THE CONQUISTADOR      Notes on the Genesis of 




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by Donald Moreland, librettist

My friend, the composer Myron Fink, had often over the years expressed the desire to write an opera about an assimilated Jew who discovers too late that his cultural adaptation, given the right circumstances, is no defense against the racism of the country he loves and calls his own. Myron also was never one to finish an opera without having another in mind. And so, before the end of our last collaboration (I as librettist), he gave me a book titled "The Martyr - the Story of a Secret Jew and the Mexican Inquisition in the Sixteenth Century" by Martin Cohen.

The color was an outrageous psychedelic purple; as exotic, it seemed, as the subject matter itself. Jews in the New World with the Inquisition still at their heels! Had its deadly grasp extended even across the Atlantic? Incredible. A chapter I had never read.

The Martyr of the title was the young Luis de Carvajal (El Mozo). He was a dreamer, a poet and religious visionary. He and other members of his family, nominally Catholic, were seized in 1589 for secretly judaizing. They recanted, then relapsed and finally were burned at the stake. It was the classic story of the classic martyr - too clear, too simple, and much too familiar. How many books and movies had already explored the same theme? Parallels abounded. I laid the book aside.

Yet my mind kept returning to one central scene - the explosive confrontation between Luis' sister, Dona Isabel, and their uncle, the famous conquistador, Don Luis de Carvajal y de La Cueva, after whom Luis the younger had been named. A genuine Catholic, he was appalled when she began to question his faith and urged him, at his soul's peril, to "obey the Law of Moses". He struck her fiercely, hurling her to the floor and, had not her parents intervened, might "well have killed her", as he later confessed. She was a heretic, an anti-Christ! And so apparently were her parents. Not only did they endanger themselves; his own life and career were now at risk. He fled the following morning, never to return to his sister's house again.

A thousand questions now begged to be answered. How could he not have known that they were secret Jews? Had he not brought them from Spain himself and at his own expense? Had he forgotten, if he had ever known, that his own mother had died a Jew? How could he have denied the knowledge, suppressed it, rationalized it? And now, knowing the truth, was he not obligated as a Catholic to denounce them? And once his enemies knew, had they not the means to undo him?         
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Thus did this single act, this blow to the face, not only destroy the family unity, but the family itself. Under torture they would accuse Don Luis of betrayal and he, in turn, them; thereby playing directly into the hands of the Inquisition. The truth is they were all betrayed by third parties; one of them, Don Luis' own adjutant.

Innocent of the charge that he himself was a Jew, he was finally sentenced for "...aiding and abetting Apostates from the Holy Faith." He was stripped of his position and exiled from New Spain. Awaiting deportation, he died in his cell of "unknown causes". The year, 1590.

This was the other image that haunted me - Don Luis in his final hours. No friends, no family, isolated, alone. Was he perhaps poisoned by official design, or did he die from sheer despair and bitterness, unable to bear himself and the land that gave him birth? And how did he die? As a Catholic? As a Jew? How could he reconcile the two, his belief and his blood? Both seemed to have abandoned him. How does one face the darkness of the soul and survive? Does one survive? Lay aside all the paraphernalia of the sixteenth century; ladies in court dresses, magnificently costumed Indians, conquistadors in their armor, the splendor of architecture, hooded monks and all the trappings of Church and State and, yes, even the sacred glow of candles at a Sabbath supper, and what remains? A single human being struggling to understand his fate and die perhaps with some shred of insight and dignity.

It was clear now to Myron and myself that it was the story of the uncle, not the nephew, that drew us on. For us he was a far more intriguing and complex character, closer to the spiritual crises of our own time. His personal tragedy seemed full of teasing contradictions. Here was a person of great achievement, secure in his name and position, a true Defender of the Faith, suddenly disgraced. Had he been dishonest with himself? And to what degree did he perhaps even contribute to his own ruin? The man of action forced to take stock and descend into the labyrinth of his own soul.

The Inquisition was nothing if not thorough. Almost expunged from the history of Mexico was the name of the family and the contribution of the famous conquistador. It took twentieth-century scholarship, such as Martin Cohen's, to restore, at least to the English speaking world, the heartbreaking story of this Jewish family in New Spain.

Other "conversos", to escape the Inquisition, fled to the northern territories and even to present-day Texas and New Mexico. Upon what little trace remains of the further history of these early colonists, the recent discovery of many southwestern American families of their own Jewish heritage extending back to New Spain provides a fascinating ironic commentary. On the headstones of their ancestors are often carved not only the Cross of Christ but also the Star of David. And sad to say, some families, for fear of social reprisal, are even now reluctant to reveal their long hidden ancestry.

Others embrace it. Others still, like the Carvajal of our opera and the current Archbishop of Paris, Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, grandson of an Auschwitz victim, must struggle to reconcile their Jewish "past" with their Christian "present".

Outside, lying simply on the ground by a long shallow trench, was a stone marker. It read: Here Lie Unnumbered, Unnamed Thousands. For a moment I went blind. I seemed to explode. Suppose it had been my father, my mother, sisters, brother...myself?     


Strange, I thought, thinking of Myron and myself. He is not a Jew by Faith but by lineage and I, though a raised Lutheran, no longer am. Yet we are steeped in our own traditions emotionally and intellectually. The project would challenge us both. But however effective the libretto, the music would reign supreme. Onto the skeleton of the text, Myron would place the flesh and blood. This was a story made for opera, for the passion of the human voice and the power of the orchestra.
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I was hooked. I called my friend. Yes, I would try to write the libretto. It was to be our fourth collaboration. My mind was already leaping ahead. For when I placed the story of the Carvajals against the larger social catastrophe of Mexico itself, the conquest and destruction of the native cultures and religions, the true significance of their fate became clear. They were a mere piece of a larger mosaic and, in some way, I had to link their private tragedy to the more public one, that of the nation itself.

