Verde que te quiero verde
, the refrain from Federico García Lorca's "Sonambule Ballad" is one of the best-known lines of poetry in the Spanish-speaking world. And every student in a sixth-grade classroom in that world can tell you what time of day bullfighting legend Ignacio Sánchez Mejías was gored (
a las cinco de la tarde
, the refrain from "Lament for Ignacio Sánchez Mejía"). ***image1***Surreal and accessible, romantic and modern, Lorca's poems stand alongside Neruda's at the pinnacle of literary pop. And because of his political assassination at a young age by Fascists, Lorca became the martyr-laureate of Hispanic letters. Like many artists who die young, his work has become indistinguishable from the reductionist biography-and suffered for it. In a way, his poems became too popular, meaningless rote. Even his death became a cliché, the kind Hollywood can't resist (starring Andy García as the Poet and, as his murderer-for added camp value-Esai Morales!)
Now here comes to Santa Fe a new opera about Lorca, which in clumsy hands could merely continue the branding process by regurgitating clichés. But the creative crew behind
is a dream team of relatively young, exceptionally smart artists. ***image2***Maybe there's hope yet for the Dead Poet to be meaningfully resurrected-perhaps even to serve as an allegorical voice for the wars that rage today, cultural and otherwise. Argentine-born Osvaldo Golijov, the critical darling of modern classical music, wrote the score; the libretto is by David Henry Hwang, the playwright who raked in Tonys for his
Soprano Dawn Upshaw, who sings the lead role of Margarita Xirgu, has been with the production since its premiere at Tanglewood two years ago. But
(a Moorish term meaning "fountain of tears," and the name of the place where Lorca was killed) remains a work-in-progress and in Santa Fe two new personalities will have a significant impact on what happens opening night and beyond: director Peter Sellars and art director Gronk.
Sellars is no longer the wunderkind of the opera world-recall that he won a MacArthur award at age 25-but he certainly hasn't settled into a comfortable middle age; he's as politically earnest as ever. Where would opera be today without productions like
Nixon in China
? (Baz Luhrmann can make La Bohème look hot, but Sellars can make an opera matter.)
East LA-born artist Gronk is an exquisite rebel, part of a clique of avant-garde Chicano artists in the late 1960s that avoided the clichés of macho nationalism. A queer, a painter more informed by
I Love Lucy
reruns than Aztec pyramids, an organic political activist with a sharp wit, I imagine Gronk what Oscar Wilde would have been like if he'd lived through our years of plague and reaction.
One has to wonder if
young and "diverse" creative team is a self-conscious rainbow coalition or a more organic affair. Whatever it is, it's fairly unprecedented in opera, which remains, on the stage and especially in its audience, among the palest of art's faces (SFO's bilingual supertitles -a nod towards "diversity"-notwithstanding).
During a break in rehearsals, I sat with Gronk and Sellars in the "cantina" backstage at SFO, next to the shimmering company swimming pool.
It seems as if there's plenty of opportunities for allegory in this opera.
When you say to Peter [Sellars] "yes"-you're going to do work on a project, you know that it's going to be a lot of research…And we noticed a lot of similarities between the time of the Spanish Civil War and Franco and the talk of family values then and the rise of fascism there with the rise of fascism here [laughs].
As a Chicano artist, do you find any connection with the "Spanish" material in the "roots" sense, or do you look at Spain as just another country?
Spain is fascinating…politically the turmoil that happened during the civil war, the influence of the Church, the Moors, the Jews being tossed out…there's a lot there for me as an artist. It was re-encountering Picasso's
, and reading about what a difference it made because that piece actually ends up at MOMA because it cannot go back to Spain, and what happens at MOMA is that it's seen by Pollack, Rothko, all the major abstract expressionists that form the new wave of American art. Those links are my connection to it…I see it from a more world-like perspective than just saying, "Yeah, I'm going 'back' to Spain."
What's the collaborative process with Sellars like?
He feeds you a lot of information. Once the set was finished, he flew in, sat in it for about five hours and took it all in. And then we had a discussion, noticing the different elements and possibilities of the stage. It's more of a large painting than a set, so singers are inhabiting this world, inhabiting this painting that takes up the entire floor and side-walls that are on tracks that can move. Peter doesn't work in a vacuum. He knows what other people are working on. He'll call in the middle of the night and say, "I just got a great idea for
!" And so all of a sudden his mind is working because of looking at the set and the possibilities….
The last time I wrote about you [Sellars], we were still living in the "multiculti" times. What happened to those?
Multiculturalism was superseded by the reality of globalization. Business people took what we were talking about more seriously than we did, and actually made it a corporate reality. And so the nightmare is that George W Bush took it more seriously than we did and created the first multicultural cabinet in American history, which is a little shop of horrors [Gronk laughs very loudly].
Lorca seems to have been an early global artistic figure.
Lorca touched this thing where a poet could speak to the world in a language that was Arab, that was Spanish, that was Jewish, that was black…When he discovered black culture in New York and then Havana, his life completely changed. When in Buenos Aires he heard his plays coming back to him with a new accent-you know Lorca was a real citizen of the world in that regard. That's the way culture operates, it moves across those borders not only in defiance but also in search of another way to live.
Gronk was talking about the allegorical possibilities in the piece…did you find yourself wanting to push in any particular direction because of the times?
I've worked with David and Osvaldo a lot and Osvaldo has his own stories coming through the whole Argentine experience and so one doesn't have to lecture him. And David was one of the most important voices in the entire identity politics movement. So I didn't exactly have to teach school when I walked in the room. They know exactly what they're talking about. The question is how do you find a language that's not been emptied of its content by the invasion of the Pod People. The nightmare is when corporations and police departments start using the language of Martin Luther King to shut things down. What language has not been polluted, what language could mean something?
How do you view your role as director in this opera, working with these particular artists?
What's great about Osvaldo is that he doesn't compose in a vacuum. He goes home, writes something, and brings it in three hours later. And so he's very, very responsive. What's great about the whole collaboration is that we all bring what we bring, it ends up with something richly textured that doesn't wind up with one voice prevailing. And meanwhile it has its own internal equilibrium. I can't push it too far where I want to go because Osvaldo has his center, David has his center, Gronk has his center, Dawn Upshaw has her center. We will redefine our centers in relation to each other. And that's what's interesting, the in–relation part is what democracy's about, it's not winner take all. Fascism is a single monolithic statement, democracy is the set of possibilities when multiple voices are represented….