On Ainadamar: A Myth of Wounded Freedom - Detroit Opera

On Ainadamar: A Myth of Wounded Freedom

Ainadamar is about how a myth is actually being born, how Lorca that was a breathing, living, laughing, loving person became a symbol, a myth – and how we can bring him back to be that man.’ — Osvaldo Golijov

Ainadamar, literally meaning ‘Fountain of Tears’ in Arabic, is the name of an ancient well near Granada, Spain where the poet Federico García Lorca is believed to have been killed by fascist Falangist forces in 1936. By integrating flamenco with classical, mythical, and religious culture, Osvaldo Golijov’s opera Ainadamar explores Lorca’s quest for a utopian, mythic universality. In part, the opera is a tale of nostalgia and remembrance of a lost time and place in Spanish history. In part, it is a narrative of ritual passion in which Lorca is elevated to a Christ-like figure and his friend, the actress Margarita Xirgu, becomes a Madonna who mourns for her ‘son’. Music and sound serve as an important marker of Andalusian history and culture. Electronic sounds of gunshots and trickling water signify Lorca’s execution at Ainadamar, where thousands of liberals were executed during the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). Golijov’s music is replete with references to cante jondo (deep song) and duende – the existential anguish that lies at the essence of Andalusian flamenco music.

So how did Golijov, in collaboration with librettist David Henry Hwang, transform history into myth? What accounts for the opera’s long-lasting reception since its premiere in 2003? Which scenes hold the key to the music and drama?

Transforming History into Myth

Soprano Gabriella Reyes and members of the chorus during rehearsal - Credit Austin Richey / Detroit Opera.


‘Portrait’ opera marks one of the significant trends that emerged in post-war opera, in which historical figures become mythologised through the merging of factual and fictional contents. Consider Philip Glass’ Satyagraha (1979), where mythical figures from the Bhagavad Gita interact with Mahatma Gandhi in his quest for liberation from British colonialisation, or John Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer (1991), which presents a poetic meditation on the 1985 hijacking of a cruise ship and the tragic death of Leon Klinghoffer. This second opera’s narrative alternates between the diegetic scenes of hijacking leading to Klinghoffer’s death and mythic scenes in which the chorus assumes the voice of nature, commenting on the longstanding strife between Jewish and Palestinian peoples that traces back to ancient times.

Ainadamar similarly transforms history into myth by bringing together three disparate figures from Spanish and Catalan history: the poet Lorca; the actress Xirgu; and Mariana Pineda, a nineteenth-century liberalist heroine who participated in an underground network to undermine the repressive monarchy of Ferdinand II and was later executed by garrotting. Although Xirgu and Lorca knew each other, Pineda is brought to life through Xirgu’s theatrical role in Lorca’s 1927 play Mariana Pineda. Moreover, this play was kept alive by Xirgu through her performances in Uruguay, where she lived in exile for over thirty years.

The story of Ainadamar is told through Xirgu’s remembrance of Lorca. To this end, the temporal setting of the tripartite structure of this opera shifts back and forth between the diegetic present (April 1969) in Uruguay and the past (1936) in Spain at the time of Lorca’s death. In the First Image, called ‘Mariana’, Xirgu performs her role as Mariana Pineda and recalls the time when she first meets Lorca as a young man in Madrid. The entire Second Image, called ‘Federico’, is situated in the summer of 1936 during the beginnings of the Spanish War. The Third and final Image, called ‘Margarita’, takes us back to April 1969, where Lorca’s spirit emerges from the Fountain of Tears and appoints Nuria, Xirgu’s protégée, to be her successor. The final scene depicts the interior world of Xirgu as she prepares to die; in this moment, she is reunited with the ghost of Lorca and, along with Nuria, partakes in a quasi-Eucharistic ritual of consecration.

In constructing the libretto, Hwang was careful to strike a balance between narrative and biography. Whilst the first and third scenes that centre on Xirgu’s last days in Uruguay are purely imagined, the second scene that depicts Lorca’s execution draws on factual account, including by inserting actual 1936 radio broadcasts of Falangist officers into the score and libretto. By allowing Lorca to speak in first person and present tense (‘I give you my thanks and I love you’ – he says to Xirgu at the opera’s end), Hwang brings centrality to Lorca as a mythical subject who is brought to life through Xirgu’s memory and what he represents in her.

