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Angel of the Amazon

“I really thought I made it clear,” an actress on a New York City stage sings as she faces two
characters pointing guns at her. She stands in front of a backdrop depicting a lush forest as she conveys fear and conviction simultaneously. The opera singer is portraying Sister Dorothy Stang, a Sister of Notre Dame de Namur who was assassinated in 2005 in the Amazon rain forest.

Sister Dorothy worked for 40 years defending the rights of poor farmers who had been granted land by the Brazilian government. The farmers struggled to gain access to the land, though, due to the greed of a small number of wealthy cattle ranchers and loggers. She was murdered for her stand.

A Young Man’s Mission

Most people’s stories, if they are written at all, are written on paper with lines and text. Some stories, though, become more than just the paper they’re written on. They become stanzas, clef notes and rhythms, perhaps recreating the sound of rain on a forest canopy.

Angel of the Amazon is a new American opera written and composed by Evan Mack, a young man who exhibits great zeal for Sister Dorothy and her work in the Amazon. Mack, a doctor of music, began writing the opera in 2005, when he was 24 years old.

He focuses his eyes intensely as he says: “What brought me closest to the story was the transcendence of the human spirit. For a person to give up the comforts and luxuries of everyday life to give guidance to others is a phenomenal story.”

When he was first inspired to compose the opera, Mack was a doctoral student in Cincinnati and working as music director at St. Anthony Parish. He attended a presentation by Sister Kathleen Harmon, S.N.D.deN. She told the story of Sister Dorothy, her work in the Amazon rain forest and her death just six months prior. Mack says it was a day of transcendence for him, as he realized this was a story that called out for music.

He paid a visit to Sister Elizabeth Boyer, who had begun the task of archiving Sister Dorothy’s possessions—clothing, papers, documents, news reports, etc.—at the Ohio provincial office of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur.

While Mack pored over the pieces of Sister Dorothy’s life, the power and strength of her story began to take shape—floating on the imaginary staff of a musical score in his head. He began to hear Sister Dorothy’s words intertwined with the hopes and dreams of poor Brazilian farmers, who continue to be bullied deeper and deeper into a forest that is being destroyed at a rate of 20 miles per day for the profit of a few.

Armed with a tape recorder, Mack spent two nights with Sister Joan Krimm, Sister Dorothy’s lifelong friend. He quickly discovered an emotional connection to the story that wasn’t his own. “It was someone other than me or a newscaster,” he says.

“It was someone who had been connected to Sister Dorothy since they were kids.” His eyes light up with the punctuation of “kids” as though it is hard to believe that two women could be friends nearly twice as long as he has been alive.

The Story Unfolds

As Sister Joan recounted the early days of convent life, Mack began to gain an understanding beyond his own experience. His hands in constant motion belie a notion that he may be conducting a symphony as he says, “You have to remember, I’m coming from a place where I don’t know what nuns do.” His only point of reference was an image of women in black veils and long black skirts.

Sister Joan’s intimate knowledge of her friend became a humanizing experience for Mack. He learned that Sister Joan and Sister Dorothy had such obstacles as young religious women in Brazil. Sister Dorothy failed a number of times to connect to the people she was there to serve.

It wasn’t until the changes of Vatican II that allowed religious orders to modify, or in some cases, do away with, their habits that she was able to dress like the farmers in T-shirts and colorful skirts, sandals and ball caps.

The opera has taken shape from those initial conversations Mack had with Sister Joan.

The Opera Comes to Life

Mack began with the interviews with Sister Joan and the documents archived at the provincial offices, which are now part of the Sister Dorothy Stang exhibit at the Dayton International Peace Museum. He wrote the words first, told the story first, a process that was not his habitual way of producing work.

It wasn’t until he had a full understanding of Sister Dorothy that he was able to evoke the passion and emotion that was Sister Dorothy’s life. Then came the music.

From the time Mack was 13 years old, he has been prolific in his musical compositions. Usually, he will write a piece with very few changes and let it go out into the world—pieces such as Dreams of Freedom, a newly published work which includes Langston Hughes’ poems set to music.

Mack says that he has been married to this piece, though, from the beginning. He says he wants to ensure that the words in Angel of the Amazon embody Sister Dorothy’s mission.

Heroic Life

From 1966 until her death, Sister Dorothy championed the cause of peasant farmers who have been denied land for decades. She taught farmers how to preserve the land while growing food to sustain themselves. Her focus on the importance of community helped her to develop plans in each settlement to build a school, a chapel and a gathering place for adults along the Trans-Amazonian Highway.

The opera embodies Sister Dorothy’s struggle, portraying one logger in particular and the government officials charged with overseeing land grants to populate the highway.

Throughout the opera’s 90-minute journey, Sister Dorothy’s mission is clearly spelled out. Mack has focused on the last six days of her life, with flashbacks to bring the audience along, exposing the complicated nature of the struggle between the wealthy ranchers and the poor in Brazil. He shows how Sister Dorothy worked every day to empower the poor to own their right to the land. She struggled to work with the government, the local bishop, and the loggers and ranchers.

During the opera there is a flashback to 1980, to a meeting of the Pastoral Land Commission which included Dorothy, the logger Vito, government officials and the local bishop. Vito sings in a full tenor voice: “What about my rights?” Sister Dorothy pleads with the officials, “Give us 10 more years. Give us land.”

Mack says the production reflects grassroots efforts to fight to save the Amazon rain forest. He didn’t try to sell his work to a large company, but rather found a home for the opera in smaller companies that reach people who may be intimidated by the very notion of traditional opera.

