A New Oratorio Inspired by the Immigrant Experience
by Thomas May
It has been a few years since composer Jimmy López and playwright Nilo Cruz first conceived their latest collaboration, the oratorio Dreamers. But the message behind this musical-dramatic reflection on the challenges faced by undocumented immigrants seems to become more pressingly relevant every day. The work, which was commissioned by Cal Performances and receives its highly anticipated world premiere March 17 in Zellerbach Hall, pays homage to the experiences of Berkeley students who were brought to the United States as children and now face uncertain legal status.
The overall climate of apprehension concerning the issue of immigration has steadily intensified since López and Cruz began creating Dreamers, a work created with lead funding from a Hewlett 50 Arts Commission, as well as co-commissioning support from Stanford Live, the University of Michigan, and Washington Performing Arts. Dreamers addresses the tension between concepts as fundamental and personal as the "American Dream" and the elusive sense of resolution promised by the now-endangered policy known as DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals). Itself a response to the long-stalled DREAM Act, the DACA program was introduced in 2012 to clarify the standing of young people with undocumented status—such as the several hundred students at Berkeley who face this stress on top of the usual pressures of university life.
Dreams are integral to how we define ourselves. But as we are seeing, conflict arises when the powers controlling the state attempt to decide just who is deserving of the "dream" of belonging in this country—and when a large section of the population chooses to object. This thorny debate informs the 2018–19 season's Berkeley RADICAL Citizenship series of programs, which spotlights the human side of the current controversy on immigration and nationalism. By sharing unique perspectives on the threats to—and responsibilities of— citizenship, the artists involved here illustrate the universal need for belonging and home, and invoke the very tangible sense of urgency felt by many.
And perhaps just as importantly, they advocate for a central role that the arts—in this case, classical music—can play when considering these issues.
Structuring the Dreams into a Unified Work
For Dreamers, López and Cruz interviewed a group of Berkeley students who have undocumented status, collecting a wealth of testimonies from them as raw material—such as a linguistics student who is given voice in the work singing these lines: "I blended with other students. I armed myself with books."
"We were inspired by all of the stories we encountered," says the Peru-born Jimmy López. "Dreamers is not about a single story but a combination of several that Nilo has shaped throughout the piece. Some of them are not so factually stated but are more stylized."
This narrative interweaving forms the basis for what has turned out to be one of López's most ambitious projects to date. The 40-year-old composer, who was born in Lima, has been a Bay Area resident since his years as a graduate student at Berkeley (PhD, 2012). Internationally in demand, López won widespread acclaim for his debut opera, Bel Canto—inspired by the best-selling novel by Ann Patchett—which was commissioned by Lyric Opera of Chicago and premiered there in 2015. He has additionally attracted the interest of leading orchestras around the world and is currently in the middle of a composer residency with the Houston Symphony.
The result has attracted some powerful classical music stars to perform the world premiere. Dreamers will be unveiled during the culminating concert of this season's major orchestral residency at Cal Performances, which features London's Philharmonia Orchestra in three different programs (March 15–17). The oratorio shares the bill with Stravinsky's ballet music for The Firebird, the breakthrough work that brought the composer international fame (in the original scoring for an enormous orchestra). Esa-Pekka Salonen, who was recently announced as music director designate of the San Francisco Symphony—he takes over the reins from Michael Tilson Thomas in 2020—will conduct. Dreamers also calls for a nearly 80-voice chorus (the San Francisco-based Volti, joined by the UC Berkeley Chamber Chorus) and a prominent solo part, to be performed by the Grammy Award-winning soprano Ana María Martínez.
Musically, López designed a shape to reinforce the course traced by Cruz's libretto. Overall, Dreamers takes the form of an arch, beginning and ending with a larger-than-life perspective closer to what you might find in myth. "It descends into the actual, nitty-gritty reality of things in the central sections—the third movement is a commentary on the issue of child separation, for example—then moves back away toward a timeless, more global view," explains the composer. The result, he emphasizes, is much more encompassing than a documentary. In fact, according to Cruz, it's the concept of Dreamers that de-rives from the student interviews, but not the actual language of the libretto. "I tried to steer away from any kind of language that might seem like I'm reporting like a journalist. You can get that already from the news. I'm not a documentarian. I felt that the piece needed to be framed in a different way."
"One thing that opened my eyes as I was composing," adds López, "is the realization that the group we call 'Dreamers' involves a kaleidoscope of people who are going through extremely varied experiences, coming from mixed-status families. In some cases, the parents will never be able to enjoy any kind of legal status, and this creates a dichotomy within the house and family that is heart-wrenching to see."
To enhance the sense of changing perspectives, López juxtaposes many different musical colors and textures. The first, third, and sixth (final) sections call for the full-scale forces of chorus and orchestra, while the shorter second section is for the unaccompanied chorus. The choral fifth movement (titled Sueños, "Dreams") is delivered entirely in Spanish, with individual singers or groups of singers stepping forward in a panorama-like sweep to give voice to multiple characters.