Where the historical Lorca departs from Hwang’s idealised representation is in his political indifference. While attuned to the social ramifications of political strife in Spain, in real life Lorca was more preoccupied with aesthetic questions such as the nature of reality and artifice, the role of dreams, and other artistic ideals. According to Leslie Stainton’s biography, when Lorca was captured by the Falangists he insisted that he had no political allegiances and cried out that he had not done anything to deserve death by execution. In stark contrast, Hwang and Golijov turned Lorca into a revolutionary figure or even a martyr in Ainadamar, much like Mariana Pineda who willingly sacrificed herself for her ideals. In a duet in the second Image entitled ‘Quiero Cantar Entre las Explosions’ (‘I want to sing amidst the explosions’), Lorca insists on staying in Granada rather than escaping to Havana with the lines, ‘Me quedo aqui... con mi canto y con mi llanto’ (I will stay here... with my singing and with my weeping). It is no coincidence that the role of Lorca is sung by a mezzo-soprano in a trouser role, given the close bond Hwang and Golijov created between Lorca and Pineda as kindred souls in their fight for freedom.

Why call the opera a myth of wounded freedom? For one, the sombre ballad sung by the female chorus at the beginning of each Image comments on Xirgu’s self-sacrifice as a symbol of a struggle that is never finished and is consequently passed from one generation to another. In relation to this, Golijov conceived Pineda, Lorca, and Xirgu as figures who embody freedom through death. In her final moment, Xirgu recalls Pineda’s last words in Lorca’s play: ‘yo soy la libertad’ (I am freedom), followed by ‘herida y sangrando esperanza’ (wounded and bleeding hope). Secondly, the Ainadamar fountain emerges as an important site and metonym for freedom. The image of water carries a dual significance as symbols of both death and rebirth for those who fight for social and personal liberty. Much in the same way the guitar ‘weeps’ for human suffering in Lorca’s ‘La Guitarra’ from his poetry collection Siguiriya Gitana (Gypsy Ballads), the fountain sheds tears for those who died for freedom and at the same time serves as a source of liberation in its power to heal.

The Opera’s Enduring Reception

Soprano Gabriella Reyes during rehearsal - Credit Austin Richey / Detroit Opera.


In an artistic climate in which new operas are often commissioned and then produced once, Ainadamar is unusual in the sheer number of times it has been produced. Following the inaugural student production at the Tanglewood Music Festival in 2003, Peter Sellars joined the creative team and oversaw a complete rewrite of the libretto and musical score for a production at Santa Fe Opera in 2005. Following a semi-staged performance in Atlanta directed by Robert Spano that same year, a recording of the concert version was released through Deutsche Grammophon in 2006 and won two 2007 Grammy Awards: Best Opera Recording of 2006 and Best Contemporary Classical Composition. The opera became an overnight sensation and led to eleven performances in 2007-2008 alone. Since 2005, Ainadamar has been produced globally in countries that include Germany (Darmstadt), Argentina (Buenos Aires), Spain (Granada, Madrid, Oviedo), Australia (Adelaide), United States (New York, Atlanta, Arizona, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Kentucky, Boston, and soon Detroit), New Zealand (Wellington), Japan (Tokyo), Brazil (Sao Paulo), and now Scotland (Glasgow and Edinburgh).

Ainadamar is notable for how the opera’s dramaturgy has been transformed in the hands of various directors. In his Santa Fe production (2005), Peter Sellars commissioned Chicago artist Gronk for an urban mural that would cover the stage’s semi-circular wall and floor in keeping with the stage design of Lorca’s play from the 1930s. Gender politics also play an important role in Sellars’ staging: Lorca’s artistic sensibilities are brought to the fore by exaggerating his feminine characteristics against the machismo and brutality of the Falangists. Amidst numerous other productions that followed, Mei Hong Lin’s mise-en-scène for the Staatstheater Darmstadt (2007-08) is noteworthy for adding visual and choreographic elements that are extraneous to Hwang’s and Sellars’ conceptions. In her postmodern staging, Lin draws a parallel between the victims of the Spanish Civil War and those of the Holocaust and asks the audience to contemplate other themes of oppression in relationship to this story. In Long Beach Opera’s minimalist production in 2012, an elaborate filmic projection of light articulates changes in mood, time, and place: blue for the Fountain, brown and yellow for Havana, red for the Falangist’s radio broadcast, and dark red for Lorca’s execution. It is hard to imagine another 21st century opera that lends itself to such vastly different dramaturgical realisations.

What to listen out for

The plaintive ballad: The haunting quality of the ballad centres on the anthropomorphic image of stones ‘crying’ for Mariana’s death against the tolling bells. It is sung by the female chorus at the beginning of each Image in varied form and expression. In the First Image, the chorus sings the main melody of the ballad (‘What a sad day it was in Granada; the stones began to cry...’) as Xirgu interacts with the chorus as the cantaor (solo singer), hovering high in register over the chorus as she laments her exile in Uruguay playing the role of Pineda night after night in the theatre. The tempo is fast and the mood somewhat urgent. When the ballad returns at the commencement of the Second Image, it turns into a crazed, frenetic reprise as Xirgu loses her mind; a distorted recording of a Falangist political speech interrupts the flow to a frenzied, faster tempo. Lastly, at the beginning of the final Image, the ballad transforms itself into a dirge: as Xirgu collapses and gasps for air, Nuria sings with the chorus in call and response. The choral entries are harmonised in parallel fourths and are synchronised to the bell that tolls with greater frequency. The changing mood of the ballad brilliantly captures the progression of the story from Xirgu’s recollection to her death and reunion with Lorca.