The New York premiere in May 2011 was an ambitious project for Encompass New Opera Theatre, filled with the blessings of Sister Dorothy’s story. A Facebook page for the opera keeps people up-to-date on news about the Amazon as well as the production. The production can travel simply as Sister Dorothy did with little more than a bag with her Bible in it. The cast is small, the sets are simple and the chorus can draw from local communities.

Sister Dorothy’s Mission

By the 1990s Sister Dorothy had fought—with some success—malnutrition and poverty in her area. Meanwhile, though, loggers clear-cut the land for industrial-export agriculture, hiring thugs and bribing local police, threatening anyone in their way. The local farmers’ living standards became more developed. There was limited electricity, a school building and a fruit factory in the town of Boa Esperanza.

Though the local power brokers considered it a failed experiment, Boa Esperanza, which means “good hope,” was working and growing, taking up viable land and profits from loggers and ranchers. That settlement is one setting for Angel of the Amazon. Sister Dorothy was shot six times by two men on the road to Boa Esperanza. The night before she died, she had met with her wouldbe assassins, trying to reach the basic good she believed was in everyone and everything. She offered them food and kindness, trying to reason with the two men.

Mack says that the inspiration for one of the solos, “The Mountaintop,” was Sister Joan’s reflection on this question: “Why does peace provoke violence?” Sister Dorothy sings, in words drawn from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s famous speech, knowing there is a bounty on her life: “And my role in this is almost over now. And I know. But I’ve been to the mountaintop. I have seen the promised land. I have been to the mountaintop, so I don’t mind.”

Mack’s hands come together at the fingertips, as though in a form of prayer, as he describes this scene and Sister Dorothy’s struggle. That struggle is the central theme or motif of the story. While Sister Dorothy resolves herself to her possible fate, the chorus is heard in a repetitious theme of “Bring on the rain.”

Sister Dorothy Lives On

Sister Joan Krimm continues to tell the story of Sister Dorothy’s life and death in hopes that it will effect change for the people of Brazil and Esperanza Boa. She makes this observation about Sister Dorothy: “Her love of God radiated through her love of the people.” Sister Joan says that Sister Dorothy believed in the basic good of everyone, which is why she talked with the two men she knew wanted to kill her.

In the opera, Mack hopes to motivate the audience to hear the call to action in the powerful final moments of the production. Will they listen? Sister Dorothy sings as her death is reenacted once more.

Most opera companies in the United States have educational outreach programs. Thus the benefits to a company using this production are vast. There is an artistic education, exposing children and youth to the art form, and the subject matter of the piece lends itself to discussions and knowledge of a global issue, the destruction of the Amazon rain forest. Perhaps children will hear Sister Dorothy’s plea and take action.

Sister Dorothy’s story is not just an evening out to listen to some good music created long ago. Maria Tecla di Silva Gaia will continue to have a living memory of a woman who spurred her into action, and the vibrant creative force of a young man will bring to life the words and emotions of Sister Dorothy with music to which all of us can relate.

Inspired by Sister Dorothy

A YOUNG BRAZILIAN woman watches a gray-haired woman in a T-shirt and long skirt from a window deep in the Amazon. The older woman is in the forest dancing—something very odd to the young woman. Suddenly, as if she could not contain herself, the older woman hugs a tree. Then, turning toward the building where the young woman stands, she hollers, “You must hug someone every day, Tecla. And if you can’t find a person to hug, hug a tree.”

Maria Tecla di Silva Gaia is evidence of the continuation of the song of Sister Dorothy Stang. Tecla is a Brazilian who entered Sister Dorothy’s order, the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, 10 years ago. She is a joyful, earthy
presence, with a laugh as light as sunshine on the forest floor.

“She was the simplest of the simple, transparent,” Tecla says of Sister Dorothy. The bubbly sister, who is in the United States for an immersion experience, speaks in broken English, jabbing at the air as she paints a picture of her mentor.

“She was very lovable and dear.” Quickly her expression turns to a childlike sternness. But then she laughs again, saying, “Irma Dorothy [Portuguese for Sister Dorothy] was very stubborn, determined.”

Tecla, in a sweater the jeweled blue of a macaw, speaks through Sister Joan Krimm, as her English is not as good as Tecla hopes it will be someday. She grew up in Bragancia, Brazil, as one of the people Sister Dorothy served.

With a broad smile she says, “Irma Dorothy saw injustices and fought for a life of dignity for the farmers.” Tecla folds her arms in her lap as Sister Joan says that Sister Dorothy loved the people of Brazil so much that she had dual citizenship. Tecla exudes a serene joy with a voice as rhythmic as a Brazilian samba, recounting the favorite qualities of Sister Dorothy: “Her smile was her greatest asset.”

Tecla doesn’t know what opera is, but she knew Sister Dorothy and learned from her that life could be different. When she finishes the year in the United States, she will return to Brazil. There she will profess her final vows and continue her work with prostitutes.

What is it about Tecla and Sister Dorothy that provokes such passion? They both embody an enthusiasm for the people and the land that now has a musical score and words created by a young man from Albany, N.Y. He shares their passion for the Amazon and its people.


Success for Angel of the Amazon

THERE HAVE BEEN many successes with the opera since its completion in 2008. Songs from Angel of the Amazon have been performed in San Francisco, New York and other cities. The opera has received Boston Metro Opera’s Main Stage award, with full production of the piece in 2011 by the Boston Company. Encompass New Opera Theatre produced and premiered the opera in May at the Baryshnikov Center for the Arts in Midtown Manhattan.

There are plans for a tour of the NewYork production once funding is in place. Three arias (solos) were Selection Winners for the National Association of Composers in 2010.