Perhaps no event on the North American continent has meant more to a segment of its population than the appearance of Mary, mother of Jesus, or "Our Lady of Guadalupe," to Mexican Indian peasant Juan Diego in 1531 on a hill near a village outside of Mexico City.
It's the story of how a humble and devout man moved back and forth in his encounters with Our Lady and the Catholic bishop in Mexico to prove to a skeptical church the veracity of his sightings and conversation with Mary. It's the most revered account of a sighting of the Virgin Mary in the Western Hemisphere, and it would help the indigenous population of Mexico, and beyond, to relate to a brown-skinned Mary and to Christianity itself.
A new opera, "Guadalupe, Our Lady of the Roses," will be presented tonight at St. Mark's Episcopal Church, 322 N. Horne, Mesa. It will conclude its two-night world premiere with two of the world's best-known classic singers in the roles of the Virgin of Guadalupe and Juan Diego - mezzo-soprano Isola Jones and tenor Robert Breault, respectively. It opened Friday night.
Our Lady of Guadalupe is the "diocesan patroness" for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix, and her familiar image is found widely in parish buildings and on Catholic materials. Her story has been told again and again as the veritable manifestation of Mary in the New World. Diego himself was canonized a saint of the church in 2002.
The two-act opera was written by James DeMars, a 25-year composer with the Arizona State University Herberger College School of Music. It will be performed by seven soloists, a 28-piece orchestra and 32 singers in the sanctuary of the church. The Guadalupe Festival Chorus will draw from the Sun Valley Chorale at Mesa Community College and the ASU Symphonic Chorale. American Indian flutist R. Carlos Nakai will be featured.
From the start of his composing the 80-minute work, DeMars had Isola Jones in mind for the role of Our Lady.
"She has been a remarkable inspiration, and, of course, a very gifted performer" and friend of his for 10 years, said DeMars, who knew little about Our Lady of Guadalupe before starting the project.
"I was asked to write a Mass to call attention to the numerous deaths we have had at the border because we haven't solved our immigration problems," DeMars said. "No matter where you stand on that issues, you have to recognize that people are dying."
The famous account of Diego and Our Lady culminated when Diego followed her instructions and harvested roses (so unlikely to be found on a hillside in December), and took them to the bishop. When he emptied them from his cloak, it's said everyone was amazed how the inside of the cloak, or tilma, depicted a radiant image of Our Lady. A church was subsequently built on the site of the apparition, and the Roman Catholic Church has made the account central to its stories of miracles and faithfulness.
DeMars has made a mark with a commissioned work "An American Requiem," which was performed in 1995 by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and had its nationally televised premiere at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York City. In 1997, he took it to Paris for a series of concerts with French choirs.
The opera's executive producer, Robert Doyle, calls it "almost like a 'Field of Dreams' " for DeMars professionally. "He said, 'I am going to write this thing, and they are going to come,' " Doyle recalls.
Many have stepped up and generously donated talents and time for the opera. Yet they could not find an available auditorium at ASU to present the opera, but found the Rev. Jeremy Warner, rector at St. Mark's, willing to provide his Mesa church for two nights, plus rehearsals.
"The opera was designed to contain multiple layers of meaning," Doyle said. Those layers, he said, include "the role of Juan Diego's mystical experience and the painting as unifying elements between indigenous and Spanish cultures." Another meaning, he said, is a process of blending symbols and meanings from Aztec and Catholic religions and spirituality. Moreover, the opera deals with a simple peasant's "very human relationship with a woman, the feminine paradigm of Catholic spirituality whom, he finds, is not greatly different from himself," Doyle said.
It was during a conversation in a park near his home with Catholic musician and friend Richard Romero, and Romero's keen information about Our Lady of Guadalupe, that inspired DeMars to do the project, who has previously commissioned two cantatas from DeMars, that he learned why the Virgin of Guadalupe story is "so beloved among the Hispanic community."
"With his help, I studied the many versions of this story, viewed the many artists' renderings and began to comprehend the meanings that people attach to the image of 'La Virgin de Guadalupe,'" DeMars said.
"For some, it was the beauty of the miracles of the apparitions of Santa Maria," DeMars said.
He describes the opera as a "requiem commemorating the people that are, every year, dying on the deserts of southern Arizona" while trying to reach cities where they can find jobs and a new life.
The Rev. Liana Rowe, an organizer for Interfaith Worker Justice of Arizona, lauded DeMars for developing an opera that brings attention to the death of migrants in Arizona's southern deserts. "I have long said that art expresses the deepest spiritual longings we have as human beings," she said. "This piece seems to express, via several media, to how embedded the Virgin is as a spiritual touchstone for persons descended from the Catholic, Spanish and Aztec regions of Latin America."
Rowe, whose ministry work includes Humane Borders, which delivers water to stations deep in the desert for migrants, said the story of Juan Diego and Our Lady of Guadalupe is almost "embedded in the DNA of their spiritual lives."
Executive producer Doyle said Jones, who has performed more than 500 times at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, "loves the music that Jim writes for her."
"I particularly like the fact that she is an African-American, and one of the things we are emphasizing in the opera is the fact that Mary would have been a browner skin tone than what is portrayed normally because she was a Middle Eastern."
Underwriting and producing the opera is Canyon Records, a Valley-based independent record company that has been specializing in American Indian music since 1951, where Doyle is the president. "Arizona State University administration has really stepped up with funds and support" as well, Doyle said. "They actually created a course so students who are participating in this project got credit" as well as honorariums for soloists. Canyon Records is recording the concerts for release of a CD, and videotapes will be used to solicit opera companies to do "Guadalupe," he said.
"We had a person in Los Angeles who picked it up on our Web site, saying, "When are you bringing it to L.A.?" Doyle said.