Flamenco music and the anti-hero: The cantaor, the singer of flamenco cante jondo (deep song), is historically the conveyor of suffering for the marginalised race of Romani Gypsies. In the Andalusian flamenco tradition, duende refers not to an institutionalised deity but rather the spirit guide, which they believe possess the cantaor with a performance that resonates with the depth of feeling and emotion. Thus, it is hardly surprising that Golijov assigns the role of the flamenco cantaor to both Lorca and the Falangist executioner, Ruiz Alonso – the existential anguish that lies at the heart of duende binds them together in spite of their conflicting political ideologies. In particular, listen for Alonso’s flamenco-style vocal improvisation, which grows in intensity from ‘Muerte a Caballo’ (Death on Horseback, First Image) to ‘Arresto’ (Arrest, Second Image). ‘Interludio de Balazos y Lamento por la Muerte de Federico’ (Gunshot Interlude and Lament for the Death of Federico) that concludes the Second Image is especially powerful as Alonso sings his improvised lament over sampled gunshot sounds that are looped and turned into a flamenco ostinato pattern.

Rumba and Other Popular Song Forms: Golijov masterfully incorporates lighter song forms to offset the sombre characteristics of the framing ballad and flamenco music. A rumba – a light-hearted Cuban dance form – accompanies Xirgu’s nightly performance of Mariana Pineda. Following this number, Nuria questions Xirgu about the first time she met Lorca, and the music turns to a light duet, accompanied by a solo guitar, that recounts their first meeting in a bar in Madrid. Then Lorca sings a melancholy waltz entitled ‘Desde mi ventana’ (From my window), which conveys his yearning and love for the revolutionary heroine, Mariana Pineda, whose statue he looked out onto as a child.

Prayer to the Virgin Mary and Gunshot Interlude: In addition to the electronic soundscape that conjures Spain at the time of the Civil War, Golijov intersperses a recording of the actual sounds of Mexican children praying to the Virgin Mary of Guadalupe in Chiapas at the moment when Lorca’s body is taken away following his execution (Second Image). Immediately following this is the Gunshot interlude, in which Golijov took from a library of gunshot sounds from the 1930s to generate a tape loop as a symbolic homage to the death of thousands of individuals who were killed during the Franco regime.

Music of Ritual Consecration: Golijov’s musical setting of ‘Doy mi sangre’ (Here is my blood) is rapturous. This music explicitly references the biblical Eucharistic rite in the consecratory text sung by Xirgu, Nuria, and Lorca.

Here is my blood,
shed for thee,
drink it and tell my story. This is how I am going to die, submerged in the voices
of those who have loved me and those not yet born.

Although cast in a popular musical style, a sequence of chromatic- mediant modulations coupled with undulating triplet rhythm induces a sense of ascension into an other-worldly sphere of existence comparable to Isolde’s transfiguration in the ‘Liebestod’ from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. However, that is where the similarity ends. Rather than Isolde’s oblivion in love, Xirgu’s parting number is more about making a graceful departure from earthbound suffering and torment: it is about letting go of her earthly existence in order to embrace freedom and to pass on the fight for personal and social liberation to the next generation. Following this number, Xirgu appears as a spirit and sings ‘Yo soy la libertad’ facing the Falangist, Alonso.

Just as Lorca’s play begins and ends with a chorus reciting the ballad of Pineda, Ainadamar begins and ends with the ballad as a reminder that history repeats itself – that there will be another retelling of the story of Mariana Pineda. The opera comes to a halt with the female chorus singing the refrain from the ballad over an electronic drone and trumpet motif. The plaintive ballad has a lingering quality that reverberates in the ears of listeners. In this respect, the recurring musical motives perform the same function as the phrases that constitute the refrain in Lorca’s Siguiriya Gitana poem: ‘Es imposible callarla’ (‘It’s impossible to hush it’.) The music signifies this wounded freedom as it segues to the distanced sounds of water, which slowly fade out.

Yayoi Uno Everett is a professor of music at the City University of New York. Her research and teaching focuses on the analysis of post-war art music, film, and opera from the perspectives of semiotics, multimedia theories, cultural studies, and East Asian aesthetics. She is the author of Reconfiguring Myth and Narrative in Contemporary Opera: Osvaldo Golijov, Kaija Saariaho, John Adams, and Tan Dun (Indiana University Press, 2015).

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