Dutch filmmaker Hans Fels first traveled to Haiti a quarter of a century ago. He heard about an opera that had never been staged. He decided to produce it. “Art and performing things are the first victims of poverty”, says Fels. “It was my ideology to prove that under the dust of poverty is talent, talent that people are never asked to perform.”
Haiti used to have a rich cultural life with very talented musicians and singers, but countless coup d’états and decades of dictatorship and military rule destroyed all that. Fels faced innumerable obstacles. When he returned to Haiti to start the production, for example, he found that the opera hadn’t even been completed. The play finally premiered last year in Haiti.
Original broadcast: October 3, 2006
Radio Netherlands Worldwide presents “Arts & Culture: Blood Wedding in Haiti”. I’m Eric Beauchemin.
Haiti became the world’s first black republic two centuries ago. It used to be the wealthiest colony in the Caribbean. Haiti also had a rich cultural life, and musicians and singers would travel there regularly from France to entertain the white colonialists and the mulatto minority. But countless coups d’état and decades of dictatorship and military rule have destroyed the nation’s economy and cultural traditions. Today, Haiti is one of the planet’s poorest and least stable countries.
Art and performing things are the first victims of poverty. It was my ideology to prove that under the dust of poverty is talent, talent that people are never asked to perform.
Hans Fels is a Dutch filmmaker and cameraman. A quarter of a century ago, he traveled to Haiti for the first time and immediately fell in love with the Caribbean nation. He kept in touch with friends there and returned once again in 2004 during the dying days of the rule of Jean-Bertrand Artistide, a former priest who had won the hearts of the poor majority. Shortly after his arrival, Aristide was overthrown in a violent coup by former soldiers.
In the midst of all that, somebody told me that he had an idea to produce an opera. I don’t know…I saw all this destruction around me, the decay of years of Aristide’s mismanagement of the country and the rebels – so-called liberators – and all these guys with guns and suddenly I thought, the idea of producing a Haitian opera so appealing and I started lobbying with the idea for about 2 years, when suddenly somebody said, yeah, yeah, good idea. EB: Who said yes? The Foundation Doen, Stichting Doen, is a foundation that gets its money from a sort of lottery that is around here in Holland. They liked the idea from the first moment that we talked about it.
When Hans was about to go back to Haiti to start the production, he discovered to his horror that the opera had not actually been completed. There were only fragments of the opera and the music, and there was no synchronisation between the libretto and the music of the opera.
I was lucky enough to meet a Dutch conductor, René Nieuwend, who was immediately interested in the project. He’s a very, very skilled musician, very talented man. He came with us to Haiti. He managed to sort of bring together all the fragments together and make this one and a half hour opera, out of the puzzle that the Haitians gave us. The music was extremely beautiful. He immediately fell in love with the music and the composer, Iphares Blain, who’s an 80-year-old Haitian composer had written beautiful music but let’s say the technical skill to produce and to make operas was lacking in Haiti. So there was a lot of musical, technical work connected to the project. EB: Was this actually the first Haitian opera every made? Yes, it was the first Haitian opera. I even think it was the first Creole opera in the world.
In Creole, the Blood Wedding is known as the Mariage of Lenglensou. One of the people selected to participate in the opera was Allan Randall Chabot-Stahls. He’s not actually Haitian, but a Canadian who has lived in Haiti for the past 30 years.
Lenglensou, it’s a mystical, voodoo, I don’t want to call it a god exactly but a presence. I guess you could say the opera has an identity anywhere in the world. In some places they would call it the Marriage of Blood, such as with Romeo and Juliet. But to make it have a Haitian flavour they adapted it and called it the Mariage of Lenglensou because Lenglensou is the power of blood. In Haitian culture there are a lot of superstitions. By tying it somewhat to these superstitions, I guess it made it very real for people to understand because even though all of the people of Haiti don’t follow or practice voodoo, they still have this little culture flavour on things. Just like in North America where people are afraid of black cats walking in front of them or they think they have seven years bad luck when they break a mirror or you walk under a ladder or you step on a crack and break your grandma’s back. In North America, we don’t believe in these things really, but it’s a part of our culture, and to do something that’s truly Haitian you have to recognise that. And so, here we were in the Mariage of Lenglensou.
It was an opera but it was also sort of put into the perspective of a whole development project. Well you can have a development project for water pumps, but you can also have a development project about how do you produce something, a piece of art, a theatre play or an opera. So the project was bigger than that, than only producing an opera. We produced a mobile stage. We engaged people from the street, people who made the décor and the big curtains that make the stage look like the Scala de Milano. We were really looking all the time for people who somehow don’t have a chance in a difficult society like Haiti to do something useless as singing an opera. So how did we find the people? We found the people also through advertisements that we put up in the street. And we had hundreds of people that came with instruments or came to sing a song. It was like a sort of Idols in Haiti and very moving people who could absolutely not play a violin or could play it on a level that was really too poor. But we also had old…for instance, this one old woman that is very much stuck to my mind that came to sing with an incredible voice a song about poverty. Work, no work, children, political problems. Of course she would not be able to read music. She was probably not able to sing the music which is difficult to sing, but it was so incredible. And afterwards I asked her what song is it that you were singing here. And she said, no, I just made it up, just told you something about my life. We really got people who would never, ever have a chance.
