John Adams, one of America’s most celebrated living composers, conceived his oratorio/opera, El Niño, as a highly personal work. His way – he is not religious – of seeking to understand what is meant by a miracle. 

It is to Adams’s credit that his intellectual curiosity compelled him to explore territory about which he was highly sceptical. He is best known for “current affairs” operas, such as Dr. Atomic about the Manhattan Project and the Death of Klinghoffer, about the American tourist shot, killed, and thrown overboard from the cruise ship Achille Lauro by members of the Palestinian Liberation Front in 1985.  

As he took his bow at the end of the opening night in Manhattan it seemed absurd that the Met had taken a quarter of a century to get around to premiering an opera written for the millennium. (It has not staged an Adams work for “a decade long hiatus” entirely of its own making.) A Christmas opera in April was also weird, but, what the hell? An Adams opus would not put bums on the Met’s Christmas season seats. Even this premiere was scantily attended. 

Almost as absurd was the fact that, for Marin Alsop, the American conductor famous worldwide for her vivid interpretations of the modern musical canon and ability to make “difficult” scores accessible to audiences, this was her Met debut. 

Talk about prophets not being recognised in their own country. Alsop has conducted the last night of the UK’s BBC Proms three times – 2013, 2015, and last summer. With a glittering international career and a discography as long as your arm featuring, I’m proud to say, a Royal Scottish National Orchestra Naxos recording of the complete orchestral works of American composer, Samuel Barber in 2010, the native New Yorker seemed to have returned to her natural home.

student of Leonard Bernstein, Maestro Marin was cheered to the gilded rafters at the Lincoln Center. Having brought Alsop to the podium with such acclaim, here’s hoping for a swift return. As for Adams, one of the Met’s 2024/25 highlights will be his conducting his own Antony and Cleopatra, which premiered in San Francisco in 2022, next May. That’s more like it.

El Niño. No, this opera is not a fashionable rant about climate change. The Niño is the boychild, Christ. The narrative is the familiar Nativity story, inspired by Handel’s Messiah, but not strictly canonical. Adams artfully adds less well-known elements of folk tradition and Latin American poetry, building twenty-four tableaux, each with its own musical style. 

Beginning with the Annunciation to Mary, the opera ends with the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt, after Herod’s slaughter of the innocents.

Ever fascinated by the read across from ancient stories to modern times, Adams explores the mystery of birth and all its pains. The section, Memorial de Tlatelolco references the 1968 repression of student protest in Mexico City that resulted in an estimated 400 deaths ten days before the opening ceremony of that year’s summer Olympics. Think also, Tiananmen Square.

The world premiere was at Théâtre du Châtelet, in 2000. There is a live recording available, featuring the late, great Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, American mezzo soprano, Dawn Upshaw, American soprano – they sing the two Virgin Marys – and Willard White, Jamaican bass-baritone,performing Joseph and the unnamed Mexican President of the 60’s, Gustavo Díaz Ordez.

Peter Sellars, the startled-hair enfant terrible directeur and long-time Adams collaborator, wrote the libretto. The intention was to re-create something like a medieval mystery play for the modern era, so references to Hildegard of Bingen and Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral – Lordy, another weather allusion – who wrote The Christmas Star. Essentially, El Niño is an Adams/Sellars goody bag of all things nativity. 

The elephant has sidled into the room, raised its trunk and demands to trumpet its views. Is this Lileana Blain-Cruz-directed fully staged version of El Niño, with set designer Adam Rigg – both Met debuts – any good? Sadly, it is a bling-dominated disappointment. 

Blain-Cruz may well be an acclaimed theatrical producer, and Rigg is well known for compelling theatre and opera, but together they conspired to deliver a visually colourful and permanently frenetic performance, but completely at odds with the intense gravitas of the subject. 

My neighbour at the interval said: “What’s this? It’s as demonic as Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. She was spot on. I wish I’d thought of the allusion. I told her I would give her an anonymous credit. 

Here is a roll call of the bizarre, in no particular order of priority. Gabriel was straight out of Flash Gordon. Curtain up. Mary’s virtue is praised by the Angel Gabriel, represented by three counter tenors. They first descended, Busby Berkeley-like, unsteadily from the flies, clad in shimmering silver with spiky headgear nicked from the Statue of Liberty. 

Pink and purple neon wings followed them down, the sort of tasteless garish get-up that might light a Coney Island hot dog stand. Had to undo their own wire harnesses. 

Putting it mildly, they lacked gravitas, and when they told an angry Joseph, “Listen, it’s ok that Mary’s pregnant. It was only the Holy Ghost”, one could have forgiven Joseph for clocking them. 

The opera features two Marys, representing the biblical and the present day. Blain-Cruz interpreted them as the Mary of the Land and Mary of the Sea. That allowed storms, waves and trendy climate chaos to be conjured up, with dramatically choreographed boats spilling migrants overboard. 

