Opera Profile: ‘El Niño,’ John Adams’ Nativity Opera

By Gillian Reinhard

Though more famous for works such as “Doctor Atomic” and “Nixon in China,” John Adams also composed the memorable Christmas-themed opera, “El Niño” or “The Baby,” which tells the story of the birth of Jesus Christmas. The opera-oratorio premiered on December 15, 2000 in Paris and has been performed many times since as holiday entertainment. The first performance featured soloists Dawn Upshaw, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, and Willard White as well as the Theatre of Voices, the London Voices, and the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, with Kent Nagano in the pit. “El Niño” first premiered in the United States at the San Francisco Opera and a broadcast has been released on BBC Television.

Librettist and director Peter Sellars created a semi-staged production for the initial run of “El Niño” in Paris which included elements of both dance and film woven into the opera. Today, “El Niño” is performed as a staged opera or a concert oratorio. Many companies have applied their own take on the work. Recently, “El Niño” was performed with the Spoleto Festival USA using puppets instead of dancers.

Short Plot Summary

The music tells the near universally-known story of the nativity and birth of Jesus Christ. In crafting the story, Sellars worked in both English and Spanish and utilized a variety of sources including the King James Bible, the Wakefield Mystery Plays, sermons from Martin Luther, and gnostic gospels. Spanish-language poems by prominent Latin American writers such as Rosario Castellanos, Gabriela Mistral, and Vicente Huidobro also play a crucial role in the libretto. “El Niño” features original poetry written by both Peter Sellars and John Adams.

These varied literary works cover major events in the Christian faith, including the life of Joseph and Mary, the nativity, King Herod’s persecution of Jesus, and the early life of Christ.

Famous Musical Numbers

The music of “El Niño” combines the traditional elements of Baroque and Classical oratorios with Adams’ minimalist and post-minimalist style. The work is scored for soprano, mezzo-soprano, and baritone soloists, a countertenor trio, a choir, a children’s chorus, and a full orchestra. The musical number “Magnificat” prominently features the soprano voice, while “La Annunciacion” features the mezzo-soprano. The countertenors can be heard in the piece titled “A Palm Tree,” while the “Finale” and “I Sing of a Maiden” represent the entire choir and orchestra.


The finale to the first part of the work, as performed by the original cast

John Adams discusses “El Niño” with the London Symphony Orchestra.

A performance by soprano Julia Bullock as performed at the Met Museum.


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