Last month our local opera company, Opera Southwest, produced the world premiere of a new opera based on the novel Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya. It's a beloved coming-of-age story set in rural New Mexico in the mid-1940s.
Opera Southwest asked me to be the official photographer for the premiere, including a dress rehearsal as well as shooting some off-stage rehearsals and publicity photos. I have photographed many operas for OSW over the past four years, and I was honored that they trusted me to capture this one for the record.
Photographing an opera is simultaneously a blessing and a challenge. It’s a blessing because I’m shooting trained actors (singers) who know how to communicate emotion with their gestures, facial expressions, and body language as well as with their voices.
But it’s a challenge for me as a photographer because the event is happening in real time – no stops, re-starts, or do-overs unless the conductor says so. People are moving all over the stage; the lighting changes frequently; and I have to be in the right place at the right time with the right camera settings to capture the moments.
The story of Bless Me, Ultima centers around an adolescent boy, Antonio, who is trying to figure out his destiny.
His parents argue about his future: his father wants him to become a vaquero; his mother wants him to become a farmer or a priest.
Into this conflicted household comes Ultima, a curandera -- a healer who uses herbs and traditional folk remedies.
Ultima also has an owl who is her spirit guide.
Antonio confides in Ultima, and she begins to teach him the ways of the curandera and the power of the natural world.
Meanwhile, the adults are having troubles of their own. A soldier returned from World War II with PTSD (which was not well-understood in those days) has freaked out and killed another man. A group tracks him down and, over the protests of Narciso, a peace-maker, kills the soldier.
Antonio witnesses the murder and is traumatized.
Elsewhere, three daughters of the local barroom owner, Tenorio, practice evil rituals in the woods,
and put a curse on Antonio's uncle (his mother's brother), who falls ill.
When standard medicine fails, the family calls on Ultima to save him.
With her owl spirit guide nearby (now portrayed by a singer), she cures him . . .
but Tenorio turns the people of the town against Ultima, claiming she is a witch. Tenorio leads a mob to Antonio's home to confront Ultima; Antonio's father blocks his path.
Antonio's father fights with Tenorio; Narciso, the peace-maker, breaks it up and tries to de-escalate the situation, but is shoved aside.
Ultima summons her owl to attack Tenorio.
The owl gouges out one of Tenorio's eyes . . .
and the mob disperses.
Days later, one-eyed Tenorio confronts and shoots Narciso for intervening. Antonio witnesses this, too, and Tenorio tries to kill Antonio, but his pistol jams and he runs away.
Narciso, dying, asks Antonio for absolution.
Antonio, once again traumatized, has a dream or a vision in which Narciso and the murdered soldier are resurrected, and Ultima's owl explains how chains of events go beyond any individual's control.
The next summer, Antonio is sent to work on his mother's family's farm, in hopes that his spirit will be restored by participating in the simple life of the farmers. The community is full of life and joy.
In an aria, Antonio reflects on all that he has experienced.
Upon returning home, Antonio sees Tenorio once again out for revenge against Ultima . . .
and Antonio warns Ultima. Ultima knows this is to be the culmination of the chain of events that began years before, and she reflects on her own destiny.
Tenorio arrives at night, armed and alone . . .
and Ultima summons her owl again, but this time Tenorio shoots the owl, which spells death for Ultima.
Antonio is heartbroken and cradles the dead owl,
then asks Ultima to bless him before she dies, which she does.
The opera -- music and libretto -- was written by Héctor Armienta, a Mexican American from California who longed to bring the novel to the operatic stage and worked for years to obtain the rights.
|Photo courtesy of Héctor Armienta website|
Ultima was sung by Kirstin Chávez, an Albuquerque-born versatile and veteran singer. Her singing and stagecraft were wonderful.