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A new opera at the Glimmerglass Festival shines new light on an ancient story

Holy Ground 1
Karli Cadel
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Clockwise from left: Taylor-Alexis DuPont as Gabriel, Jeremiah Tyson as Raphael, Joseph Goodale as Michael, Helen Zhibing Huang as Azraele, Jonathan Pierce Rhodes as Cherubiel and in The Glimmerglass Festival's world premiere production of the one-act opera Holy Ground by Damien Geter and Lila Palmer. Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

When Francesca Zambello, the Artistic Director of the festival, commissioned a new opera from composer Damien Geter and librettist Lila Palmer, Zambello suggested a theme. She asked for a work that might be “perfumed by faith,” according to Palmer.

Lila Palmer
Claire Newman-Williams
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Librettist Lila Palmer

“I discovered right around the same time that I was pregnant,” the librettist said. “And so I was thinking about my pregnancy, I was thinking about these themes, and I was also thinking, you know, we've just been through this very dark time. People are probably looking for something joyful.”

So Palmer and Geter decided to retell the story of the Annunciation from the bible. That’s the moment when the angel Gabriel appears to the teenaged Mary and reveals she’s going to bear the son of God.

According to Palmer, most people think they know the story inside and out. “It's like a building you walk past every day and don't see,” she said. But a lot of people haven't processed the Annunciation as a choice moment, Palmer said. “They didn't understand that Mary actually makes a choice.” In theological terms, her decision is called "Mary's Fiat."

Holy Ground 2
Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
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Jasmine Habersham as Mary

In the original biblical telling, Mary says “yes” to Gabriel. But in Palmer and Geter’s opera Holy Ground, hundreds of women classified by angels as “Messiah-suitable” have said “no.” The opera opens in a heavenly control room, where three archangels are channel surfing human souls. “It seems like a rubbish deal,” Palmer said with a laugh. “So Gabriel gets fired and a rookie angel gets promoted to archangel to have one last crack at trying to get a human woman to birth the Messiah.”

For the librettist, pointing out that a teenager could have turned down the ruler of the universe feels both funny and mind blowing. However, her lighthearted project crashed into a heavy reality this summer when the Supreme Court struck down the landmark abortion rights decision “Roe V. Wade.”

Palmer says someone made the announcement during a rehearsal. “Everything stopped, and everyone wanted to talk,” she remembered. “Everyone in the room had a different perspective on what on what it meant within the story, and what it meant for them, and for me that was actually really positive because it is not my job to tell you what to think.”

Palmer says she hopes audience members watching Holy Ground see her version of Mary as a kind of beacon. “There are lots of people that have an appreciation for beauty and the numinous and see with eyes that that really see the specific detail and sweetness of life. And I think for me, this Mary is someone who, even in a world that is full of a lot of darkness and suffering, still has the capacity to see that.”

Palmer said it made sense to her that it would be a person like that who could bring beauty back into the world.

Holy Ground, a new opera at the Glimmerglass festival, runs through August 20th.

Listen to an extended interview with librettist Lila Palmer.

Lila Palmer and Brenda Tremblay
Brittany Lesavoy
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Librettist Lila Palmer with WXXI's Brenda Tremblay, Glimmerglass Festival 2022