra that would tell the Christmas story while also touching on his personal experience with birth, life and death.  At first, he wanted to call the piece, "How Could This Happen."

That question rose from an event in his own life:  the birth of his daughter.  As Adams recalls, it amazed him to find that at one moment there were four people in the room and then all at once, as if by a miracle, there were five.  When his friends didn't quite understand that original title, he changed it to El Niño, meaning "boy-child" in Spanish.  Adams said he wrote the piece "to understand what is meant by a miracle."

For the libretto, Adams chose texts that illustrate a woman's perspective -- including verse by poets Rosario Castellanos and Gabriel Mistral, as well as by a 17th-century Mexican nun, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz.  El Niño also incorporates biblical texts, from both the Old Testament and the New Testament Gospels, along with fascinating stories from the apocryphal gospels of James and Pseudo-Matthew.

The music of El Niño is built on a foundation of minimalism, a style Adams became associated with in the 1970's.  Since then, he's gone well beyond it, to create his own signature sound in instrumental works including "Shaker Loops," and the operas Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer.  

From the start, El Niño was conceived as more than a traditional oratorio.  At the premiere in Paris, in 2000, there were costumes, subtle stagings, and even a movie projected at the back of the stage.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone brings us a fully-staged production from the Spoleto Festival USA, in Charleston, with the expansive stage of the Memminger Auditorium often bathed in ethereal starlight.   Along with the Festival Orchestra, the performance features six vocal soloists, and the Westminster Choir, all led by conductor Joe Miller.