And perhaps I personally could extend a hand not only to the future but also to the past. In1957, as a student in Germany, I visited Dachau, the prison camp near Munich. It had been used by the Americans as an oil dump and was in a state of total neglect. One GI guarded the entry. I was waved through and soon found myself standing before the crude brick ovens with their blackened pokers still protruding and the doors rusting on their hinges. Faded memorial wreaths lay about. Entering a nearby white-washed shower room, I saw, in great disbelief, the fist and heel prints and even, it seemed, the head prints of visitors who in their rage had smashed their limbs and bodies against the walls and had literally leaped upon them.

Outside, lying simply on the ground by a long shallow trench, was a stone marker. It read: "Here Lie Unnumbered, Unnamed Thousands." For a moment I went blind. I seemed to explode. Suppose it had been my father, my mother, sisters, brother...myself? Then I was startled awake by the noise of empty oil drums banging in the wind against the distant wooden sheds.

The opera meant more to me than I had first realized or perhaps been willing to admit. But unlike mounting a play, the time it would take from conception to performance might be years.

I plunged into months of historical research. Problem number one...how to attack the material? Does the story merely unfold in a realistic, sequential fashion or is a freer, more flexible approach better? And who tells the story, whose voice is heard, if any? The answer came quickly. One name above all kept leaping from the page; Fray Bernardino Sahagun, a Franciscan and one of the greatest anthropologists of the period, author of fourteen volumes recording the culture of the pre-conquest Indians - a lifetime's work and still a major scholarly source. His career in Mexico nearly spanned the century. He arrived in 1529 and died in the same year as Carvajal - 1590. They might easily have known each other. He himself was of Jewish extraction and in his own way had also experienced great disillusionment. As the earlier, liberal policies toward the Indians were replaced by more exploitive, inhuman laws, (one Pope, Paul III, had to remind the Spaniards that the Indians had souls and were actually human beings), Sahagun saw the Franciscan Vision of the New Republic of Christ inexorably fade. His own works were confiscated. The effort to educate the Indian into full Spanish citizenship ceased. Diseases, such as small pox, had decimated their population. Laborers were needed, not Aztecs who could quote Cicero and Seneca!

When I read that he had said toward the end of his life that the arrival of the Spaniard on Mexican soil was almost "a cosmic tragedy" in terms of the Mexican himself, I realized I had my voice, my perspective. Here was a man who knew from within the agonizing contradictions of his own faith and culture. Yes, he might well have known Carvajal and shared his sympathies.       
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Sahagun then became both narrator and chorus and enters directly into the action itself. He could range freely over the tragic events, move quickly through time and space, blending past and future in one moment and shifting, in Shakespearean manner, with a word or gesture, from Mexico City to the Northern Frontier. We had at last the openness of style necessary to encompass all the strands of the story - the Jewish, the Catholic, the Indian.

Suddenly I saw emerging and dissolving before me, as though a metaphor of the opera itself, symbols of the three religions; the Sundial of the Aztecs, that godhead in stone; the Sunburst of Christianity that crowns every altar; and the Eternal Flame of Israel. Three acts of creation...life giving and life taking, darkness and radiance, now one, now apart, the endless cycle, the sacred, sinister interplay.

As I began writing, the language itself seemed to gain in suppleness and flowed easily from the descriptive to the dramatic. Above all, the opera was to be no mere reproduction of the actual facts. We had a modern tale to tell. The facts were only the frame. The rest, imagination.

My task seemed clear: to first unite all these elements and then reduce them to simple human dimensions, to tell the story through the characters themselves, their thoughts, their feelings. They must be real. We must understand and identify with them all. Virtue and vice are ever interlinked.

With such a broad canvas to cover, Myron and I discussed every aspect of character and plot. We often argued late into the night over the intent of a scene or the curvature of an act. We were bulldogs but always willing to compromise. Is this speech necessary? How should the opera end? What are we trying to say? With sure dramatic instinct, he would insist: Throw out the superfluous detail. Hone, hone to the core of the scene. This is opera, remember? Music will expand as the heart does. Cut, cut, refine, refine.

Our greatest disagreement was over the need of a woman to balance Don Luis, not only psychologically but musically, the tenor-soprano polarity. In short, a romantic involvement. In my earliest sketches I had included a woman, Dona Elena de Robles, the young niece of the Viceroy. But she seemed no more than a feeble, familiar operatic appendage. Besides, Carvajal's sister and her daughter, Isabel, provided, I thought, the necessary ballast of male-female voices. So out went the love interest! The truth was that I had not sufficiently explored the character of our hero himself and therefore could not relate the "woman" to him. Myron, meanwhile, kept laying down the gauntlet. "This is opera, remember?" Etc., etc.        
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But of course he was right. And it was only after I had written the first full draft and had discovered for myself the core or "spine" of Carvajal's nature that I was able to organically unite Elena to him. I had never before introduced so late in the writing so central a role. But there she is, a strong, mature woman, his equal in courage and far greater of insight. Love, yes, but with a difference. The opera could not exist without her.

Tonight you will experience the result of my and Myron's work and the remarkable job Ian Campbell and San Diego Opera have done in bringing "The Conquistador" to the stage. I hope in some small measure it will touch you the way it has touched me forever.

This article first appeared in the official programme of "The Conquistador" and is being reprinted by permission of the author and San Diego Opera.

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