My elephant’s gripe is that the real focus of the opera, the plight of the two women at its centre, was hazed by all the extraneous activity. Much of the libretto focuses on the pain, the sheer grind, of giving birth. Broken bones and all. 

Wild choreography, with hugely talented gyrating dancers making repeated incomprehensible hand gestures, salvos of shooting stars in the backdrop, no fewer than nine puppeteers bringing dragons, snakes, even an avian dinosaur, into the flight to Egypt, took us ever closer to the precipice of pantomime.

While virtue signalling the purpose was to make this an “opera for our times”, the production team destroyed the harrowing bleakness of the Châtelet premiere. Not even the tragedy of Tlatelolco punched the gut. The dictator was a medal-festooned bufoon and the killings too choreographed to shock. This was a moment when rowing back on the colourful stage pallete would have been wise.

Choral passages play a pivotal role and the Met chorus guided by Donald Palumbo shone, as always. Choruses find Adams “difficult” as sustained, repeated musical lines – the Adams hallmark – are often interrupted unpredictably by only subtle changes. “Does that shift down a semitone come in bar 156, or 158”? Nightmare. Try counting that in your head while singing and acting.  

But as usual the chorus rose to the challenge and delivered as sharply as they would any more easily sign-posted piece by Verdi, Mozart, or Puccini. 

Palumbo steps down at the end of this season after seventeen years. It has been announced that German conductor Tilman Michael, highly rated chorus master of Frankfurt Opera for ten years, will assume the role. 

Julia Bullock sang the soprano Mary in a Met debut. I reviewed her Dutch National Opera performance in DownloadMichael van der Aa’s dystopian take on euthanasia, in 2022. She delivered a powerful performance. As did mezzo, J’Nai Bridges, the second Mary and a Met familiar. American baritone Davóne Tines – another debut – has a warm voice that filled the auditorium, even from backstage. He was a forceful multi-tasking Joseph and Mexican dictator when the puppets did not crowd him out. 

Despite the Teletubbies aerial festooned headgear, Key’mon W. Murrah, Simon Chung and Eric Jurenas, were together a vocally convincing Gabriel. 

The opera ends with a poem by Rosario Castellanos, the central voice of the piece. Una palmera, tells of his first miracle when Christ caused a palm tree to bend and deliver its fruit to his thirsting mother. 

Oddly, the palm tree didn’t budge, but a lot of turquoise tinsel fell to the stage. Fruit? Didn’t look like it. A bendy palm tree – basically a stick with a hinge, and a few “Eat Me” dates would not have bust the budget.

A children’s chorus assembles front of stage as the music dies, the curtain falls ever so slowly and, with a sense of wonder the rest of production lacked, the final word, “poem” is heard. At last, the elephant approved.

And another thing!

I didn’t know there was an Amazon Orchestra, or a Google Orchestra, nor that an organisation, After Arts, founded in New York by Nicholas King, managing director at Fort Point Capital, had assembled a community of over 700 professionals “in business, law, finance, healthcare, and technology” to perform a huge range of works, classical and modern.

I know now. Because on Thursday 24 April my jaw dropped increasingly at Carnegie Hall’s Zenkel auditorium as works by Brahms, Bruch, Castérède, Kapustin, Fariot (traditional Chinese), Dvořák, Ravel and Bach were performed by ensembles of musicians whose careers ranged from founders of fintechs to leading oncologists at Memorial Sloane Kettering.

Performances were faultless and often quirky. I particularly enjoyed Rachmaninoff’s piano pieces for six hands. From keyboard seeming chaos sprang wonderful melody. Six competitive hands stretching across each other for the notes, one piano, three stools. Amazing. A page-turner risking his life.

The point of After Arts is that many talented people in business and the professions need to be “fulfilled artistically, intellectually, and socially”. In this screen addicted age, King and his colleagues are certainly boldly going against the flow. 

Why was I there? Because the New York fixer, soprano Kathleen Norchi, had twisted the Reaction arm. 

The Mannes School of Music, Boston Conservatory, Wexford Festival Opera Factory and Opera for Peace singer – Is that all? Bloody hell. No, it isn’t – Equinix Senior Customer Advocacy Specialist (day job), sang a Jerome Kern, Andrea Morricone and António Carlos Jobim jazz set as handily as she throws off a Mozart aria.

The Fariot piece, traditional Chinese, was Mo Li Hua, a premiere, played on a Guzheng by Jasmine Yiyi Chen, a Global HR Business Partner at Marsh McLennan. Check out the Guzheng. Best short explanation is a sort of zither, but much more complex. Fabulous waterfall sound. 

Many amateur musical groups bring together professional talent. Think The Doctors’ Orchestra which performed in Cadogan Hall last month for Freedom from Torture, conducted by my longstanding friend, Dr. Stephen Brearley. 

Talent in music is often a precursor to other skill sets. This was After Arts’ dazzling spring showcase. What’s next? The Trump/Biden Waltz for four fists runs main stage until November 24. 

Write to us with your comments to be considered for publication at