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John Adams, El Niño

This essay appeared in the Cleveland Orchestra's program book for the 2022–23 subscription concert "El Niño."

John Adams El Nino.png

In the late 1990s, John Adams faced a dilemma (albeit a very nice dilemma for a composer to have): He had received competing commissions for a large-scale vocal work. On one side was the San Francisco Symphony looking for a new work for chorus and orchestra — on the other, Paris's Châtelet Theater wanted an opera from Adams to celebrate the start of the 21st century.


Rather than saying no to either ask, Adams proposed a compromise. He would write an oratorio for soloists, chorus, and orchestra that could also be fully staged for a theatrical experience. Both companies signed on, and Adams moved onto the next stage of the creative process: Figuring out just what to write about.


Up to that point in his lauded career, Adams had taken a "ripped from the headlines" approach to writing opera. His breakthrough, Nixon in China, premiered at Houston Grand Opera in 1987, 15 years after the former president's sit-down with Mao Zedong. And the controversial Death of Klinghoffer received its first performances in Brussels in 1991, just six years after the hijacking of the Achille Lauro cruise ship and the murder of the opera's eponymous passenger.


But for his new oratorio, Adams flipped the calendar back some 2,000 years to take on one of humankind's most recognizable stories: the birth of Jesus Christ. In many ways, the Nativity story provided Adams with a blank slate for conceiving his new work. After all, generation after generation has retold the tale of the Nativity, in ways both humble and grand, each re-enactment inflected with the culture and traditions of its creators and performers. What could a composer whose religious beliefs were, in his own words, "shaky and unformed" bring to a Nativity oratorio written to mark the dawn of both a new century and a new millennium?


For Adams, a composer who has kept one foot rooted in the traditions of European classical music and the other in the kaleidoscopic, multicultural music of the United States, inspiration came from two very different sources. The first was Handel's Messiah, the most beloved of Nativity oratorios.


"I wanted to write a Messiah," Adams said shortly before El Niño's premiere in December 2000. "The structure of my piece follows very carefully the Biblical version in the manner of Messiah. Narrative passages alternate with arias and choruses that meditate or reflect on the principal themes. Among those [are] the mystery of the Conception and the miracle of the Nativity (and I should say, not only the birth of Christ, but also that of all children) . . . the pregnancy of Mary (and of all women), the paranoia of Herod (and of all tyrants), and the theme of exile."


The second source of inspiration was a collection of Latin American poetry Adams had been introduced to by Peter Sellars, Adams's collaborator on Nixon in China and Death of Klinghoffer. (Sellars would help the composer shape the oratorio's libretto and direct the staged production as well as the film elements that were part of El Niño's Paris premiere.) Among the writers included in the anthology were three women — Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1648/51?–1695), Rosario Castellanos (1925–1974), and Gabriela Mistral (1899–1957) — who could provide a perspective often ignored in biblical texts, but one Adams knew was essential to the new work.


"How can you tell this story [now] and not have a woman's voice?" Adams said. "Seldom in the officially sanctioned stories is there any more than a passing awareness of the misery and pain of labor, of the uncertainty and doubt of pregnancy, or of that mixture of supreme happiness and inexplicable emptiness that follows the moment of birth."


Adams's use of Spanish-language poetry throughout the oratorio would also inform its title. While El Niño ("the boy") is a nod to Messiah, it also conjures associations with the Christmastime weather pattern that stirs up violent storms in the Pacific Ocean approximately every four years. To Adams, that dual meaning fittingly set the scene for the Nativity story, explaining, "As Sor Juana says, a miracle is not without its alarming force. Christ was referred to as the 'Wind,' a kind of tempest that blows away all that comes in its path and transforms it. Herod knows this. We all know it when a child comes into the world."


Surrounding the Latin American poetry is a tapestry of biblical and religious texts — including the prophecies of Haggai and Isaiah, fairy-tale-like gospels from the New Testament Apocrypha, the medieval Wakefield Mystery Plays, Martin Luther's Christmas Sermon, and a Latin chant of Hildegard von Bingen — that together provide the narrative for the series of miracles surrounding the Christ child's birth.


