My first apartment in New York City was at the 190th stop on the A train, just at the base of Fort Tryon Park, and The Met Cloisters was one of the first places that I sought-out; having lived 100 miles north in the Hudson Valley for two years studying music at Bard College, I missed the idyllic setting of upstate. Climbing to an overlook with an expansive view of the Hudson River and George Washington Bridge was a respite; and it provided a perspective that I couldn’t experience anywhere else in the City. The Met Cloisters was designed as a composite space, with diverse medieval architecture and art from across western Europe placed side-by-side; but I found it harmonious and integrated, an environment where I could move fluidly from gallery to garden, chapel to burial place.
When the Met proposed that I present a program at The Cloisters during the holidays as a part of my residency I wasn’t exactly sure what to do, but my mind immediately began to consider composer John Adams’ and librettist Peter Sellars’, “El Niño.”
The Nativity oratorio, “El Niño” is one of my favorite pieces of music, besides feeling that it’s also one of John and Peter’s greatest collaborations. But with it being a mammoth work – almost two hours long, scored for full orchestra with extended instrumentation, adult and children’s chorus, and six soloists (half of which are the extraordinary combination of three countertenors) – it is often not programmed, either because of the amount of fiscal resources needed to present a concert of this scale, or (maybe even more to the point) because our North American holiday tradition insists upon performances of Handel’s “Messiah”. The “Messiah” is, of course, a beloved work, but it doesn’t meditate on the nativity story, it rather encompasses the life, death and resurrection of Christ. “El Niño,” alternatively, not only explores the central themes of the nativity – the immaculate conception, the unique relationship between mother and child, and gift giving – but the work ruminates on the notion that with the promise of new life, there is the equal threat of inexplicable violence and sacrifice. John and Peter also consciously decided that alongside western-European interpretations from the male-centric biblical canon, they would feature the contributions of women, and of Latin-American poets.
To perform a musical work that celebrates Latin American poets and the voices of women in a space dedicated to western-European architecture with solely western-European religious art that was preserved by mostly western-European patriarchs was also something that felt relevant not just to my residency, but also to the Met Museum itself. In the past five years The Met has incorporated curators who specialize in Latin American art into various departments, wanting to further ensure that the narratives told about The Met’s art and its history are comprehensive and unabridged.
The prospect of performing “El Niño” at The Cloisters was too good to pass up, so I wanted to see if there was a way to tell the complete nativity story using the original source material, all while being – for lack of a better word – economical. I spent time with the score and the original recording which was released in 2001 and features two of the most inspiring and influential vocalists of the 21st century, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and Dawn Upshaw. It was difficult to even consider cutting the astounding choruses, or omitting the three counter-tenors, who represented the voices of both celestial and earthly messengers, but I had to keep myself on task: tell the entire nativity story; respect that the Met could only present something that was about an hour long; honor the intimate chapel space where it would be performed, Apse from San Martín at Fuentidueña; and consider the fiscal realities of a commission this large.
I wrote to John and Peter with my proposed ideas and how I intended to restructure the piece for a chapel setting. I explained that my reason for wanting to reimagine their “El Niño” was because I felt strongly that their illumination of the nativity story should be shared and heard by more people and in more contexts. Within two phone conversations, we had a confirmed list of material, and John proposed the arranger he wanted.
I’ve never thought of this “arrangement” as a chamber music reduction of the original “El Niño”, but rather a distilled rendering. It will be something different, as it must be. Although there is an accepted element of risk for all of us who have been involved in the various iterations of this work, I’m simply excited to bring “El Niño” to this intimate and sacred space in New York City.
I’m so grateful for all who have contributed and made this project possible: from John, who made this his gift to my residency, to each member of my artistic family in the American Modern Opera Company (AMOC) who are making their New York debut with this performance. It gives me great joy thinking about how our young company, AMOC, will continue to enable projects, collaborations, and ambitious ideas, such as this, to exist.
Excerpts from John Adam’s El Niño with Kent Nagano and the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin (2001).
Experience an all-new chamber music version of contemporary master John Adams’s Christmas oratorio, El Niño, arranged by Preben Antonsen with contributions by Chad Cannon and Christian Reif, for the forces of the American Modern Opera Company (AMOC) and adapted for the intimate setting of The Met Cloisters.
Christian Reif (conductor)
Julia Bullock (soprano)
J’nai Bridges (mezzo-soprano)
Anthony Roth Costanzo (counter-tenor)
Davóne Tines (bass-baritone)
THE MET CLOISTERS (New York, NY)
METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART
The Cloisters (New York, NY)
MASTERS OF THE MODERN HOLIDAY ORATORIO
Joshua Barone, The New York Times
[Nativity Reconsidered offers] a dozen of the oratorio’s more meditative and lyrical numbers that dramatically streamline the Nativity story… The singers [Julia Bullock, J’nai Bridges, Anthony Roth Costanzo and Davóne Tines] were well equipped to navigate Mr. Adams’s vocal music: its exquisite and enveloping lyricism, but also the way it treats syllables as musical notes to be repeated and rearranged, creating an entire breathless passage from a single word… Ms. Bullock, her voice by turns warm and teeming with urgency, felt at times larger than the chapel itself: towering in the “Magnificat” and chilling “Memorial de Tlatelolco.” And the way she programmed “El Niño” elevated an already-revisionist work to something much more powerful.
JOHN ADAMS’ EL NIÑO, DISTILLED, AT THE CLOISTERS
Clive Paget, Musical America
Julia Bullock’s residency at The Met Museum is turning out to be one of the year’s most stimulating arts projects. Not only is she providing opportunities to hear thrilling voices and committed interpretations, she’s engaging with the Met collection in illuminating and sometimes challenging ways…. In her program note, Bullock correctly describes her filleted, rearranged, and occasionally reordered adaptation as a “distilled rendering.” Adams’ glorious original lasts for two hours with a large orchestra and substantial roles for adult and children’s chorus. This version, cunningly re-scored for a chamber ensemble of 12 by Preben Antonsen, with contributions by Chad Cannon and Christian Reif, offers [a] more reflective view of the work. By boiling it down to an hour, Bullock zooms in on the human dimension––Mary, Joseph, and the baby––and themes of childbirth, faith, and resilience in the face of the unknown. Most poignant of all in these Trumpian, self-absorbed, wall-obsessed times, through the plight of the Holy Trinity, it questions out attitude toward modern-day immigrants fleeing persecution.