Garcia Lorca’s art, death inspire genre-expanding opera

When Federico Garcia Lorca was a child, long before his ascension to the heights of Spanish literary circles, he idolized his mother’s gift for playing the piano. The young Garcia Lorca studied piano, hoping that he shared some of his mother’s talent, but Garcia Lorca would never become an influential musician. It was through the pen that he found his voice. Nevertheless, Garcia Lorca’s first works, with titles like “Nocturne” and “Sonata,” drew heavily upon his musical background, and throughout his short life, his poetry and prose would reflect an obsession with music and rhythm, with Beethoven and Chopin. So it seems natural that nearly a century later, a man who was inspired by Garcia Lorca’s words would turn his life into music. 

When Osvaldo Golijov was a child growing up in La Plata, Argentina, he read Garcia Lorca’s plays and poems and found himself entranced. When the composer was commissioned to write an opera for the Tanglewood Music Center, in 2003, he turned back to his childhood hero for inspiration.

“I grew up with his poems and loved them, and also his plays, so they were a part of my life for as long as I can remember,” Golijov said in a phone interview from his home in Massachusetts.

“When looking for a subject for an opera, I realized that he [Garcia Lorca] had predicted his own death in his first serious play, ‘Mariana Pineda,’ and I thought together with David [Henry] Hwang, who wrote the libretto, that it would be a very dramatic and operatic idea.” And so, “Ainadamar” was born.

“Ainadamar,” meaning “Fountain of Tears” in Arabic, tells the story of Garcia Lorca’s life, and his death at the hands of the Falangists, through the eyes of the actress Margarita Xirgu, his onetime lover and colleague. “The idea is that the entire opera occurs while Margarita hears the ballad of Mariana Pineda, this folk ballad,” Golijov said. “And while she hears, she remembers her entire life together with Garcia Lorca, his death and so forth. It’s like a moment that explodes three times.” 

Compacting the narrative was paramount to Golijov in constructing the piece. “The idea is that in music … you listen to a song that is three minutes, and within three minutes you can relive your entire life. That’s the power of music.”

Much has been written of Golijov’s casting a woman in the role of Garcia Lorca, but according to Golijov, it was more a matter of convenience than a conscious choice. “The truth is, there was not any ideological statement or anything; it was a very practical thing. I was commissioned by Tanglewood, and I was working on a different opera that was an all-women cast, and then things were not cooking, so I decided to contact David [Henry Hwang] and start a whole new project, but we were stuck with all women because the women had already been chosen,” Golijov said, laughing.

In fact, according to Golijov, the original idea was that Garcia Lorca wouldn’t even appear in “Ainadamar.” “The idea was to do an opera … about [Garcia] Lorca, but without [Garcia] Lorca. But, then I went to review the audition tapes for the young singers from Tanglewood, and I was really struck by Kelley O’Connor’s voice. … She had this incredibly mysterious and dark voice that was both a woman and a man. And I called David, and I said there’s this woman that actually sings in a very dangerous way. And he said, if you want to reconsider, we can have [Garcia] Lorca played by her.”

O’Connor’s performance was widely praised, and “Ainadamar” ended up winning two Grammy awards in 2006. This month, the work is being restaged by the Long Beach Opera as part of its 2012 season, again with a woman as Garcia Lorca, this time Peabody Southwell, who made her debut with the Long Beach opera in Leos Janácek’s “The Cunning Little Vixen.” “Ainadamar” will have its second of two performances in Long Beach on May 26.

If “Ainadamar” seems a natural choice of subject for a Spanish-speaking Jew who grew up idolizing Garcia Lorca, the piece that brought Golijov his first big international exposure would seem a much more puzzling piece for a man of his background to tackle: “The Passion of St. Mark.”

“It was clearly a very difficult choice for me, and my first reaction when asked to do it was ‘no,’ ” Golijov said. “But then I reconsidered.” The idea of challenging himself was appealing, but he had absolutely no idea where to start.

“I froze in fear for a couple of years, and then I remembered this great painting of Rembrandt’s, ‘Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem.’ My great-grandmother had a reproduction of the painting in her kitchen, and I always thought, looking at her face and looking at the painting, that Rembrandt had captured the Jewish soul in the truth that evaded every Jewish painter that I knew. And Rembrandt was not Jewish but was living among the Jews. I was not Christian, but I grew up among Christians in Argentina, so I said, well, obviously, I’m not Rembrandt, and I don’t have that talent, but if part of ‘The Passion’ would have a truth about Christianity that would be comparable to the truth about Judaism that Rembrandt’s paintings had, that would be a good enough reason for me to do it.”

Golijov’s work on “The Passion of St. Mark” brought him acclaim from around the world and opened up doors for him in the world of classical music. But for a man whose early work heavily reflected his Jewish upbringing, he never forgot his roots.

Asked whether he feels there’s such a thing as Jewish music, Golijov paused before answering. 

“The problem with answering that question is that if I say yes, there’s such a thing as Jewish music, it will be misinterpreted, because people will immediately try to associate it with surface things in the music — does it sound like my bar mitzvah? But it’s not anything like that; it has to do with an attitude, with a perspective, with a point of view. It can be as diverse as Mahler and Gershwin, to Bernstein.”

Golijov, who spent several years in Israel studying at the Rubin Academy under Mark Kopytman in the 1980s, credits his experience in the Holy Land with much of his musical awakening. “It was like a second childhood. … I mean childhood as the time of discovery, not only of life, but also of music or whatever else will occupy you later in life.” 

He said his time there was spent “discovering all the Sephardic music that I didn’t know in Argentina … most Jews there are Ashkenazi … but also the Arab music, the Christian music, and also the culture. This collision of civilizations was seminal in my life.” 

The Jewishness of his own music is subtler. “It’s not noticeable when people look for those melodies or harmonies or rhythms, it’s noticeable because of the way in which things unfold,” Golijov said. “Jewish music is a point of view, it’s a way of experiencing the world that is translated into the music. It’s so diverse that it’s impossible to give a definition.”

Golijov said he often draws on ethnic music from around the globe for inspiration. “All those cultures are part of the human experience. If you think of us having a soul and the soul having a map, like the world has a map, that’s what I try to do. If I’m going to a melancholy region, what music aches [with] that melancholy better than any other? So I study it and I try to make it part of my palette.”

And unlike Garcia Lorca, who often felt more deeply connected to theater and music than writing, Golijov feels secure in his art. “There is something about music that transcends any need for explanation. I always feel that music is sort of a philosophy that’s understood without a need to read the book,” Golijov said. “Not all music is universal, but all good music is universal.”

“Ainadamar” will be performed by the Long Beach Opera on May 26.

“Ainadamar” will be performed by the Long Beach Opera on May 26. For more information, visit