Saturday, July 29, 2023

Loyola - opera meets the Indigenous

Rafael Montero

I've been directing a new opera production for presentation at the Arcola's Grimeborn Festival, for a company called El Parnaso Hyspano, led by the Indigenous tenor Rafael Montero, who was so impressive in the Celebrating Peru performance we curated at the British Museum last year. The piece, which we're calling Loyola, was originally entitled San Ignacio Loyola, and was written by a Jesuit composer called Domenico Zipoli for the missions in Latin America, where the performers would have been Indigenous singers and musicians. The score suggests that they must have sung and played European baroque to a very high standard, and at the same time hints at the inclusion of musical traditions from the locality itself. The inclusion in our production of Johnny Rodriguez on percussion and Andean pipes follows through on that line of thought, and it sounds wonderful....  

Johnny's presence, like that of Rafael singing the title role, is entirely "authentic", but of course feels strange and radical in the context of a European performance. Zipoli wrote his da capo arias and secco recitatives for Indigenous people to perform, but a European audience associates these sounds with European singers and players. What's more, the title character was none other than the founder of the Jesuit order: a hero of the European Counter-Reformation, determined to evangelise what he regarded as the ignorant pagans of the Americas and Asia. The Jesuits, whose successes included being consulted by the Emperor of China himself, were in many ways a triumphalist and militant prototype for contemporary models of ideological globalisation. 

The conductor Gabriel Garrido, with whom I worked on Xerxes for ENO some years ago, and from whom I learnt a lot about the jazz-like world of the baroque, made a recording of the opera which you can watch on YouTube. I like the musical performance, and the staging is probably as "authentic" as you can be - but it is also, frankly, ludicrous, and feels almost offensive in the 21st century. We really cannot perform a straight, unquestioning glorification of cultural imperialism in the era of #BlackLivesMatter, least of all with an Indigenous person in the title role. But perhaps that Indigenous presence suggests a way in which this music can be re-created for the 21st century, revisiting the cross-cultural dialogue that was, in its own lop-sided way, at the heart of the original creation.

What if our Loyola is not a Jesuit firebrand but an Indigenous teacher? What if the people who live in ignorance are not the Native people of the Americas and Asia but the imperialists themselves and their descendants, who continue to profit from their ancestors' incursions and whose profiteering now threatens the planet itself? How, in that case, might we portray the Angels who tell Loyola to get out of his convalescent bed and become active in the world? Who might be the Demon that tempts him towards a life of ease and complacency? What legacy might he want to pass on to his chosen successor, and how might we portray that missionary figure for today? 

These questions have been the spur to making our production. 

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