Gone, baby, gone

Local playwright to debut opera about child trafficking in the rainforest

By Jenny Lower 09/08/2011

Cynthia Lewis Ferrell remembers the first time she glimpsed the realities of Guatemala’s allegedly corrupt international adoption system.

Ferrell had come to Guatemala City looking to improve her Spanish skills, and was spending a final night at the Marriott. Full of “brass and glass and gloved doormen,” the hotel was a popular spot for American adoptive parents picking up children — so popular that elevators noted the baby lounge on the third floor. One night while dining in the hotel restaurant, Ferrell witnessed a strange parade.

An indigenous matriarch led the way, a grim, set look in her eyes. Two confused-looking children followed. Behind walked an American couple: a man with a stroller and a woman, face glowing, holding a Mayan baby. And trailing them all, an indigenous woman, her arms empty, sobbing.

“Americans think they are rescuing children,” one of Ferrell’s guides told her, “but what they did is create an industry.”

It was September 2007, the peak of the Guatemalan adoption craze: That year alone, Americans adopted 4,726 babies from the tiny Central American country, according to statistics kept by the U.S. State Department. The U.S. has since cut back on adoptions from Guatemala, claiming it cannot verify that the country meets international standards mandated by The Hague.

The fate of Guatemala’s “kangaroo mothers” — women who deliberately conceive to give their children up for adoption, or women who sell children that may not be their own — is the subject of a new, English-language opera, El Canguro, written by Ferrell, a resident of Oak Park, and her collaborator, Peter Michael von der Nahmer.

Ferrell, an award-winning playwright with 10 years’ training in classical music, had never written an opera before tackling the project with von der Nahmer. The pair met during a class assignment at the Academy for New Musical Theatre in North Hollywood following Ferrell’s trip abroad. Since von der Nahmer, winner of the 2010 Berlin Opera Prize, lives permanently in Germany, once the class ended he and Ferrell composed most of the music via Skype.

Now their effort is being performed one night only at the AT&T Center Theatre in downtown L.A. The production will be co-sponsored by Pepperdine University and KUSC, L.A.’s public radio classical music station. Local singers from the L.A. area and graduates of Pepperdine’s opera training program will play the leads. A 20-member choir will be accompanied by live piano music and prerecorded percussion and jungle instrumentals.

The story will focus on one girl, Roo (Alison Campagna), who supports her father and younger brother by carrying babies to term for adoption. At opening, work has begun on a new septic system that will provide flush toilets. The father is overjoyed, but there’s a catch: Roo has just miscarried. The family’s survival depends on her finding a baby to sell by the end of the day.

While opera may be an acquired taste for some, Ferrell says unfamiliar audiences shouldn’t be scared. “There are significant moments of structure and rhyming sections, and beautiful melodies they’ll come out remembering,” she says.

Though the medium represents an artistic challenge for a playwright, Ferrell says opera felt like the right form to tell her story. “Opera provides the opportunity for inner monologue,” she says. Whereas contemporary theater no longer indulges in Shakespearean soliloquies, the aria — a melodic, vocal solo — offers a direct window into what a character is thinking or feeling.

“Yes, she’s been doing this to support her family, but at what cost?” Ferrell says. “And to just stand there and express it not only in poetry, but in this lyrical, free-flowing music that is shadowed by ancient sounds and modern sounds and informs who the character is — opera is perfect for this.”    

El Canguro, 7 p.m., Sept. 10, AT&T Center Theatre, 1150 S. Olive St., Los Angeles. Pre-show talkback with dramaturge. For tickets: www.elcangurotheopera.com.


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