Composer channels his insight into opera about Jesus's life

By Emily Langer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 18, 2010

Composer Marcos Galvany has spent more time than most men in a nunnery.

Nearly blinded in one eye by a playground injury when he was 5, Galvany traveled to Barcelona, in his native Spain, for treatment during his childhood summers, staying at the convent where his aunt was a nun.

There he discovered the music and stories that would inspire "Oh My Son," his operatic work about the Nativity and Passion of Jesus that premieres next month at New York City's Carnegie Hall. Highlights will be performed Sunday at Our Lady of Victory Catholic Church, with proceeds to benefit a parish and school in Haiti.

As Galvany tells it, he didn't find music -- music found him during his summers at the convent, where his aunt forbade him to touch the nuns' piano.

"So the first thing I did was go play" the instrument, Galvany said in an interview at his Northwest apartment.

Galvany hadn't had any formal music lessons but he said he immediately felt at home in front of the keyboard. The modest upright was tucked away in a corner of the convent, so far away that the nuns didn't know that Galvany, whose vision steadily returned, was teaching himself to play. He experimented with the piano, sometimes for as long as six hours a day, and began composing music. It was his secret, he said.

Today, Galvany plays a nine-foot Steinway, which made a grand entrance into his apartment: The delivery crew used a crane to hoist it onto his balcony.

Galvany can play Chopin on command, but there are no piles of dog-eared sheet music stacked around his piano. The music that matters most to him at this moment is in his head -- and in the scores tucked away in his suitcase, ready for the next rehearsal in New York. For the past two or three years, Galvany said, he has dedicated himself completely to "Oh My Son."

Galvany said he thinks of each aria as a snapshot in the life of Jesus, a story that attracts him as much for the human drama as for its theological meaning. Describing himself as spiritual rather than religious, he said that to compose the work, he had to "become" Mary, Jesus, Mary Magdalene, Pontius Pilate and the other characters.

"I don't think I have ever cried more" than when working on "Oh My Son," he said, especially when writing about Mary as a mother who has lost her son, Jesus. "These are scared people having to deal with life."

Soprano Meghan McCall of Silver Spring sings the part of Mary Magdalene, a role she said she loves because of the character's deeply human struggles.

"Everybody has felt alone and hurt," she said. "Everyone has felt that kind of self-loss. I can believe that everybody finds some way to deal with it -- a friend, a family member, just as Mary Magdalene met Jesus."

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