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Botched restoration of classic painting drives comedy in new lyrical opera

ASU Music Theatre and Opera stages 'Behold The Man' in US workshop premiere

May 17, 2018

In August 2012, 81-year-old Cecilia Giménez put broad brushstrokes to a decades-old fresco and became an overnight sensation — for all the wrong reasons.

Giménez, an untrained amateur in the world of art, created an uproar in the small Spanish town of Borja when she took it upon herself to “fix” Elías García Martínez’s peeling painting of Jesus crowned in thorns, “Ecce Homo” (“Behold the Man”), on the wall of her local church. The result was a botched restoration that attracted global attention — and much parody, including the renaming of García Martínez’s fresco to “ecce mono” (“behold the monkey”).

Almost six years later, the fresco fiasco continues to inspire.

Giménez and the fallout over her “restoration” is the theme of the semi-staged workshop premiere of “Behold The Man: La Ópera del Ecce Homo” by Arizona State University's Music Theatre and Opera this weekend.

A comic opera by composer Paul Fowler and librettist Andrew Flack, the piece is described as “a poignant comedy about how a disaster morphed into a miracle, and how the virtual world can impact the lives of ordinary people in powerful ways.”

Video courtesy of Sky News via YouTube

Brian DeMaris, associate professor and director of the Music Theatre and Opera through ASU’s School of Music in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, says the story aligns with his penchant for producing new operas for the program.

“Paul Fowler and Andrew Flack have created a piece that is both comic and serious at the same time, similar to Mozart and DaPonte,” DeMaris said. “Opera is a genre where stories can be told with a varied tone. It works beautifully to put Cecilia’s and Borja’s story in a larger perspective in that way. There is a certain calling I feel in producing new operas similar to how Cecilia felt called to restore the painting.”

The lyrical piece, which will be staged in English in the format of a development workshop or reading (no elaborate set, lights or costumes), will give its creators a chance to hear it with an orchestra for the first time, laying the foundation for a full-scale world premiere production, tentatively scheduled for Spain’s Zaragoza province in the fall of 2019.

Flack says he is grateful to have ASU’s involvement in his opera. His collaboration with ASU began through talks with DeMaris in March 2017.

“This is such a big deal that we’re here,” said the Denver-based librettist. “To launch something like this, to have the university invite us to come to do this — it’s an undertaking, but they were still able to bring the students together at the end of the academic year to make this happen. It’s a gift.”

The Music Theatre and Opera program at ASU seeks out pieces that are at varying stages on their journey as complete works, according to DeMaris. He says Flack and Fowler’s “Behold The Man” was ripe for an orchestral workshop/reading with his students.

“I was drawn to the reverent and truthful way that Andrew Flack approached this, getting to know Cecilia first and the town and people of Borja, treating the work as the comic source that it became but also with respect,” said DeMaris. “There are also not enough Spanish-language operas, and though we're doing the workshop in the English version, it is good for ASU to be involved in the creation of a new work in Spanish.”

DeMaris says comedy also played into his decision to bring “Behold The Man” to ASU, noting that this one takes a departure from many new operas, which have been mostly serious.

“I am drawn to the comic as well as the very current aspects of this story — especially as it is a story that is known through its internet sensation,” he said. “The opera plays on that very beautifully — the internet is silly but it is also very real, and portrayals through social media affect people in powerful ways.”

Fowler, who drew on Spanish pop music and many other musical influences in composing the piece, says their goal with the opera was to bring people together to help enrich community life.

“I’m interested in bringing music and theater back to the community from where it’s from, and this is a great example,” Fowler said. “We didn’t write this piece for the superstars of the world. We wrote it for communities that are reaching to that and communities that can perform for themselves.”

Giménez’s botched restoration of “Ecce Homo” has become the subject of a number of documentaries in recent years and has been satirized on NBC’s sketch comedy series “Saturday Night Live.” It continues to draw tourists to its home at the Santuario de Misericordia (Sanctuary of Mercy) Church in Borja, and despite the initial outrage over Giménez’s unsolicited undertaking of the fresco restoration, Flack says many have come to forgive her — a theme that also runs throughout “Behold The Man.” He calls the opera a story about faith and forgiveness.

“The community forgave Cecilia,” Flack said. “And even more important than that is Cecilia forgave the community for what they did to her.”  

'Behold The Man: La Ópera del Ecce Homo'

Where: ASU Music Building, Evelyn Smith Music Theatre.

When: 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, May 18 and 19.

Admission: $10 general admission, $8 students, seniors and alumni. Get tickets.

Top photo: (From left) ASU Music Theatre and Opera director Brian DeMaris, "Behold the Man" librettist Andrew Flack and composer Paul Fowler. Photo by Barbara Duff

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