Opera Pays Tribute to Mothers of the Disappeared

The Mothers and the Generals i i

hide captionIn one song in the opera, generals congratulate themselves as "defenders of the fatherland." During Argentina's Dirty War, an estimated 30,000 people disappeared or vanished.

Courtesy of Teatro Argentino
The Mothers and the Generals

In one song in the opera, generals congratulate themselves as "defenders of the fatherland." During Argentina's Dirty War, an estimated 30,000 people disappeared or vanished.

Courtesy of Teatro Argentino
A Three-Tiered Society i i

hide captionThe set is composed of a three-story structure: characters representing power occupy the upper floor; prisoners and their torturers take the mid-section; and the mothers, wearing their emblematic white scarves, act out their stories on the ground level.

Courtesy of Teatro Argentino
A Three-Tiered Society

The set is composed of a three-story structure: characters representing power occupy the upper floor; prisoners and their torturers take the mid-section; and the mothers, wearing their emblematic white scarves, act out their stories on the ground level.

Courtesy of Teatro Argentino
A Mother with a Clergymember i i

hide captionThe opera condemns the high-ranking officials of the Catholic Church who were complicit in the disappearances.

Courtesy of Teatro Argentino
A Mother with a Clergymember

The opera condemns the high-ranking officials of the Catholic Church who were complicit in the disappearances.

Courtesy of Teatro Argentino

An opera dedicated to the trauma of Argentina's Dirty War recently opened in the Argentine town of La Plata, a focus of resistance during the dictatorship that ruled from 1976 to 1983.

The solemn work titled Estaba la Madre, or The Mother was There, traces the experience of four mothers whose children vanished into the maw of torture and killing during the military junta.

An estimated 30,000 people disappeared or perished during the dictatorship. The opera, by Oscar-award winning Argentine composer Luis Bacalov, condemns the high-ranking officials of the Catholic Church who were complicit in the disappearances and lauds the mothers of Argentina who found common cause in their grief.

'The Crazy Ones'

The opera opens with the line: "These are the crazy ones." It refers to the mothers of Argentina's Dirty War who have grown old searching for their missing sons and daughters.

They were in their 40s when they founded Mothers of Plaza de Mayo. Now in their 70s, their emblematic white head scarves are a renowned international symbol of human rights.

The one-act opera is a paean to their perseverance. The first scene opens with the disappearance of Samuel, the son of one of the mothers, Sara. Bacalov says Samuel is an Ashkenazi Jew, like himself, and a student who never gave anyone trouble.

The narrator tells the audience that Samuel has no experience with the police or militant politics. The chorus picks up his story.

"Thursday, they wait for him for dinner," they sing. "It is 9 o'clock. It is 10 o'clock. It is midnight. Dawn arrives, and he does not return."

Samuel's mother Sara sings an anguished lament.

"He told me [that] he had nothing to hide, nothing to confess. I told him 'Go and explain yourself — mouth wide-open,' " she sings. "Why didn't you keep your mouth closed?"

'Defenders of the Fatherland'

The action switches to three generals who deride Samuel and congratulate themselves as the "defenders of the fatherland," alternating refrains from their "Ballad of Liberty":

Long live freedom.
Freedom to speak and make others speak.
Long live freedom to confess and to make others confess.
Long live the freedom to make arrests ... and interrogate ... and torture.
Long live the freedom to scream and to make them scream.

"And to make them disappear into the sea," sings the chorus.

Transparencies of eerie images of water shimmer on the stage. Political prisoners during the Dirty War were routinely drugged and pushed from planes into the Atlantic Ocean.

A New Adaptation to a 13th Century Work

Bacalov, whose film score for the 1994 movie Il Postino won an Oscar, lives in Italy, where the opera debuted. He says he modeled Estaba la Madre after the 13th century work Stabat Mater, Latin for "The Mother Was There."

Stabat Mater is a hymn by a Franciscan monk that describes the lamentations of the Virgin Mary before the body of her crucified son. Verdi, Rossini and the 18th century composer Giovanni Battista Pergolesi put their own stamp on the work. But Carlos Branca, the director of Estaba la Madre, says this latest interpretation has a special intensity.

"In Argentina, the pain of the mothers who lost their children has been compounded by the fact that in thousands of cases, there was no body over which a mother could weep," Branca says.

Three-Tiered Society

The set, composed of a three-story structure, reflects Argentinian society. Branca says the characters representing power — the military and the clergy — occupy the upper floor, prisoners and their torturers take the mid-section, and the mothers act out their stories on the ground level.

At one point on the darkly lit stage, the upper tier fills with cardinal-red cloaked clergy. Their backs facing the audience, Branca says, they symbolize the indifference of some high-ranking church officials toward the atrocities of the junta. The third mother, Angela, visits the local monsignor, looking for her missing son — a young priest who works in the slums. She sings of the cleric's treachery.

You know him, you ordained him. ...
You know well he's no terrorist.
Why did you or they take him away?

Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo

Estela Carlotto, whose own daughter disappeared and was later executed, says clergymen demanded money when she sought their help. Carlotto was instrumental in bringing Estaba La Madre to Argentina, an opera that captures experiences like hers. Carlotto recalls the night police summoned her to retrieve her daughter's disfigured body.

"My husband identified her. He didn't want me [to] see her. Her face had been totally destroyed," Carlotto says. "I wanted an autopsy, but no doctor would perform one out of fear. That injustice and that pain transformed me into a fighting woman."

Carlotto went on to become the president of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, who continue to search for their grandchildren — infants who were born in illegal detention to mothers who disappeared or were killed.

The Finale

The climax of Estaba la Madre features the fourth mother, who is so overcome with grief that she neither speaks nor sings. She watches as the limp body of her daughter, a union organizer, is cut down from the hangman's noose and laid in her arms.

"Who would not weep, torn apart, in the face of so much agony?" the chorus sings. "Never again."

Bacalov's opera about the political affairs of men is in the end a tragedy about the sorrows and the strengths of women.

"In this opera — as in our history — three women with handkerchiefs went out to struggle for their disappeared children," Branca says. "The men didn't go. The women went out to look for the truth. They gave us strength."

The curtain falls to thunderous applause. It is as much for the glorious music as it is for the mothers of the disappeared who rise from their seats in the audience wearing their white kerchiefs.

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