Unlike Messiah, which covers the whole of Jesus's life, death, and resurrection, El Niño focuses on the events just before and after the Nativity. Part one takes us from the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary and her visit to her sister Elizabeth to the Magnificat and the birth of Jesus. Part two, darker in tone, begins with the quiet adoration of the Three Kings before thrusting us into Herod's maniacal search for the Christ Child, the Massacre of the Innocents, and the Holy Family's flight into Egypt. 


The weaving together of multiple authors and perspectives contributes to a profound depth of character in the figures we encounter in El Niño — a work, as Sellars remarked, that's "like one of those multipaneled altarpieces you cannot possibly take in all at once." But it's the poems that form the emotional and psychological core of the work. These are the moments where Adams takes us from the exalted realm of the holy gospels and into the inner chambers of the human heart, offering us the direct perspective of women on the joys, anxieties, and uncertainties of pregnancy, labor, motherhood — all on a relatable, personal level.


We witness the biblical stories, but we feel and deeply connect with the poetry.


In the Magnificat during El Niño's first half, texts from the Gospel of Luke express Mary's simple wonder at being chosen by God to bear His son: "My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced . . . from henceforth all generations

shall call me blessed." But in the Castellanos poem that follows, "Speaking of Gabriel," celestial wonder turns into physical weariness at the very human burden of pregnancy. "I felt him grow at my expense," the poet says of the child she carries, "steal the color from my blood, add clandestine weight and volume to my way of being on the earth."


And in the work's second half, the juxtaposition between holy texts and the poetry is at its most potent in Castellanos's "Memorial de Tlatelolco." Presented after Saint Matthew's grisly account of Herod ordering the execution of all male children under the age of two, Castellanos's fiery poem is consumed with anger and loss in its remembrance of another massacre — when, in 1968, the Mexican military opened fire on a public plaza filled with student protesters in Mexico City's Tlatelolco district, leading to hundreds of deaths.


Fabulous poetry aside, much of the reason for the emotional connection we feel during our journey in El Niño lies in Adams's compelling score and the fountain of musical colors he creates to support and amplify the texts. In his accessible, unmistakable style — informed by Handel and Jimi Hendrix, Beethoven and Broadway, and the hallmarks of the minimalist style he helped to fashion in the 1970s — Adams has the agility to follow the many circuitous shifts in emotion called for in El Niño. He summons Herod's lightning bolts of rage at news of the Christ child's birth with violent violin slashes and horn calls, and introduces tender, hypnotic melodies in "La anunciación" that escort the turbulent soul of an expectant mother to a place of calm.


And through every one of those twists and turns, Adams paces the music with an auteur's skill so that we're caught in the cinematic sweep of its grandest moments while having ample opportunity to sit with and meditate on the challenging themes the texts present — comfort and joy, of course, but also tyranny and bloodshed, poverty and exile.


Take the celestial sounds of the trio of countertenors who, among their many roles throughout the oratorio, portray the angel Gabriel and the Three Kings who bear gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh for the Christ child. Their bell-like tones and tightly wound harmonies are emotional worlds away from the operatic wails and guttural groans of the soprano soloist in "Memorial de Tlatelolco." 


Or consider the numerous examples of Adams's astonishing text painting, most notably in the oratorio's final movement. In one of the Christ child's first miracles, Jesus makes a tall palm tree bow to the Virgin Mary so that she may choose from its fruit, which creates a rush of water that refreshes his family during their long journey. Wave after wave of cascading figures in the woodwinds, violins, glockenspiel, and bells bring the miraculous vision to life, a waterfall of shimmering, crystalline sound that nourishes our ears after our own journey through the story.


An oratorio for believes and nonbelievers alike, El Niño not only celebrates the profound love ushered into the world by the miracle of birth, but also examines how that love is inextricably bound to hardship and the fragility of life — a fitting perspective for a work written to commemorate the dawning of the 21st century.


Because in saying hello to the new century, Adams and El Niño can't help but also say goodbye to the 20th, an era of history that brought untold suffering, world wars, and authoritarian oppression to nearly every corner of the globe, all themes mirrored in these biblical tales. In positioning love and suffering as equal fixtures in our shared human experience — the simultaneous ideas of light and darkness, order and chaos that uphold balance in our world — El Niño reminds us that even in times of sorrow and upheaval, we are always surrounded by the miracle of creation.

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