Well, the story is about a young man and a young lady who want to get married, and the mother of the young man is a little bit concerned because she wants the best for her son. After all, he’s a good boy. He’s a really good boy. He’s a saint christie in the church, an alter boy, and she has high aspirations for his son. She doesn’t want him to just marry anybody. And she finds out that he’s been seeing this young lady for some time, about a month and a half in fact. She confronts him about and he says, you know, she’s a beautiful lady and I really love her, and they wanted to get married, and she was really surprised. And she said, well, what’s her name? And the young man says Rose. And she says, Rose! You don’t have a Rose without thorns. And she was sort of concerned because rose is also the colour of blood and her husband had been murdered some time before. She was just really worried. She’s kind of superstitious I guess. Well, to make matters worse, one of the neighbours comes by, and she’s a bit of a gossip. And she says, well, I hear your son is getting married. Yes, he’s getting married. Well, you know who he’s getting married to. Yes, I know who he’s getting married to. Well, do you know that she used to have a boyfriend? Who was the boyfriend? Léon Félix. Who’s this Léon Félix? Well, Léon Félix’s father apparently had murdered the groom’s father. It seems that the mother and this neighbour were the only two people who really knew that end of the story. And so the mother was really, really concerned now that the old boyfriend was the son of the man who killed her husband, and she says “does blood never cease to run in my house?”
It was also a sort of indictment to poverty, that poverty reduces people to bare existence, how do I feed myself today, or how do I feed my children or how do I get to the next day? And art and performing things are the first victims of poverty. It was my ideology to prove that under the dust of poverty is talent, talent that people are never asked to perform, to show. I think that in the whole process, we engaged well, at least 110, 120 people of which 90% or 80% of these people would never have been associated a crazy project like an opera project. They started with a lot of mistrust, like everything goes wrong in Haiti. Why would you invest in an illusion? Everything’s illusion. Everything that happens illusion, and during the process, suddenly there was this switch and you could feel that everyone thought, yes, we’re going to do it.
Well, she approaches me – I’m the father of the bride – and we’re talking and she says, yeah, well I hear that your daughter has this other boyfriend I says, well, wait a minute here. Don’t believe everything you hear. Just because you hear it doesn’t make it true. And if you can’t verify it, you shouldn’t believe it. Your son is the one who brought this Léon Félix to my house. As the story goes on, the young man Badjo who is the mother’s son and my daughter Rose, get together and they have their official engagement. After that time, the former boyfriend, Léon, shows up on the scene and he asks her if she loved him. And she says, I don’t know, I don’t know. What do you mean you don’t know? She says that love isn’t like a school lesson that you can just sort of explain so-so like that. He says, yeah, but somebody who’s normal knows when they’re in love and whom they love. And she says very quickly, I love Badjo. And he says me, what about me? Didn’t you ever love me? And finally, she says, yes, I loved you.
EB: Did you at time have doubts about whether the opera was ever going to come off? My private room was really on top of the place where they were rehearsing. And in the beginning, it sounded so horrible and it was so out of tune, it seemed so far away, I could cry in my bed. My God, what did I start? This is like the box of Pandora. I opened something. Somebody in Holland believed in something and it’s never going to work. These people are never going to play in a fashion that will be acceptable. Of course, that opera was in fragments. The one who wrote the libretto was actually working on another version than Iphares Blain who was writing the opera. So we were confronted with millions of problems. But it was always such a beautiful project that even with all that difficult things that we had, and I can assure you that we had lots of difficulties, at the end of the day it was the beauty of it that kept us going, and we thought, yeah, OK, we’ll manage it one way or another.
At that point I happen to come on the scene and have been listening to a little bit of that, and I accuse them of playing in the ashes of the fire that are still hot. And you know, when you play with fire, bad things tend to happen. Well, as it turns out, bad things did happen. Léon sent some of his cronies after Badjo, and they beat him severely. And Badjo and Léon get in a fight and ultimately they both get killed. And in the end Rose finds out that they’re dead, and she ends her life. So it becomes a very, very sad sad story. So Romeo and Juliet with a bit of a twist.
