Program notes from the premiere of Rosarium
Warring images collide
During the rehearsal period for this premiere, television screens have been filled with pictures of ethnic cleansing and bombing in the former Yugoslavia. People have grimly congratulated Roger Bourland and me on our prescience in choosing a subject matter, but, sadly, in this decade it doesn't take clairvoyance to predict war in the Balkans. Thanks to the so-called "global village," we have immediate and heightened awareness of this sort of distant calamity. This can be a very good thing when it prompts humanitarian efforts such as the current attempt to feed and clothe Kosovo refugees; however, I think this modern awareness also produces a pervasive sense of unease in us, because in a very real sense the terrible things that happen everywhere also happen here - on flickering screens in our living rooms.
The Land of the Disenchanted
The other big story competing for our attention these days is the murderous rampage of schoolboys in Littleton, Colorado. The killers' reported fondness for the movie Natural Born Killers has sparked a national debate on the effect of entertainment on viewers, especially the young. It is overly simplistic to blame a crime on any single film, but American movie and television myths - from Birth of a Nation to High Noon to Unforgiven to Walker, Texas Ranger - argue that every dispute must be solved eventually by annihilating the "bad guy." We tell these tales so often, we shouldn't be surprised when our children believe them. In this context, the stories that comprise Rosarium may seem quaint, even dangerously naive. But what has our faith in violence achieved but a never-ending cycle of brutality?
I am sent by One above
Encouraged by a commitment from Donald Neuen and the Angeles and UCLA Chorales to perform what we would write, Roger and I planned to create a song cycle entitled Messengers. The outline we devised called for twelve distinct songs about prophets and divine manifestations from various religious traditions. Some of these were Western and some non-Western, some legendary and serious (Moses, Joan of Arc), and some potentially comic, such as the woman who caused a local sensation when she discovered the face of Jesus on the side of her refrigerator. (Skeptics said the face looked more like that of country singer, Willie Nelson. Eventually, the image proved to be a shadow cast by her neighbor's new porch-light.)
Yo soy mestiza, la madonna india
The first of the Messengers segments I sat down to write concerned Our Lady of Guadalupe's appearance in the sixteenth century. This manifestation has been the subject of religious plays for hundreds of years and I had been fortunate to study these under Chicano playwright/scholar Edit Villarreal and to see a production of one such play directed by Jose-Luis Valenzuela. Guadalupe is arguably the most important native icon of Mexico and the Southwest United States; she is revered as a cultural and political inspiration as well as a sacred personage. Though Roger and I are not Chicanos, we, too, are now citizens of what Chicanos call Aztlán (named for the legendary homeland of the Aztcs), and in our depiction of Guadalupe, we pay homage to our adopted homeland. But by the time we had developed the story dramatically the Guadalupe movement alone was nearly 50 minutes long. Clearly, the piece we were writing could not include 12 such dramas.
Don't you know you are God's children?
Realizing our work would consist of two or three stories rather than a dozen, Roger and I looked for an appropriate counterpart to Guadalupe. We had intended to balance Christian subjects with non-Christian, but our research revealed Marian manifestations to be consistently tolerant and inclusive. The apparent purpose of the Guadalupe visitation was the union of European and Native American peoples. Daniel Shiplacoff and his mother Josephine urged us to consider a remote Bosnian village they had visited called Medjugorje, where the Blessed Mother is said to be currently appearing to six visionaries. Some of her messages there insist that the followers of all religions are children beloved of the same God. This seems to us a radical and surprising message in an area known for religious conflict, so we decided on a pairing of Guadalupe and Medjugorje. The former is close to us in geography, but distant from us in time; the latter is close to us in time though distant in geography.
Amazing sights are seen on high
Bosnian history, culture and language were entirely unfamiliar to us. But thanks to a grant from UCLA to help defray expenses, Roger and I went to Medjugorje to see for ourselves the religious revival occurring there. We traveled with a group of pilgrims under the leadership of Grace and Paul Millard of Morning Star Ministries. We also read many books on the Medjugorje phenomena, but the most important things I learned came from witnessing the faith and kindness of our fellow pilgrims.
Blame it on the Sarajevo Rose
One of the facts I learned from books: during the prolonged siege of Sarajevo, a new slang expression entered the Serbo-Croatian language. Because the circular depressions left by mortar explosions on concrete reminded some of the shape of rosebuds, the holes that multiplied throughout city walls and streets in that terrible time were called "Sarajevo Roses." This is ironically appropriate for our purposes, since roses are so frequently associated with visions of the Virgin Mary. We interviewed one prominent Bosnian priest who insisted we avoid discussing the Yugoslavian wars; he considers the opinions of Americans (particularly diplomats) on the subject misguided to disastrous effect. But it would be dishonest, to say the least, to report that wonderful spiritual transformations are occurring in Medjugorje without acknowledging the wartime destruction still visible in surrounding areas.
(ro-'zar-e-um) n: a place devoted to the cultivation of roses. In the minds and language of the Aztecs, the concepts of flower and song (or poem or story) were closely related. An Aztec codex shows this pictograph for poet: a figure of a man with blossoms cascading from his open mouth. Songs may be as wondrous as roses, but they must be cultivated just as carefully. The stories we tell ourselves do matter. Today, Serbs are willing to die to keep Kosovo not because they live there (until the current genocide, only 10% of the population of Kosovo was Serbian), but because they are raised on stories of ancient injustices and defeats suffered in the region by their ancestors. The stories we tell matter because they are the means by which we determine who we are.
William MacDuff, librettist