The fourth movement, on the other hand, is an extensive solo for the soprano, in which Martínez embodies a dreamer who shares her story with us. "Ana María is singing at her prime now and is such a force," remarks López, "that there is little I cannot have her do. I make use of her virtuosity, of her wide register, from its darker regions to a high C-sharp in her upper regions. Because of her operatic experience, her singing has a wonderfully dramatic quality, which I've given her room to explore. She needs to create not one character but several—even in the course of a single movement. In fact, we changed the title to reflect this, from Dreamer to Dreamers, since this is the story not of one but of many."
For Dreamers, López has drawn on his experiences writing both for the stage and for the orchestra. Dreamers is an example of the hybrid genre of the oratorio—a work that fuses the vocal and choral grandeur of opera with the concert experience of the orchestra. By far the best-known example of an oratorio is Handel's Messiah—which, as it happens, incorporates the nativity story (a story about immigrant refugees) into its broad narrative of redemption based on the life, Passion, and resurrection of Jesus.
Oratorio may sound like an oddly old-fashioned format for such a contemporary story, yet the genre is enjoying a resurgence among composers today precisely because of the narrative freedom it offers. Bay Area composer John Adams greeted the millennium with El Niño, a retelling of the nativity inspired in part by Messiah and filtered through the lens of contemporary Latinx in Los Angeles. Julia Wolfe won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize in Music for Anthracite Fields, which reconsiders the American Dream from the perspective of Pennsylvania coal-miners from the turn of the last century.
"Oratorio comes from a long history of storytelling," explains Cal Performances interim artistic director Rob Bailis, who designed this season together with former artistic director Matías Tarnopolsky. "A very heightened, very personal kind of story does find its way into oratorio. The framework of a chorus can be the beating heart of humanity, joined by an astonishing solo singer who brings the stories of this community to life with incredible honesty. Jimmy López has given these stories a beautifully layered complexity—an architecture that holds up and supports these emotions."
Dreamers is López's first undertaking in this hybrid choral-symphonic format. The same holds for Nilo Cruz, the veteran, Cuba-born playwright who became the first Latinx to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2003 (awarded to his play Anna in the Tropics). Cruz's 2014 play Sotto Voce in one sense helped pave the way toward Dreamers. It, too, deals with the theme of refugees by exploring an ignominious episode from the past: the fate of the S.S. St. Louis, whose Jewish passengers, fleeing Nazi Germany in 1939, were denied entry into Cuba and the United States.
"Playwrights are storytellers. We just tell our stories in a different way," says Cruz when discussing the unique challenge of crafting an oratorio libretto. "Dialogue, images, language are what we use to tell the story in a play, and of course actors. The language for an oratorio needs to be more concise and may even be told through a poem." Indeed, the poetic quality of the Dreamers libretto, observes López, helped feed his imagination as a composer. "In poetry, you can pack a lot of meaning into just a few words. Almost every single word is heightened with this kind of poetic content."
In order to ensure a sense of movement as well as contrast between the sections that make up Dreamers, Cruz points out that he remained continually aware of the different voices represented by the soloist and the chorus. "It's almost like in Japanese painting where you take a brush and just drop paint onto a sheet of paper and then from that brushstroke you start to create something. The statements made by these students was the paint. Then I let it flow on the paper. But you're also guiding the music in some way. The librettist must have an open mind. At the end of the day, we're serving the music and the needs of the composer, who is interpreting and creating the material."
An Ideal Partnership
Dreamers marks López's second time collaborating with Cruz, who also wrote the libretto for Bel Canto. The playwright recalls sensing an immediate connection to López when they first met in New York City to discuss plans for the opera. "I thought it was going to be a 20-minute meeting and we ended up conversing for four hours, not only about the project but about our backgrounds and the kind of work we wanted to do," says Cruz.
He had initially been introduced to the composer's music by Renée Fleming, the celebrity soprano who curated and to whom López dedicated Bel Canto—a fictional elaboration of an actual event in Peru in 1996, the Japanese embassy hostage crisis. "She sent me demos of his work. As soon as I heard it, I thought there was something dynamic about his music—a certain muscularity and force, a certain kind of sensibility that I responded to. It was an instant match."
Cruz, whose family left Cuba for the US when he was a boy of eight, observes that the story behind Dreamers recounts a pattern that keeps recurring throughout history: "It happened with people like me who came here in the 1970s. Back then, there was a disdain for the Cuban exiles coming to Miami. A lot of the citizens from Miami were complain-ing that we were bringing our customs and changing the North American fabric."
Whenever he completes a score, López has a process of collecting all of his notes into a folder he can file away. He observes that he was surprised to realize with Dreamers that he had "surprisingly few" notes to gather up. Because of the pressure to compose the ora-torio in a relatively short time frame, he ex-plains, the material was "inside my brain all the time. I was even dreaming of this literally and would wake up and write things down right into the score—I'm thankful I have a husband who has been so patient throughout the process! And I think this has given the work an extra degree of intensity."
Thomas May is a writer, critic, educator, and translator. Along with essays regularly commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony, the Juilliard School, and other leading institutions, he contributes to the New York Times and Musical America and blogs about the arts at www.memeteria.com.
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