“Myths are public dreams, dreams are private myths….Myth must be kept alive. The people who can keep it alive are the artists of one kind or another.”
– Joseph Campbell
#Art saved my life #Art healed my heart #Art healed my soul
The hashtags are coming in from around the country, flooding social media. Who’s making these bold declarations? Combat war veterans, their families, as well as performers such as Grammy award winning soprano Pamela South – those people who are associated with, and transformed by the radically new opera, The Canticle of the Black Madonna.
The Canticle of the Black Madonna is a truly unique opera that seamlessly combines elements of contemporary opera, classical oratorio, Jungian psychodrama, and Greek ritual theater to provide a powerful portrayal of how Post Traumatic Stress impacts the combat veteran and their families, and to provide a path toward healing the souls of those wounded by war. The Canticle of the Black Madonna is one of the finest examples of Visionary art in opera form. Its national début is September 5th in Portland, Oregon.
The opera contains all the elements we call Visionary as defined here at the VFA. Visionary Fiction (VF) aspires to evolve and transform the consciousness of the reader. VF is universal in scope, and embraces spiritual and esoteric wisdom, often from ancient sources, to make it relevant for our modern life. These gems of wisdom are brought forth in story form in a way that readers can experience it from within themselves. While there is a strong premise, it in no way proselytizes or preaches.
In our continued efforts to explore the Visionary theme in other forms of art, (most recently, see Margaret Duarte’s VFA article or Jodine Turner’s VFA article), we will explore how the Canticle of the Black Madonna demonstrates the relevant components of the Visionary perspective.
Opera as a Visionary Art Form
The opera provides an environment for healing through music, poetry, and rituals that catalyze the restoration of the human soul. The word Canticle means sacred song. As told through Tiziana DellaRovere’s beautiful and poetic libretto, the story takes place in modern Louisiana at the time of the 2010 oil spill. Adam, a war veteran suffering from PTSD, returns home from Afghanistan to his young wife, Mara. The narrative unfolds through the dramatic tension created by Adam’s symptoms of PTSD, the destruction of the environment from the oil spill, the shock and confusion of Mara, and the mystical realm of the Black Madonna.
Adam is faced with the challenges and scars of modern warfare, but his struggles are those of all men – coming to terms with himself as a husband, father, son, provider, and guardian, while reclaiming his shattered sense of his own innate goodness. His wife Mara, struggles similarly with contemporary issues of ecological destruction, her husband’s war traumas, and the tension between supporting her husband and protecting herself from his violent outbursts that threaten her very life. Mara serves as a universal depiction of the challenges that women face as the archetypal sustainers of life.
As these elements collide with each other in a seemingly destructive way, their redemption is found through the love and the grace-filled compassion of the Black Madonna. The Black Madonna represents the Divine Feminine, a compassionate aspect of the Divine who suffers with and within humanity, with us in the trenches of our pain. At the same time, Her divine love contains the resolution of all conflicts through the soothing embrace of Her infinite wisdom and love. This healing embrace is more than a literary, religious, or psychological metaphor. It is a living, tangible connection with a vibrant life-force that each person carries within. Many of us, during our darkest nights, discover a sense of inner grace, a mysterious force that saints and mystics have explored, which we can only express through art and poetry. This ineffable divine presence ultimately holds the key to true, lasting healing, and the revitalization of the human soul.
Artists know that these ineffable parts of our existence are profoundly real and crucially important to our happiness and the health of our society. It reconnects us with ourselves, restores our wounded self-image, and reaffirms our passion and belonging to the world.
“Art forms can have an effect on real world problems.”
When librettist Tiziana DellaRovere was asked why she wrote this story – and the opera’s composer Ethan Gans-Morse was posed with the same question – their answer was that they intended their opera to be a vehicle for raising awareness. Awareness of the suffering experienced by vets with PTSD and their families, how society has marginalized them; as well as the impact of the Gulf oil spoil on our planet and ecology. But most importantly, they wish to raise our consciousness about the power of love, and its potent role in healing and transforming even the most debilitating pain. It is their hope that the Canticle of the Black Madonna will be a unique, restorative event for all those who experience it. And they also hope to promote an understanding that art forms can have an effect on real world problems.
Ethan says opera “… creates a window directly into the inner world of a character. Music, almost by definition, expresses what words cannot. THAT is the narrative strength of opera. Opera cannot compete with film for narrating events, or with literature of narrating thoughts or philosophies, but for expressing the emotional and psychological world inside a human being, opera is unbeatable.”
“Healing is the leap out of suffering and the leap into myth.”
