I can never think of the Hallelujah chorus without recalling one of the most unlikely performances it ever inspired. In 2005, Guatemala was the venue for my one and only foray across the invisible barrier from listener to performer as a true insider for Handel’s Messiah.
In the midst of a three-year tour, I was finding Guatemala a tough post. The crime took me by surprise. Every week brought news of appalling attacks against American citizens – and members of the Embassy community. In our first year, we left for a quick trip home at Christmas, only to learn our house had been burglarized. While we were away, a prison gang uprising deteriorated into scenes of decapitations and cannibalism. Our relatives were horrified and we returned with misgivings.
In the months that followed, the election campaign got ugly. General Efrain Rios Montt, perturbed by a court ruling that questioned his status as a candidate, trucked in thousands of partisans from rural communities. He unleashed the infamous “Black Thursday” in which rabble shut down the country. Mobs went after journalists with particular vengeance, making the conflict very real to us inside the embassy, as reporters and contacts called in live descriptions of the scene in the streets. One reporter was doused with gasoline, another ran from a machete-wielding crowd only to drop dead of a heart attack before reaching safety.
The elections brought a better regime, but not before the former president fled to Mexico and several of his former cabinet were arrested. Everyone was staggered by the amount of money stolen. I found myself in danger of losing my respect for the country – something I’d not faced before as a foreign service officer, even in war-torn places such as Bosnia-Herzegovina. I’d always found ways to admire and appreciate things about the places in which I served. But this time I was struggling.
I saw the ad for singers for The Messiah. I’m not much of a singer, but I can read music and hold a tune. I’m not much of a joiner, either, but something about the preposterousness of the project appealed to me. Fortunately, auditions were not a prerequisite and I was soon folded into the altos. The group, more than half Guatemalan, rehearsed for months and suddenly I had a new place to be every Sunday afternoon.
The idea originated from an expat American woman from Alabama who missed hearing the familiar oratorio at Christmas and thought it could be a way to raise money for charity. She found a kindred spirit in a music teacher from one of the international schools, and they began a collaboration that continues to this day. The production builds slowly, Sunday by Sunday, as additional musicians come in, including Guatemala’s National Symphony, and finally the international soloists.
I reveled in the language barrier. The Messiah is written in English, and there were more than a few smiles when we worked on “His Yoke is Easy,” which comes out “His Joke is Easy” when sung by Spanish-speakers. But it was the Guatemalans turn to gloat when the choir had to learn to roll the r in “Prince of Peace.”
We gave two performances. The first was in the overwhelmingly large National Theater, built during Guatemala’s long civil war and still bereft of a resident company. Mounting a program there must include the costs of cleaning and supplying toilet paper and soap for the restrooms, a down-to-earth reality I had never considered. In the midst of the rainy season, the weather was terrible, but an undeterred crowd stood for hours waiting to purchase tickets. Like middle-schoolers, we kept peeking through holes in the huge velvet curtains in disbelief as people kept flowing in an hour after we were to have begun. We actually filled the hall.
The second performance, in gleaming contrast, was at a five star hotel in Antigua. The altar-stage glittered with masses of fairyland votive candles. A posh venue, it lacked the warm connection with the audience we experienced the first night, but the colonial ruins made a romantic, if very un-Handel-like setting.
Anyone who has ever done any kind of theater can anticipate the end of this story. Through the magic of a live performance, I reconnected with the country. I met dozens of decent and talented Guatemalans from all walks of life, united by a love of choral music and the chance to do something really, really big. The soloists sang brilliantly, the audience was bowled over, and after many curtain calls, abrazos, and tears, it was all over.
The criminal violence and political corruption were not over, of course. And they continue to plague a country that deserves better. But sometimes it is important to give music its due. Even, or perhaps especially, in the most unlikely places, it can bring people together like nothing else can.