For her Met Opera debut, Lileana Blain-Cruz directs 'El Niño'

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For her Met Opera debut, Lileana Blain-Cruz directs 'El Niño'
Performers during a rehearsal of Lileana Blain-Cruz’s production of “El Nino,” a blending of the Nativity story with ancient and modern texts in which multiple eras coexist, at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, April 12, 2024. In her Met debut, Blain-Cruz promises to push divinity and spirit to the seats in the back. (Lila Barth/The New York Times)

by Joshua Barone

NEW YORK, NY.- When Peter Gelb, the Metropolitan Opera’s general manager, asked director Lileana Blain-Cruz what she wanted to stage, she didn’t need any time to think about her answer: “El Niño.”

A couple of years ago, she had already been hired to direct Missy Mazzoli’s “Lincoln in the Bardo,” an adaptation of the George Saunders novel that will premiere in the 2026-27 season, but Gelb was curious about what else she might be interested in.

Long a fan of John Adams and his collaborations with director-librettist Peter Sellars, Blain-Cruz particularly loved their 2000 oratorio “El Niño,” a blending of the Nativity story with ancient and modern texts, like poetry by Rosario Castellanos and Gabriela Mistral.

“It makes you weep, and you don’t expect it,” Blain-Cruz said of the piece. “It shook me and stayed in my imagination for a while after I heard it, but I didn’t know when I would have a chance to make it happen onstage myself.”

Gelb quickly said yes. Now, Blain-Cruz’s production of “El Niño” will premiere at the Met on Tuesday, bringing with it the return of brilliant mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges and the long-awaited house debuts of Julia Bullock, Davóne Tines and conductor Marin Alsop.

Blain-Cruz is bold in choosing an oratorio for her first project at the Met. Abstract, loosely narrated and written more for concert halls than opera houses, oratorios are more difficult than opera to stage persuasively, which in itself is immensely difficult.

But, she said, the nature of oratorios suits her style. Gelb agrees, having been impressed by her take on Thornton Wilder’s “The Skin of Our Teeth” at Lincoln Center Theater in 2022.

“I was bowled over by her visual sensibility and her storytelling,” Gelb said. Visual is one way to describe her approach to “El Niño,” a supernova of color, movement and oscillations between the intimate and divinely grand.

“There’s never been a director like her to work at the Met,” Gelb added. “She’s kind of this irrepressible force of nature who seems to be just like filled with adrenaline at every moment. At the end of rehearsals, she unfailingly does a dance up and down the aisle. But the fact that she’s extroverted is the icing on the cake because she’s meticulous, and on top of everything.”

Between recent rehearsals, Blain-Cruz discussed how she’s settling into the Met and how oratorios can both challenge and liberate a director. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Q: What was the pitch for your concept with this production?

A: John and Peter built this in Los Angeles, and they were interested in migrant stories. The migrant story of Mary and Joseph is interesting, but my sense of the journey is that we’re watching two different Marys travel through two different forms of migration: Julia on land, and J’Nai on the water. And their journeys kind of collide when we get into the second act.

But “el niño” also means so much. It can be about weather systems; there’s so much about climate here that asks us to reconcile with earth and nature. So as I was thinking about witnesses and narration, I thought about the earth as a witness. This is a story that traverses time, and what exists in all time? Nature.

Q: How would you describe the differences between staging an oratorio versus a more straightforward drama?

A: In a straightforward drama like “Faust,” you have characters, and they are saying what they’re saying as they’re saying it. There’s a linearity inside the piece. But an oratorio like this has an abstraction of time, and that’s what I have the most fun playing with. You can have multiple times coexisting, and that’s freeing. You can have the scene and also be talking about the scene while living inside the scene. That kind of double awareness, and relationship between character and time, is thrilling.

Q: One of the hardest challenges of this piece, especially compared with something like a play, is moving dozens of bodies in a way that makes sense both dramatically and logistically.

A: The trickiness is how to do it in a limited amount of time. If I had a year, this would be easy breezy. With our rehearsal time, how do you distill what’s most essential with why they’re present in that moment and infuse them with the why so they can be alive in that moment?

Q: It probably helps that you are also working with Julia, Davóne and J’Nai, who are such strong theatrical talents.

A: They are so lived inside their roles that they’re doing this incredible job grounding the reality that we’re existing in. John Adams has said that the tricky thing is to maintain the intimacy. They can sustain the emotional journey and shifts and nuances that are happening in each moment, and that’s what keeps the humanity inside the characters.

Q: When you directed “The Skin of Our Teeth,” a lot of people left talking about its puppets of prehistoric animals. Working with the space and resources of the Met, did you come up with a similar coup de théâtre here?

A: There are just so many moments where massive things happen musically, where we’ve tried to live up to the invitation. For “Shake the Heavens,” I asked James Ortiz, our puppeteer, “How do you do the divine?” It has to be alive and strange and weird and feminine. So in what he came up with, it appears in a strange and mystical way, in this puppet of eyes that emerge in what we jokingly call the vaginal eye. They move in space and make up this massive thing. But there’s also what Hannah Wasileski did with the projection design: She really paints with projections. All of these designers know how to play together.

Q: Has John Adams been involved?

A: He’s coming to the opening. We’ve talked, and he’s been so generous. He told me that we’re just filled with so much news and information of the ways in which people in the world hate each other. But there is also love, creativity and creation, and that felt reassuring to hear. In the midst of it all, there is grace. He talked about when he and Peter were doing this, and working with 16-year-olds in California — 16 and pregnant, and the world thinks you’re doing everything wrong. And to be able to hold a child and do that with love and grace is so profound and incredible.

That humility, I think, is also a part of this production. My family is from Haiti and Puerto Rico, and when I saw Haitians at the border being attacked by men on horses — the rage that I felt about not being able to uplift them as people who had sacrificed their entire lives and took this incredible journey. We get to do the flip of that on this stage. We get to say, “No, these people are magnificent.”

Q: And at the scale of the Met’s enormous stage.

A: It’s huge. And I love big things. There are so many benefits of coming to the opera and watching that world in front of you, that sensation we can feel of the music and the magnitude of beauty hitting our eyes. I want to give all the people in the seats in the back that sense. When you think about divinity and what spirit is, it wants to extend out into the audience. I want the whole Met to explode with life.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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