By Meaghan Morin
The performance of Las Madres de la Plaza, an opera created by Elizabethtown College professor of English, John Rohrkemper, and Music professor, James Haines, is based on a series of historical events and was performed as part of the college’s Women and Gender Studies program of events on the topic of “Women, Men and War.”
The opera is based on the events that occurred during the 1970s and 80s in Argentina. In order to understand the basis of the opera, a brief history lesson is necessary.
Juan Peron came to power in Argentina in 1946 and brought radical change to the country. Peron was removed from power in 1955 only to return from exile in 1973. After his death in 1974, his third wife, Isabel Peron, took over presidential responsibilities only to be removed by a military coup in 1976. The military, under General Jorge Rafael Videla, ruled Argentina until 1983.
It is during the military rule that this opera takes place. The performance revolves around the stories of several young individuals, who because of their occupations, education, or activism involvement, were kidnapped, tortured and often murdered. These individuals became known as Los Desaparecidos, or the disappeared.
The title of the opera, Las Madres de la Plaza, earns its name from the group of mothers from all social classes, who took the central plaza in Buenos Aires wearing white scarves, demanding answers and justice for their disappeared children. These mothers marched the Plaza de Mayo on a daily basis and to this day, still march around the plaza once a week to remember the disappeared children.
Rohrkemper was first moved by these mothers in the 1970s after seeing the efforts of the mothers on TV and in newspapers. In 2005, he was reminded of the mothers once again, and was inspired to begin writing the play. Haines and Rohrkemper collaborated to write a musical plan for the play, eventually turning it into an opera.
The principle cast and members of the Disappeared Chorus were comprised of Elizabethtown College students, faculty, and professionals from outside the college.
As the opera begins, the audience is introduced to each character as they tell their story, in song, of how they were kidnapped. Their stories are emotional and you feel as though you are there with them as these events are taking place. Scenery and props in the opera are minimal, but it works because it is the stories of the characters and the emotion that you are supposed to focus.
The opera was a success in many ways, particularly in that audience members were able to emotionally connect and sympathize with the characters. As each character told their story of being kidnapped, imprisoned, tortured, and with some, murdered, you can’t help but having an overwhelming sense of sorrow for each of them.
What makes the emotional appeal even greater is that these are not just actors playing a part in a fictional story. These horrendous acts actually took place and each one of the individuals portrayed in the opera is a son, daughter, mother or father, each with a family concerned with their whereabouts and well-being.
The realistic aspect of the opera can also be found within the songs themselves. The sung texts of the General and Cleric are direct translations of public announcements made by the Argentinean military and church officials.
Las Madres de la Plaza, was made possible by a Collaborative Interdisciplinary Scholarship Program (CISP) grant given by the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at Elizabethtown College which offers financial support for interdisciplinary scholarship projects undertaken at Elizabethtown College.