Mayan Opera ("The Weapons of the Weak")
Grand Opera (2007 / 08)
by Ron Hannah

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Duration: about 2 hours

    This is a work of conscience. Having spent several years wandering the world and seeing the poverty and injustice that is so common in the 3rd world (and caused and condoned by the 1st), I increasingly wanted to do something about it, but what? I lack medical or carpentry skills, I can teach but don't know local languages - what could I do? Then it hit me: I could write an opera on the horrific history of the Maya since the Conquest, an opera not for them but about them, aimed at the thoughtless consumers in rich countries who buy

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endlessly and don't think to question the ethics of the corporations and people who produce what they buy. It is really they, the consumers and their apathy, who are the cause of so much misery in poor countries. I want them to come to see that, and to change their habits. Pie-in-the-sky maybe, but art has been known to alter history.

    Arriving in Guatemala in late 2006 was a turning point. Ruth and I had planned to continue ever southward through Central and into South America, but when I began to learn the grotesque history of this country and especially its recent years of civil war, when I learned of the rich oligarchy here that so readily drives the people off their land and casually resorts to murder to preserve its profits, I could not just walk away. We are living in Guatemala at the time of this writing, beside beautiful Lake Atitlán, where I write every day and visit the market to enjoy the people's warmth and to weep inside at their desperation. I want the world to know their story and to weep also, and to demand better of its business and political leaders. The former are motivated by simple greed but the politicians have displayed, and continue to display, a unconscionable hypocrisy. If and when this work ever sees a performance I doubt if it will be in this country, and I doubt if I will be welcome here any longer.

    Regarding performances: this is a Grand Opera, big in its conception, dramatic, as powerful as I can make it, and requiring large forces. It will also require a large budget. If someone reading this is stirred as I am about the plight of the Maya and about the people in the rest of the 3rd world, please contact me especially if you have ideas for funding. I am an artist lacking in business and fundraising skills and resentful that I even have to consider such things. "Leave me alone and let me write!" is the attitude people like me are born with, so we must depend on the skills and conscience of others to see such projects realized. Ironic, isn't it? A work that seeks to alter fundamentally the way consumers buy and the way corporations sell will likely have to rely on business sponsorship and ticket sales to those very consumers. I find it delicious.

     If you care to download "The Weapons of the Weak" (full score of the Overture and Vocal Scores of each scene, plus the libretto), and to read in much more detail about each section, please click on the "Go" button above. In those downloads you will encounter first the world of the pre-Columbian meso-Americans, concerned for the harvest, stratified into a rigid and superstitious hierarchy, whose King is determined to ward off painful droughts by sacrificing captive enemy warriors. I do not pretend to be an archaeologist or an historian, but the research I have done suggests that this is a plausible representation of their society. The second scene has the Spanish newcomers and the Mayan king and priest discussing the arrival of the Europeans, each from his own point of view and on opposite sides of the stage. Scene 3 takes place stage centre, a Mayan wedding interrupted by the arrival of Pedro de Alvarado, conqueror of Guatemala. The chorus is the main character in the opera however, always on stage, always labouring to support the upper classes, be they the ancient patricians or the modern landowners who have cheated them out of their ancestral lands.

     The Spanish lust for gold and souls, in equal measure, created horrible conflicts. It is a complex story. The natives were treated abysmally, though not by all; churchmen tried to allay the pain, though not all of them; the Spanish government of the time responded to horrors described by Bartolomé de las Casas and others by enacting laws designed to counteract the worst abuses, but that government was far away and the laws were too easily subverted or ignored. This is the subject of Scene 4. Historically the debate between Bartolomé and Bishop Sepulveda was a major political event of the 16th century, calling into question even the Divine Right of Kings. Bartolomé won and the so-called "Black Legend" took hold - a matter of contention to this day. Later governments have bestowed benign or not so benign neglect (Act II) on the descendants of the pyramid builders - and some of those governments, especially recent ones have branded them 'communists' - people who had never heard the term, actively hunted them down, torturing and murdering them. Look up Presidents Lucas Garcia and Rios Montt, for example, the latter a "born-again" Christian whose soldiers raped and pillaged at will and who is still involved in Guatemalan politics (possibly the most hated man in Guatemala), or read the life of Rigoberta Menchú, a Mayan woman who witnessed the horror of his regime - and won the Nobel Peace Prize - but only if you have a strong stomach. As an aside, she was in the race for the presidency of this country in 2007, though she did not do well.

     Through it all, the people have kept their culture and their language(s), giving the conquerors just enough to keep them away, paying just enough tribute for example, and no more. They have used, and continue to use, the weapons of the weak - playing dumb, pretending not to comprehend, foot-dragging, "forgetting"; but they are neither stupid nor lazy. They continue to live in squalid conditions because you and I buy products unthinkingly from Chiquita or Starbucks or whoever, and we don't ask how the pickers are treated, or if they are paid enough to feed and educate their families, or if any were suffocated when the crop duster went overhead - yes, that happens. Buying "fair trade" products protects the middleman but often does not go any further. The price of your cup of coffee is nearly a day's wage here in Guatemala - did you know? If you ever come to see a performance of my opera, forever afterward your coffee must taste bitter.


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