It is the botched restoration that just keeps giving. Beast Jesus — the “Ecce Homo” fresco that now resembles a primate thanks to octonagerian restorer Cecilia Giménez — will make its stage debut this month. A comic opera titled “Behold the Man” will grace the courtyard of the 19th-century fresco’s home, the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Mercy in the Spanish town of Borja, telling the entire saga of the work’s transformation: how Giménez’s amateur hands ruined Elias Garcia Martinez’s original portrait of Jesus; the international outrage that ensued; the artwork’s inevitable meme-ification; and how the Beast, with its fuzzy face and goggle-eyed expression, apotheosized to tourist destination and eventually saved the small village. “Behold the Man” will debut on August 20th, the fourth anniversary of the fresco’s 2012 transfiguration.
Written by Andrew Flack with music composed by Paul Fowler, “Behold the Man” arrives thanks to an Indiegogo campaign that raised over $22,000 since July to fund various final preparations for the opera’s production. Local authorities are also financing the project, according to the New York Times — which is unsurprising, considering the town is working hard to capitalize on Jesus’s notorious makeover, most recently erecting a spankin’ new arts center devoted entirely to it. Flack and Fowler themselves were quick to note the story’s popularity, beginning to transform real-life drama into entertaining theater in September 2012. They have hosted staged readings in 2014 and 2015, but the forthcoming, one-night-only August 20th performance marks the premiere of a concert version of selected scenes.
Fowler told the Times that the music intends to reflect the wildness of the internet, citing among inspirations “a Gregorian chant, a Spanish fandango, a Renaissance motet, a jota from Zaragoza, a classical chorus, an aria from the Zarzuela, a Flamenco tango, an indie-rock hook and a Swedish-house baseline.” The opera’s website teases that Act 1 features an aria by Giménez (not performed by the real painter); an appearance by Martinez’s ghost, who, “realizing he’s partly to blame for the fresco’s poor condition, he’s caught between pride and shame”; and a song by a new character, Giménez’s daughter-in-law and “the richest, most beautiful woman in town,” who suffers from having too much money. Act 2 recounts how the fresco becomes an internet sensation, how tourism rises (through a “high-energy number”), and how the townspeople eventually warm up to Giménez.
If you don’t see a trip to Borja in your near future to catch the production of the year(???), don’t fret, as a complete showing in Spanish may arrive on the fifth anniversary of Beast Jesus’s birth, and Fowler + Flack plan to market it for future stages this fall. For now, enjoy the trailer below, which features lines from Giménez such as, “It’s faith that guides my brush. I close my eyes and the feelings rush onto a canvas.” And later on, Martinez’s ghost belts out, “When you come to Borja, baby, you better have a glass of wine and buy a hat.”