Religious experience

Olgalydia Urbano, full of grace, in a scene from El Teatro Campesino’s <i>La Virgen del Tepeyac</i>.

Olgalydia Urbano, full of grace, in a scene from El Teatro Campesino’s La Virgen del Tepeyac.

What do people want when they attend live performances at Christmastime? Depending on whether you attend a holiday play or a holiday concert, you may arrive at entirely different conclusions.

Groups that put on holiday concerts largely embrace music that acknowledges the biblical origins of Christmas and the centuries-old traditions that go with it. Theater companies, on the other hand, are skittish about anything overtly religious. They gravitate toward multicultural themes, all too often in a bland way.

The contrast is quite, quite stark. Think of Chanticleer, the 12-voice, all-male vocal ensemble from San Francisco. Year after year, it puts on one of the best Christmas concerts around. And what are the selections the audience loves, which return to the program year after year?

There’s the very catchy 16th-century Spanish carol “Ríu, Ríu Chíu.” (The words, translated, include “A virgin unstained by our first father’s fault … The newly born child is our mighty monarch.”) How about British composer John Tavener’s “Village Wedding,” written in 1992? (“O Isaiah, dance with joy, for the virgin is with child.”) And, above all, Franz Biebl’s soaring “Ave Maria,” written in 1964 and made famous by Chanticleer’s 1990 recording. Someone in the audience always is clutching a hanky and mopping up tears by the end of the piece.

Chanticleer always has been, first and foremost, a classy musical group, but it’s also a longtime favorite of the Bay Area gay community. Various members of the group have acknowledged male partners in their bios throughout the years. Although it’s true that much of organized Christianity is at best conflicted (and at worst judgmental and hostile) when it comes to gay relationships, that has never kept Chanticleer from excelling at unabashedly religion-based music. The group has recorded four Christmas discs, as well as some Mexican baroque music and Gregorian chants, and its newest release: a gospel CD.

I vividly recall sitting next to Chanticleer founder Louis Botto at one of the group’s Christmas concerts, a few weeks before Botto died of AIDS. The expressions that crossed his face as he listened, silently and intently, to the group singing ancient carols—the really old ones that present Christmas as a mysterious, powerful, life-changing event—were incredibly intense.

And then there’s that oratorio known the world over, George Frideric Handel’s Messiah: “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given.” Never mind that the first performance was given at Easter (not Christmas) and that a rather large portion of the libretto deals with the Resurrection. Messiah was established long ago as a certified Christmas tradition, and it’s way too late to change. And people love Messiah, whether they’re Christian or not, in the same way that people all over the world snapped up trancelike recordings of the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the Pakistani-born singer in the Sufi tradition.

In theater, it’s a different world. There’s the big theatrical standard, A Christmas Carol. It’s undeniably a Christian allegory, drawing first on Old Testament prophecy and judgment and later on New Testament forgiveness. But did you ever notice that Dickens used the word “church” only once in his original tale? Run a word search on the online version if you don’t believe me. (Scrooge, after he changes his ways, is said to go to church.)

What about other local shows? The B Street Theatre’s current play, And to All a Good Night, does feature a pastor, but he’s a swell-headed sort whose overreaching provides comic fodder. Foothill Theatre’s luminous adaptation of Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales brims with pastoral family customs. River Stage’s Stories and Songs for the Holidays featured storytelling in the Jewish, African and Welsh traditions (Dylan Thomas again). The only religious allusion was a Latino rapper retelling the story of the three wise men.

My own feeling is that the theater folks are missing out on something. For 33 years, El Teatro Campesino has staged an alternating rotation of Mexican Christmas pageants at the San Juan Bautista Mission in the Monterey Bay area: La Pastorela: A Shepherd’s Tale and La Virgen del Tepeyac (based on the four apparitions of Our Lady of Guadalupe to the messenger Juan Diego in 1531). Both shows feature extravagant angels and devils, cute children, wise old folks, music and processionals. The atmosphere in the mission makes it an even better experience. Everyone, from Latinos with jobs in agribusiness to the Volvo-driving Anglo set from Palo Alto, loves both productions. My hunch is that a show in this tradition likewise would thrive in Sacramento, which has a large Latino population that presently doesn’t see a lot of live theater.

Maybe next year.