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A botched restoration, internet memes and redemption: Fun, modern opera debuts at Wingate

by Chuck Gordon

The latest Wingate Opera production is brand new, but it might sound familiar.

The tale begins in 2012, when Cecilia Giménez unwittingly created a work of art for the internet age. The 80-year-old villager in Borja, Spain, had grown tired of the neglect shown to a painting of Jesus in her hometown church. A wide swath of chipped-off paint dominated the left side of Jesus’s face in the 1930 fresco, Ecce Homo (Behold the Man), and threatened to engulf the rest of his visage over time. Giménez, who is not a trained artist, decided that if no one else was going to restore the painting, she’d tackle the job herself.

The results were cringe-worthy. The smudged, smeared face looked nothing like the Prince of Peace. He had Chia-pet hair, a thin, straight nose, and a rust-colored neck beard. Once the unforgiving internet world got hold of photos of Giménez’s work, the meme race was on. The now-deformed head of “Monkey Christ” (or “Potato Jesus”) was photoshopped onto the Mona Lisa, The Scream, and the figures in The Last Supper. Bob Ross was depicted painting it. Townsfolk were appalled.

Andrew Flack, an American writer, got a chuckle out of the memes but felt something else as well. “My heart went out to her,” he says.

Flack got on the phone with a friend, composer Paul Fowler, and pitched an idea: The pair would write a comic opera based on Giménez’s well-meaning restoration debacle. A longtime public-relations professional, Flack had a feeling that the story would evolve into something more meaningful.

“I said, ‘I feel like there’s going to be a silver lining,’” he says.

There was, and Flack and Fowler tell about it in Behold the Man, an opera that will have its university premiere at Wingate University later this month, performed entirely by Wingate students.

Andrew Flack and Cecilia Gimenez

Librettist Andrew Flack, left, just knew that the botched restoration job performed by Cecilia Gimenez, right, would turn out OK in the end.

Behold the Man and Wingate’s opera program go together like frescoes and medieval churches. The ensemble nature of the opera provides opportunities for plenty of music students to perform. And the subject matter feels fresh and enticing.

“Here at Wingate we’re always trying to think about what will be accessible and exciting and interesting for the students to do,” says Annie Brooks, assistant professor and opera coach. “The topic, the subject matter, speaks to the students. The music is fun.”

In Behold the Man, Wingate students will perform songs with a traditional opera feel to them, but elements of hip-hop and pop are sprinkled in as well. The story is fast-paced, lively and uplifting – much more Hamilton than Madame Butterfly.

Wingate Opera will employ a diverse cast, with Safiatou Souare, an African American, and Cameryn Bost, a white student, taking turns playing the part of Cecilia. “Both singers are dynamite,” Flack says.

It will be fun for students to perform and equally as fun for the audience – especially those who are new to opera. Jessie Wright Martin, director of Wingate’s opera program, says it will serve as a good introduction for those unfamiliar with the genre.

“It’s really fun,” she says. “It’s a great bridge. The key is to get somebody hooked.”

“When young people come to see the show, they’re going to see people who look like themselves on stage,” Flack says.

Story of faith and forgiveness

Flack and Fowler started writing Behold the Man soon after hearing about the botched restoration. In 2013, Flack and his wife, Barbara Duff, flew to Spain to meet Cecilia, and they’ve gone back a few more times to visit. “The first time, I was expecting a little peasant woman, with a babushka – a real country woman,” Duff says. “But she was so elegant. … She opened up. She trusted Drew immediately.”

Flack repaid her trust. Although he invented a couple of characters (including the ghost of the original artist, Elías García Martínez), and stretched the truth in part to aid the plot, for the most part the opera stays faithful to the events as they happened. Flack wrote the opera in real time, as the story evolved: First came the mocking memes, but eventually curious tourists began finding their way to the village of 5,000 people in northeastern Spain. By the time the opera was finished, in 2014, a tourism industry had sprung up around the painting, and local officials had begun embracing the restoration rather than trying to hide it.

That was the silver lining Flack had faith was going to appear. “People sometimes think, Oh, you’re going to make fun of this poor woman who ruined the fresco,” Flack says. “Well, that’s not it at all. It’s a story about faith, and it’s about forgiveness.”

That message and the show’s tuneful melodies will appeal to Wingate music students, many of whom come from choir backgrounds and are getting their first taste of opera.

“We’re a four-year university. We don’t have graduate students. We don’t bring in ringers,” Martin says. “We look at what we have. We have really advanced singers, and we have really young singers who are totally brand new to this. We are not going to do big, grand opera. Most of our students don’t relate to that as much.”

And like a basketball team on which the players at the end of the bench regularly get meaningful minutes on the court, Behold the Man enables Martin and Brooks to share the wealth.

“I think what makes this a really good piece for our university and for our students is that the cast is an ensemble cast,” Brooks says. “All the roles are treated fairly equally in the amount of stage time that they get. It’s pretty rare that almost every single character gets at least one aria. That makes it really rewarding for the students, to think that every single role is just as valuable as the others, as Cecilia.”

Giménez may have made a dog’s breakfast out of Ecce Homo, but she’s sparked another work of art that celebrates the good in humanity. And the world gets to see it for the first time at Wingate.

Behold the Man will be performed Oct. 28-30 in McGee Theatre, part of Wingate University’s Batte Center.

Sept. 29, 2021