TAOS, NM — Known for their fresh reinterpretations of European period pieces from the 17th through the 19th centuries, Opera Lafayette is again transplanting a performance to the American Southwest.
In 2020, Opera Lafayette premiered their adaptation of André Danican Philidor’s Le Maréchal ferrant (The Blacksmith) outdoors at the Reddert Ranch near Mancos, Colorado. Currently, the Washington, DC-based team is in the midst of a month-long residency at the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation of New Mexico (HWF) in Taos, developing their rendition of the opéra-comique (opera with spoken dialogue) Silvain (1770) by Belgian composer André Grétry and French librettist Jean-François Marmontel.
The opera will debut a public dress rehearsal at Taos Center for the Arts (TCA) on May 26, which includes a first look at costumes created by local fashion designer Patricia Michaels, or Water Lily (Taos Pueblo). Clearly grounding her inspiration in New Mexico, Water Lily drew from the state’s Spanish colonial and Catholic cultural histories. Referencing popular devotional figures such as San Ysidro (or Saint Isadore), the patron saint of farmers, with his wide-brimmed black hat and humble cotton clothing, and popular representations of Nuestra Señora (Our Lady) with her intricately patterned and wide-bottomed dress often seen in carved polychromatic sculptures (or bultos). The designer also makes a clear class distinction by adorning the opera’s antagonist in black business attire, highlighting his impersonal connection to the landscape and the people who work it.
Composed when feudalistic systems of the ancien régime (old order) denied peasant masses land ownership in France, Silvain stages the social and political struggles of agrarian life. The opera’s protagonist Silvain relinquishes his noble social status to marry a peasant woman named Hélène. The couple raises a family, living and working on their land, which is the primary source of their survival. Preparing for a village wedding for their daughter, they learn that the nearby woodlands are under new ownership and are prohibited. As the one-act opera progresses, Silvain is accused of violating the new rule and is arrested, bringing the family into a dramatic series of events that later leads to a poignant moment of reconciliation.
As the centerpiece production of their 2022 season (themed: The Era of Marie Antoinette, Rediscovered), Opera Lafayette’s rendition of the 18th-century Silvain makes a significant geographical and historical leap — firmly planting itself in Colorado’s San Luis Valley in the 19th century. Originally performed for and celebrated by French nobility (a favorite of Marie Antoinette), it is hard to ignore the dynamics of power that were obscured by Silvain‘s sentimental narrative, both then and now.
Historically speaking, the elite who controlled, surveilled, regulated, and purchased or stole land in France (and the US) wantonly gained possession of the people who lived on and worked it (if they were not forced to leave). Yet, this hierarchical social order is rendered invisible by a “moral” act of reconciliation that papers over class (and often racial and gender) disparities and overrides the harsh fact that the land and its peasant subjects were equal objects of exploitable control.
Transporting this narrative to the American Southwest and racializing the peasant subjects risks further enforcement of White racial superiority in the region. Opera Lafayette maintains Silvain’s social status as a Frenchman, a racial identification that sustains his alignment with a White racial order, whereas Hélène (renamed Elena in this contemporary performance) is now Mexican and Spanish-speaking. This context situates Silvain’s family in a precarious position since they now threaten pseudoscientific discourses related to miscegenation and blood purity. Entirely dependent on the Eurocentric patriarchal whiteness that Silvain embodies, the reunion with his father is a performative reward and saves Silvain’s family through “simple virtue … [over] good birth” — a meager attempt to ameliorate the anxieties surrounding Silvain’s marriage to someone of a different class and racial order.
Centering on land rights issues, Ryan Brown (founder, artistic director, and conductor) and Tania Hernández Velasco (stage direction; filmmaker) saw Silvain’s potential as a commentary on the sociohistorical and economic land rights issues in the American Southwest that are still prevalent today. Hernández Velasco states in the opera’s program note: “From those who resiliently continue to defend a relationship to land, nature, and its original inhabitants based on respect, love, and gratitude, Opera Lafayette found a worldview that this production seeks to honor.”
Familiar with the importance of land and the ways it maps cultural relationships to legacy and social identifications, Hernández Velasco breathes new life into Silvain through her lucid, cinematic images. Although the Taos audience will not see her full stage direction, performances in DC and New York will feature projections of the sprawling San Luis Valley, seeds planted in the arid brown dirt, wide expanses of land set against the clear blue skies, and more. On May 25, TCA will screen Hernández Velasco’s award-winning film Titixe (2018), about a Mexican family’s last harvest after the loss of an elder and his knowledge of the land.
Brown first became involved with HWF in 1970 and is a proud mentee of Henry Sauerwein, the organization’s first director, who served from 1954 until his passing in 1996. Developed in 1954 by Sauerwein and Helene Billing Wurlitzer, a first-generation German American philanthropist, the foundation’s primary goal was and is to “support the artist and the creative process,” providing a place where artists-in-residence can work without distractions.
Today, the HWF accepts applications from visual and literary artists, as well as composers and songwriters. Artists in-residence receive rent-free and utility-paid housing in fully furnished adobe casitas for 10 to 12 weeks, with no expectations or requirements.
For the ten Opera Lafayette performers who are living on the HWF’s sprawling 15-acre campus, they will have a chance to get at least a preliminary sense of the landscape, people, and history as they prepare for their roles. Brown wrote in an email, “We wanted to do a residency in the area where we are setting the opera, both to understand the local history better and to provide an opportunity for people who have lived that history to see us develop a performance that hopefully speaks to them.”
Silvain, as Brown revealed, will be filmed and later shared on PBS. Produced by Opera Lafayette and directed by Jason Shafer (director of the company’s earlier mentioned production, “The Blacksmith”), the New York performance will be recorded in its entirety and accompanied by a documentary detailing the opera’s development.
Ready to transition back into opera theaters, Brown is thrilled to have Silvain welcome opera-goers back to in-person (and indoor) performances as the world recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic. He believes that this adaption of Silvain will become a platform for people to engage in essential conversations regarding land rights issues and the histories of colonization and migration in the Southwest, which will be more thoroughly discussed by local and out-of-state scholars and community members in Silvain Salon, Live from Taos: A Three-Part Virtual Series, Opera Lafayette’s lectures and learning portion of the residency.