An opera dedicated to the trauma of Argentina's Dirty War of the 1970s and '80s opened in the Argentine town of La Plata, a focus of resistance during the dictatorship.

(Soundbite of opera, "Estaba la Madre")

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. The opera by Oscar-award winning composer Luis Bacalov condemns the high-ranking officials of the Catholic Church who were complicit, and lauds the mothers of Argentina who, in their grief, found common cause.

NPR's Julie McCarthy reports.

JULIE McCARTHY: These are the crazy ones, the opening line of the opera goes.

(Soundbite of opera, "Estaba la Madre")

Unidentified Group: (Singing in Spanish)

McCARTHY: It refers to the mothers of Argentina's Dirty War who have grown old searching for their missing sons and daughters. In their 40s when they founded Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, they are now in their 70s, and their emblematic white head scarves - a renowned international symbol of human rights.

The one-act opera "Estaba la Madre" is a paean to their perseverance. The first scene opens with the disappearance of Samuel, son of Sara. The narrator tells the audience.

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Unidentified Man #1: (Spanish spoken)

McCARTHY: Samuel, or Joseli(ph) as his mother calls him, is a student who has no experience with either the police or militant politics. The chorus picks up his story.

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Unidentified Group: (Singing in Spanish)

McCARTHY: 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, they sing. Sara, his mother, sings an anguished lament.

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Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing in Spanish)

(Translator): He told me he had nothing to hide, nothing to confess. I told him, go and explain yourself. Why didn't you keep your mouth closed? Joseli, my candid son, flower of my womb, where did they hide you? Why don't you answer me?

McCARTHY: The action switches to three generals who declaim Samuel and any perceived dissident as they congratulate themselves as the defenders of the fatherland, alternating refrains from their "Ballad of Liberty."

(Soundbite of opera, "Estaba la Madre")

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing in Spanish)

(Translator): 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.

McCARTHY: And to make them disappear into the seas, sings the chorus. Transparencies of eerie images of water shimmer on the stage. Political prisoners were routinely drugged and pushed from planes into the Atlantic.

Argentine composer Luis Bacalov, who lives in Italy where the opera debuted, says he modeled "Estaba la Madre" after the 13th century work "Stabat Mater," Latin for "The Mother was There."

The hymn by a Franciscan monk describes the lamentations of the Virgin Mary before the body of her 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.

Mr. CARLOS BRANCA (Director, "Estaba la Madre"): (Through translator) Because 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.

McCARTHY: The set, a three-story structure, reflects society. Director Carlos Branca says the characters representing power occupy the upper floor, prisoners and their torturers take the mid-section, the mothers act out their stories on the ground level.

At one point the upper tier fills with cardinal-red cloaked clergy. Their backs to the audience, symbolizing, says Director Branca, the indifference of many 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 treachery.

(Soundbite of opera, "Estaba la Madre")

Unidentified Woman #3: (Singing in Spanish)

McCARTHY: You know him, you ordained him, she tells the priest. You know well he's no terrorist. Why did you or they take him away, she implores.

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.

Ms. ESTELA CARLOTTO: (Through translator) My husband identified her. He didn't want me to see her. Her face had been totally destroyed. I wanted an autopsy, but no doctor would perform one out of fear. That injustice and that pain transformed me into a fighting woman.

McCARTHY: Estela Carlotto went on to lead the grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, who search for the children of their children born in illegal detention.

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

(Soundbite of opera, Estaba la Madre")

Unidentified Group: (Singing in Spanish)

McCARTHY: Who would not weep, torn apart, the chorus sings, in the face of so much agony?

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

Again, Director Carlos Branca.

Mr. BRANCA: (Through translator) In this opera - as in our history - three women with handkerchiefs went out to struggle for their disappeared children. The men didn't go; the women went out to look for the truth. They are the strong ones.

(Soundbite of applause)

McCARTHY: Clad in their white kerchiefs, the mothers in the audience rise to rapturous applause.

Julie McCarthy, NPR News, Buenos Aires.

(Soundbite of opera, Estaba la Madre")

Unidentified Group: (Singing in Spanish)

WERTHEIMER: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

(Soundbite of opera, Estaba la Madre")

Unidentified Group: (Singing in Spanish)

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