The Making of the Opera


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Painting of The Conquistador
Don Luis de Carvajal

Conquistador extraordinaire
Founder of the city of Monterrey
Advocate of Indian rights
staunch Defender of the Catholic Faith

but alas!
of Jewish ancestry
and inevitably,
Victim of the Mexican Inquisition

Set in 16th-century Mexico or New Spain as it was then called, The Conquistador is based on a true story.

It is the year 1579 as the opera begins. King Philip of Spain ordains Don Luis Governor and Captain-General of New Leon, in New Spain. His royal mandate:

His charter allows him to take with him one hundred people without the requisite certificates of blood purity (limpieza de sangre) as proof of their non-Jewish ancestry. Among these are his sister Dona Francisco de Matos and her family who, unbeknownst to him, are secretly practicing Judaism. (Don Luis was sent to Lisbon as a child after his father's early death, where he was raised by his maternal uncle as a devout Catholic.)

In Mexico, he scores victories over the Indian natives, pacifying the Northern Frontier. A man of power, he conquers ruthlessly with the sword but rules with a sense of compassion for the natives. In the opera, his advocacy of Indian rights earns him an ally in the person of the Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagun (a historical figure known for his ethnographic works). However, Don Luis' sympathy for the Indians does not please the Spanish colonists who urge the Viceroy to strip him of power. The Viceroy, who does not look kindly on Don Luis' courtship of his niece Dona Elena, conspires with the Chief Inquisitor - although they have no evidence to prove it, they agree to use the de Matos family's non-possession of limpieza de sangre certificates as an actionable cause for Don Luis' removal from power. As Don Luis prepares for a campaign to quell a rebellion in the northern frontier, the Viceroy orders him to remain in Mexico City. Don Luis resolves to defy the orders despite his beloved Elena's pleas to the contrary.

Meanwhile in the town of Tampico, the de Matos family, ensconced in a life devoid of luxury and excitement, find solace in their secret lives as Jews. Dona Isabel, the eldest daughter and herself a young widow, is Don Luis' favorite niece. Both she and her mother Dona Francisca are determined to bring back Don Luis to the fold. As is common practice among secret or crypto-Jews of the time, one brother, Gaspar, is a Catholic priest. Purposely shielded by the family from the truth, he now harbors suspicions. Two other brothers Alvaro and Baltasar, soldiers in Don Luis' campaigns of pacification, are secret Judaizers.

Before leaving for the frontier, Don Luis visits Tampico with his adjutant Felipe. Dona Isabel confronts Don Luis with the family secret and urges him to embrace the faith of his ancestors. Outraged by this act of blasphemy, he strikes her violently and renounces the family. He leaves for the frontier deeply conflicted by these revelations. As expected, he sweeps away the rebellion but peace of mind eludes him. As he ponders the dualities of his life, he is arrested and led off in chains to prison. Sahagun visits him in prison along with Dona Elena who reaffirms her love and bids him farewell for she is being sent back to Spain. The charges against Don Luis remain unspoken. But his aide Felipe denounces his commander in order to save his career, and accuses Isabel and the rest of the de Matos family of being secret Jews.

At the Inquisition, under torture, Dona Isabel confesses and implicates her mother. The rest of the family confess thereafter, but hold steadfast in their refusal to denounce either Gaspar the priest or their uncle Don Luis.

Don Luis is likewise tried by the Tribunal of the Inquisition. Convinced he will be acquitted, he reaffirms his Christianity. Nevertheless, the Tribunal strips him of all his honors and sentences him to exile in Spain for the crime of aiding and abetting Jews. Sadly, a few months later he dies of unknown causes in his prison cell, tormented by nightmares and torn to the very end between his Christian faith and his Jewish roots. The rest of his family are later burned at the stake.

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The Making of the Opera


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