In late 2005, I attended a lecture at St. Anthony Church in Madisonville, Ohio. The
speaker told a story of a nun in the Brazilian Amazon who had been murdered in
February of that year. I was struck by the fact that Sister Dorothy met her
gunmen the day before, fed them, prayed with them, and showed them her work
with the peasant farmers of the area. When the gunmen showed up the next day,
Sr. Dorothy opened her bible, said, "This is my only weapon," and
started reading the Beatitudes...Blessed
are the poor for theirs is the Kingdom, Blessed are the.... She was then shot six times. She was 73.
As soon as I heard that story, I thought, "This NEEDS to be
Sister Dorothy Stang
There have been remarkable biographies on Sr. Dorothy. However,
my goal was not to give a play-by-play account of her life. It was to recreate
her life and mission through music, with hopes that the opera would inspire
audiences to help continue the spirit of her work.
This was a challenge. How do you take forty years of work and
put it into a two-act opera? I had access to Sr. Dorothy's letters from 1969
until one week before her murder. The amount of information was overwhelming.
There was one aspect, however, that I latched onto, and knew I could run with
when trying to create a dramatic thread.
I noticed reoccurring cycles in her story: as her mission grew,
so did the forces to stop her. This cyclical nature became the main dramatic
artifice for the opera. I noticed her language changed as well. Her early
letters, fairly innocuous, gradually became harsher, more urgent in tone.
"Land owners" became "Land Sharks,” and then "Land
Sharks" became "Invaders." I also noticed that Portuguese words
crept more and more into her letters. This fact became important both musically
How could I translate this into an opera? Since her work was
surrounded by hope on one side and violence on the other, I knew these dramatic
elements had to remain constant, despite the passage of time. Therefore, I use
the flashback to create the semse of life as a circle, not a straight line. Her
language changes in her letters meant that I needed to show growth in her
character and make the “lessons learned” main points of interest, not just list
event after event, happening after happening.
To portray her immersion into the
mission and life of the people she served, I used identifiable musical styles
to demonstrate her progress. Her musical
language in the beginning of the opera is very "Western;" as the
opera progresses, Brazilian rhythms and music enter her musical language and
eventually becomes fully integrated as she assumes the role of leader and
"Have I Not Wept?" from the opera Angel of the Amazon
The other players in the story were a little easier to adapt.
There were three main community leaders while she lived in Brazil. I combined
them into one character. For dramatic reasons, I had to give a bit more depth
to the character of the logger who ordered the murder. The news reports about him were very one
dimensional. In all honesty, he is one evil person, and whiny on top of it all.
At no point can an audience sympathize with “Vito,” but I, as the writer, had
to humanize him to make it believable. This is where real life seemed more fake
Once I had the characters developed, I created a time line to see
how everything unfolded.
More of that in part two...