Fountain of Tears 

Can opera-goers bear the whole truth?

A few years ago, visiting the home of Fernando García Lorca, now a museum, I had the audacity to ask the director if the Spanish had become comfortable with Lorca's homosexuality. The poet and playwright, probably the country's most famous writer since Cervantes, was murdered in 1936 at the age of 38 by fascist followers of Francisco Franco. It wasn't until Franco's death in 1975 that Lorca's life and work could be openly discussed.

The museum director didn't blink when I asked my question and said that the subject was still sensitive with many in Spain. But, he said, the undeniable fact that one of the nation's great heroes was so openly gay, even if homophobia (as some argue) was not a direct motive for his murder, had compelled the Spanish to think about the subject in depth. He argued that it probably was one reason the Spanish were about to legalize gay marriage.

Knowing that, I confess I was surprised last week when I saw Osvaldo Golijov's one-act opera, Ainadamar, which is about the actress Margarita Xirgu's rumination on art, Lorca's death and the political. The opera, performed by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Robert Spano, makes only one reference to Lorca's homosexuality that I caught. And, weirdly, it makes utterly no mention of the fact that Xirgu was an open lesbian -- the main reason she could not return to Spain from her exile in South America after Franco's ascension.

It is mystifying to me that Golijov and librettist David Hwang would be so silent on this aspect of Lorca's life. If you didn't know the real story, you'd think Ainadamar's self-description of the "fiery passion" between Xirgu and Lorca was of lovers. But this was a man who wrote a poem about the crucified Christ as a figure of sexual liberation and fellatio as prayer -- and then agonized over the discomfort such openness caused his friends and family. The struggle with freedom's pains and pleasures was rooted in his flesh.

But the opera's silence is especially mystifying in view of the fact that Ainadamar is so politically analogous to our present time. Franco's voice, for example, reiterates George Bush's notorious proclamation that "You are with us or against us," making anyone who questions him an enemy. How can anyone, knowing the details of Lorca's life and the way homosexuality was exploited by Bush in the last election, avoid acknowledging the sinister Puritanism and explicit persecution of homosexuals among fascist movements?

There is no way that Golijov and Hwang don't intend audiences to compare their story to the present, for the opera itself is a beautifully eerie comparison of Lorca's fate to that of his own earliest inspiration, Mariana Pineda. A revolutionary executed in 1831 for opposing the oppressive Spanish king, Pineda was the subject of Lorca's first successful play.

Mariana Pineda opened in 1927, starring Xirgu. Now, in the opera set in 1969, she marvels before her final performance of it in Montevideo, at the way history has repeated itself: Pineda and Lorca were both executed for their revolutionary politics at the same site, the Ainadamar, which means "fountain of tears" in Arabic.

So the opera is greatly about the way oppression repeats itself through time, stretching backward in Xirgu's memories but also forward in the presence of a student, Nuria, to whom she bequeaths the work of performing Lorca's plays, still banned in Spain. True to the operatic form, Xirgu dies before being able to give her last performance. That task goes to Nuria.

What we know and Xirgu didn't at the time of her death is that Lorca, like Pineda, became a national icon of freedom and resistance to oppression. So the opera is not just about the repetition of oppression through time. It's also about the triumph of truth and freedom by way of art.

In that, it is completely true to Lorca's spirit. Lorca was famous for his attempt to restore appreciation of lo cani, those veritable clichés of Spanish culture like flamenco and the bullfight. What most fascinated him was the concept of duende, a kind of underworld energy related to death that inspires flamenco and makes bullfighting such a national obsession. For Lorca, the truth always had a whiff of death.

He was himself famous, according to his pals Pablo Neruda and Salvador Dali, for rehearsing his own death -- lying in coffins, pretending to fall dead. Lorca called the death of his friend, the bullfighter Ignacio Sanchez Mejias, "an apprenticeship for my own death" that he foresaw "the moment Ignacio told me of his decision to return to bullfighting" after a seven-year absence. So he was unafraid of death. Its arrival -- virtually guaranteed by his choice to go home to Granada after Franco captured Madrid -- could not have been a surprise to him.

Golijov's opera, especially its gorgeous music, captures Lorca's romance with death and is eloquent about the power of art to defy oppression. I wish, though, that it were truer to the poet's flesh, for few poets have written so profoundly about the condition of human embodiment.

Cliff Bostock holds a Ph.D. in depth psychology.


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