I was in a plane flying to Haiti one day. There was this woman, this old woman, sitting next to me and she said, what are you doing in Haiti? Are you with MINUSTA, the United Nations? I said no, no. I’m an opera producer. She was looking at me in amazement, and she said, after about a minute, swallowing this information, she said you know, when I was a kid, in every town in Haiti, there was a symphonic orchestra. You could hear Mozart and Verdi. It was performed on the streets and on the Champs de Mars in Port-au-Prince. What happened is when Duvalier came to power, he came to power in actually the classical Haitian contradiction. All the different strata of colour, from the mulatto to the darkest. And he being a representative of – in principle – the lower class, the black people – he introduced something like noirisme, and he started playing very much on the voodoo and Africa and drums. EB: What is noirsime? Noirisme would translate in English blackness. It celebrated blackness. It celebrated blackness not for the fact that blackness should not be celebrated, but it was a political statement against the more white elite of the country, who brought another part of culture to Haiti. That noirisme killed completely any expression of classical music. It killed it in a thorough way, in a way that music houses and orchestras didn’t exist any more.
One of the opera’s musicians was Rebecca Bélance, a cellist. A friend had told her about the opera, but she was wary because she had heard that Lenglensu meant Satan. She overcame her fears and was accepted, but preparing for the opera was a long and difficult process.
We spent three months preparing, and the rehearsals were quite tiring: 5 days a week. I had to stop school, but I think it was worthwhile. It’s good to show that we Haitians are capable of doing something serious. It’s not easy to find musicians and then stage an opera in 3 months. I’m happy because it was a good experience for us.
Usually, once we got started, the audiences were awed. You could hear comments, and they would respond to us while we were singing. For instance, when I would come on the stage – I’m white – and my daughter in the programme was very, very, very dark. And you know, I would introduce myself as her father. You could hear people in the audience saying, yeah, you think she’s your daughter! You know, like your wife pulled a little trick on you. And they would respond to different ones of us, like that.
Now the whole project was that we would give the shows free and we would go to the farthest parts of the country to people who had never been served with things like that. To give you an idea of this monster, this Scala of Milano, on wheels, I brought to the seashore. There’s an island there and there’s fishermen. They live in incredible conditions and the whole day they’re trawling fishing nets and they catch hardly anything. They have not much knowledge of fishing. But we put the stage in front of them on the seashore, with the face to the sea. They were sitting in the sand and looked at the opera. To me, it’s moving, a moving image. It moved me. It’s a deeply disturbing idea that there are in this society people that we neglect, but we neglect…we think we need to feed them. But we never think we have to show them humanity. Humanity is more than food. Other villages far away, big towns also, but villages far away, we had thousands of spectators. On the Champs de Mars we had 5,000 people. In Milo, which is in front of the old palace of Roi Christophe, one of the revolutionary leaders, we had thousands of people. After the show was over they said, do you come back tomorrow?
After staging the productions all across Haiti, Hans came back to Holland with recordings to make a television documentary, but then disaster struck yet again: there was no sound.
There was a terrible technical failure. I hope it was a technical failure. We had virtually no sound of the opera. The only sound of the opera I had was a few tracks that I picked up with a microphone that is on my camera and you use as guide tracks for the real sound recording. So I had no sound. EB: So how could you make the documentary? I couldn’t. So I had to go back to Haiti. Had to find the funds to go back. Around November, December this last year, we managed to find sufficient funding for restaging the opera and recording it. We went with two cameramen and a sound recordist, we went to Haiti. There we opened the podium again and Rene Nieuwend who’s the musical director worked for a week with the musicians who were almost all there. We performed the opera and we recorded it. If I may add there was a very interesting second unexpected effect of it. Because we had to use a suitable place for performing the opera, we were offered the courtyard of the Ministry of Culture. I don’t know why, perhaps for political reasons or for other reasons, while we were performing the opera, I think the authorities were not really aware of the opera and of the enormous achievement, but this time because we were in the courtyard of the Ministry of Culture, the minister of culture was there. The French ambassador was there. Some other high-ranking people were there, and they were all flabbergasted. They all said, my God, how come we didn’t know this?
My main idea which was to show that there is an alternative idea in development aid, let’s say, that it should not only be hardware but that culture could also be sort of a healing force, I get signals that people like the idea, that people say, yeah, why not? It’s also in the air. It’s not unique in the sense that well, I started doing it, and perhaps at the moment it was unique, but I get the feeling that people are getting aware that not only water pumps are the medicine you need for the Third World. I mean, if I measure the amount of pride that the Haitians got out of the opera, out of doing it, out of being taken seriously, out of the idea that yes, it is important for you to have one hour or one and a half hours where you can really sort of let the mind go and get into an opera, it’s a way of people taking serious and not treating them only as needy persons that you need to feed or build houses for.
Look, my work – I hardly work in Holland – but I work all over the world for 30 years. I was always the one to register. I was looking at the wars and everything. I was looking at governments that fall. I was looking at droughts. I was always observing, observer. I didn’t do much. This was the first project that I really felt that I did both: I was making a film, but I was producing an opera. I was giving something to the people. I could see there was a healing power in it.
“Blood Wedding in Haiti” was produced by me, Eric Beauchemin. “Arts and Culture” is a Radio Netherlands Worldwide presentation.