Tiziana and Ethan consider the arts to be one of the most powerful ways to create vivid, human experiences, and to bring about tangible, lasting healing and transformation, because the arts circumvent our conscious, linear minds and speak directly to the collective archetypes that motivate us. The go on to say that when you watch a movie about a hero, whether it is a fictional character such as Luke Skywalker, a mythical figure such as Hercules, or a historical person such as Ghandi, the sense of excitement, inspiration, and power that such an experience evokes within you is more than entertainment. It is the activation of that warrior archetype within you, the call to act for the greater good of humanity, even at the greatest expenses of hardship, failure, pain, and overwhelming obstacles.
The renowned scholar Joseph Campbell established that in their healthiest forms, these archetypes motivate our greatest acts of human strength, creativity, and compassion. However, these archetypes can become wounded, neglected, and distorted, forming an immense collective wound. In the case of modern warfare, we seem to be enthralled with an ancient heroic archetype that can no longer be achieved through the mechanized, scorched-earth wars we suffer from today. Today, modern war is fought thousands of miles away from home, employs tens of thousands of soldiers over massive theaters of combat, and relies on high-tech weapons that are often operated over long distances to kill soldiers, civilians, and the local ecology with equal disinterest. And when combat veterans return home, the war returns with them.
The opera’s primal archetypal characters of the Black Madonna and two angels give voice to, and embody, the spiritual archetypes of compassion that can be profoundly healing to the psyche and the soul. The presence of the Black Madonna, a representation of the timeless realms of the sacred in the midst of a contemporary story, creates a juxtaposition between the seen and the unseen, the modern and the ancient, and the inner world of dreams and the deep psyche, and the outer world of everyday mundane life.
Most of us are spared the life-shattering traumas experienced by survivors of war, but we all share a deep and often repressed craving for this Universal Mother to inhabit us in the midst of our pain and guilt, in order to restore our sense of goodness and our sense of belonging to a larger, all-loving family of humanity. While psychology has much to offer PTSD survivors, the opera’s premise is that it is the living experience of the Black Madonna’s love that enables PTSD survivors to feel whole again. The Canticle of the Black Madonna offers the viewer a tangible experience, through the characters, of this universal healing balm.
Tiziana and Ethan feel that the role of the artist, like the protective role of the archetypal warrior, has become lost and confused over the centuries. Only the arts, the musician, the storyteller, the painter, the sculptor, and today, the filmmaker, can speak directly to and from the wounded collective archetypes of our modern world in a way that realigns us as one family, connected both in victory and tragedy, interdependent upon each other and our natural world, and deserving of honor for the contributions each one of us offers.
Experiencing Visionary Opera
I attended one of the opera’s many pre-premiere programs featuring talks by war veterans and their families. Did it raise my awareness? I was profoundly moved, to the point of tears, by the testimonials of the veterans suffering with PTSD who have been changed forever by experiencing this opera. I’ve also watched a preview of the opera. It gave me a heart-wrenching glimpse into the world of human suffering from PTSD through the eyes of the characters Adam and Mara. I felt their experience poignantly deepened through the powerful accompanying music. I witnessed the torment of PTSD, and its redemption through the mysterious power of love. What better demonstration of the purpose of Visionary art forms than this?
I have been quoted as saying that Visionary Fiction speaks the language of the soul, and that it offers a vision of humanity as we dream it could be. This exquisite opera certainly spoke to my soul. Hopefully the opera will catalyze a shift in awareness for a better understanding of PTSD, and create a strong advocacy to change the injustice of how veterans with PTSD are treated in our society. We are all part of the solution to this tragedy.
Most importantly, may this opera raise our consciousness to embrace the healing power of love accessible through the primal divine force of the Black Madonna. We can also hope for one other transformation as the result of experiencing the opera. Perhaps we can envision the end to all war and make it a thing of the past. That would be my vision of humanity as I dream it could be.
More than an Opera:
“The Canticle of the Black Madonna opened my heart and brought new healing to me, 44 years after I returned from Vietnam. This is a gift that should be shared with the world.”
~ Bill Ritch, combat veteran, Silver Star recipient, former West Point instructor.
“You honor me, and my brothers and sisters in arms, with this opera. Please know that
as a combat veteran, I am truly and deeply touched that you have undertaken such an elusive and misunderstood issue as combat-related PTSD in America today. I am
thankful to you all for what you do, and I know my fallen friends would be as well.”
~Miah Washburn, 1SG, U.S. Army Infantry
“The Canticle of the Black Madonna is that very special kind of art that genuinely helps people who have fallen into desperate isolation. It grabs you and says, ‘You’re not alone; you’re not misunderstood a after all; there’s still hope.’ ‑ This is the kind of art that saved my life.”
~Sean Davis, former SFC, Army Infantry
Much of the content of this post is from the website of the Canticle of the Black Madonna, the content created by librettist Tiziana DellaRovere, and musical composer Ethan Gans-Morse. http://canticleoftheblackmadonna.com/