A new chamber opera for 8 singers, strings, and foley artists
Music by Paola Prestini
Libretto by Royce Vavrek
Stage Director & Designer Thaddeus Strassberger
Based on the film Stellet Licht by Carlos Reygadas
Set within a Mennonite community in northern Mexico, the opera follows a pious husband and father, Johan, who’s strongly held spiritual obligation to his marriage, family and community is put to the test when he falls in love with another woman, Marianne, from his faith. When Johan’s wife Esther discovers his infidelity, the pain is too much to bear, and a grief-stricken walk in the rain ultimately leads to her death, followed by a gesture that recalls the final moments of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s masterpiece Ordet.
The choral octet represents the community of adults and children, providing a glimpse of a society that is often misunderstood and simplified by people outside of the faith and lifestyle, presenting commonalities of human experience.
We decided on “Silent Light” because of the vast emotional canvas the films characters offer. There is no score, location sounds seem hard-edged, and when a hymn is sung, it is not a tune but a dirge. It was the perfect skeleton for an opera.
Set among the 100,000 or so Mennonites living in Mexico, the leads double as a choir and embody them- people who deeply hold their values and try to act upon them, and yet who do not seem to be zealots. They will be accompanied by a string orchestra and Foley Artists.
“Silent Light” has a beauty based on nature and the rhythms of the land. It opens with a sunrise and closes with a sunset, and is a solemn and profound film about a man transfixed by love, which causes him to betray his good and faithful wife. How he fell into this love, we do not know. Certainly, Johan isn’t the kind of man to go straying. Nor is Marianne, the woman he loves, a husband stealer. That they are both good to the core is the source of their pain. Yes, Johan and Marianne have sex, but it is the strength of the film that not for a second do we believe they are motivated by sex — only by love.
Esther, Johan’s wife and the mother of their six children, knows Marianne and knows about the affair. Johan has told her. He is a religious man and has also confessed to his father and his best friend. There is the sense that he will never leave Esther and never stop loving Marianne. He and Esther say they love each other, and they mean it. You see how love brings its punishment.
At the end, Marianne tenderly kisses Esther and resurrects her. Ritual, every day life and finally, a moment of the surreal, tie the story together. This is a story of people trying to do their best.
■ Paola Prestini
Johan, early 40s (baritone)
Esther, late 30s (dramatic soprano)
Marianne, early 40s (lyric soprano)
Mother, 60s (mezzo-soprano)
Father, 60s (bass)
Zacarias, 40s (tenor)
Chorus & Children
Johan, a Mennonite man, sits at the breakfast table by himself as the audience enters, the sound of a grandfather clock’s pendulum prominently moving back and forth. At the start of the show, his wife Esther enters with the children. They pray and then eat in silence before leaving the table and exiting the house. Johan gets up and stops the clock. He sits back down and breaks down in tears.
Outside of a farm shed, Johan meets with his friend Zacarias. He confides in his friend that he is having an affair with another Mennonite woman, and also that his wife is aware of the extra-marital relationship. The scene then shifts as we see Esther off in the distance in the middle of a field. He runs to her, and kisses her. They fall onto a swath of grain.
The children bathe in the river. Esther washes one of her girls’ hair. Johan watches. Esther begins to cry.
Johan tells his father that he is in love with another woman. His father provides spiritual and practical advice. They step outside to further their confidential conversation and the entire farmstead has been overcome by the frost of winter.
Johan and Marianne meet in a hotel room in a nearby town. They make love. Marianne tells him that it is unfair to have his children wait in the van while he makes love to a woman not his wife. He tells her that they can no longer continue this arrangement. She knows.
Johan and Esther drive. She asks Johan about the state of his affair, knowing full well that the has continues to see the other woman. She becomes overwhelmed with sadness, and asks him to pull over the car. She gets out in the pouring rain, holding a big blue umbrella, running towards a nearby tree. She drops the umbrella, become soaked through. When she doesn’t return after a while, Johan goes searching for her, finding her lifeless. He carries her back to the car, holding her as he grieves.
At Esther’s wake, a group of women prepare her body, as others sit outside the room singing hymns. When the body is washed and dressed, Johan enters the room and pays his last respects to his wife. When he is finished, he exits the house to be alone. Marianne arrives offering her condolences. She asks Johan if she might be able to see Esther’s body.
Marianne is alone with Esther. She touches her feet. She holds her hand. She kisses her lips and drops a tear on her face. Esther wakes up. Marianne exits quietly. Outside, one of Johan’s children tells him that Esther wants to see him. He wipes tears from his face.
Johan’s father re-starts the grandfather clock as the sun sets.
The sound of the light is not silent at all. The moon beam shines on the blade of grass awakening a dormant beetle who crawls out only at twilight and suddenly whirrs into a mating frenzy. The first ray of sunlight evaporates the overnight dewdrops on the soggy leaves which slowly creak towards the heavens seeking another day of life and transformation. Passions buried deep in anxious souls scream out suddenly as the light of truth pierces the veil of secrets so meticulously, so vainly, constructed.
■ Thaddeus Strassberger