Arias of True Devotion

The odd thing about “High Church Christianity” is its historical association with the needs of workers and peasants....One justification for the chanting, the incense, and the gorgeous choral music was that these things would convey a feeling of hope to the workers oppressed in dark satanic mills and mines. The popish ceremonies and music were supposed to help the common people feel like important participants in an important act. —Thomas Day, Why Catholics Can’t Sing

In one of the most striking scenes in the opera Ines de Castro, Death appears to the Spanish mistress of the Prince of Portugal in the form of a tired old woman. As the woman assures Ines that there is nothing to be afraid of, that she is her friend and Ines must come with her in the end, an offstage chorus echoes her words, giving her operatic lines a liturgical resonance. It is reminiscent of a preconciliar Catholic priest quietly intoning the Ordinary of the Mass because he is required to, while the many voices of the choir in the loft do the real work of transforming consciousness.

“I’ve always been interested in liturgy and inspired by it since I was a boy,” explains James MacMillan, the composer of the opera. “Its non-narrative aspect has influenced my liturgical music. Having said that, there is that in me which is interested in pure potential creative conflict in those two approaches to theatricality—that is, the stylized, ritualistic, non-narrative sense of theater, and a human dimension that goes underneath the artificiality, or the stylized nature, of pure liturgy.”

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Sojourners Magazine July-August 1996
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