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Why does the opera call these educated and thoughtful Peruvian revolutionaries "terrorists"?

Distorted History in ‘Bel Canto’ from Lyric Opera of Chicago

American singer turns her back on the massacred students, professors, labor leaders who sought equality and justice for all, in the opera 'Bel Canto.' Photo:
American singer turns her back on the massacred Peruvian students, professors and labor leaders who sought equality and justice for all, in the opera ‘Bel Canto.’ Photo from PBS website

The Lyric Opera of Chicago’s 2015 world premiere of Bel Canto, by composer Jimmy López and librettist Nilo Cruz and adapted from the novel by Anne Patchett, is screening nationwide on the U.S.-based Public Broadcasting Service (PBS).

The credits list the characters called revolutionaries as “terrorists” in this opera inspired by the Peruvian “hostage crisis” or “uprising” (depending on your point of view) of 1996-97.

Why does the opera call the characters terrorists, when in real life they called themselves revolutionaries? The real Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement sought to talk to Peru’s then dictator, Alberto Fujimori, to request the release of political prisoners. A New York Times article of April 26, 1997 quoted the real-life revolutionaries as saying to their hostages, “This is the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement. Obey and nothing will happen to you.” And nothing did happen to the hostages – until some were killed by the U.S.-supported Fujimori who ordered the military to tunnel into the house where they were being kept and kill the occupants. Yet the opera shows the revolutionaries shooting a blonde white woman. This is not supported by history. Bel Canto rewrites history when it has the revolutionary leader enter the house, shoot a pistol in the air and sing, “Comply or we will kill you.” The opera distorts history from the beginning, transforming a revolutionary who created an opportunity to dialog with and educate the oppressors into a would-be murderer.

Real-life journalist and hostage Sally Bowen reported her experience. As the Times wrote, she

identified herself as a journalist, and told a guerrilla standing near her that she wanted to stay. Her request was turned down, but before she filed out with more than 200 women, she was taken to meet the commander of the operation, Nestor Cerpa Cartolini.

She and another journalist asked Mr. Cerpa what the rebels were doing there. He reached into his knapsack and pulled out a book, Companeros, Toman Nuestro Sangre (Comrades, They Take Our Blood.

“This is where it all began,” he said. The book focuses on union workers whom Mr. Cerpa had led in the takeover of a bankrupt textile factory called Cromotex in 1979. That clash had ended, inauspiciously, with a military assault that killed six workers.

Other hostages reported that

Mr. Cerpa tried to win over his captives, engaging them in philosophical conversations about the free market economy and the poor whose lot, he felt, would never improve. Though his band of rebels could not hold hundreds of people against their will over the long run, he used the first few days to expound his ideas, seemingly in an attempt to send the first captives out as favorable emissaries.

He released scores of prisoners over the next two weeks, including 225 in a “good-will gesture” shortly before Christmas. To a fearful general who had captured a comrade whose release Mr. Cerpa was now seeking, he said, “Don’t worry – we’re not killers.”

Indigenous peoples have been abused, exploited and terrorized by egocentric greedy Europeans and their descendants from Columbus’s time until today. The Peruvian revolutionaries, like almost all people in Peru, were of indigenous ancestry. They wanted to wake and educate the privileged class to stop terrorizing the populace. The name of the revolutionary movement, Tupac Amaru, honored the last indigenous monarch (1545-1572) of the Inca state. And it honors Tupac Amaru II, an indigenous revolutionary who in 1780 tried to free the indigenous people of the Andes from the cruelties and injustices of the Spanish invaders. But the Spanish tortured and killed him by tying his arms and legs to four different horses and whipping the horses to run in four different directions. As the horses pulled, Tupac Amaru said that even though they killed him, he would come back as millions. A 1991 CIA report on the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement says it had “well educated leaders…largely from the middle and upper middle classes. Members include students, professors and other intellectuals, labor leaders, lawyers and reporters.”

Why does Bel Canto call these educated and thoughtful revolutionaries “terrorists”? This question is especially stark when we consider that a recent Tony Award-winning musical celebrates the life and death of a gun-toting revolutionary, Alexander Hamilton. Why is Hamilton (whom Native Americans could consider a terrorist) celebrated in U.S. theatres as a revolutionary, but indigenous Peruvian revolutionaries are condemned as “terrorists”? Hamilton fought to form a nation on land stolen from the Native Americans. The revolutionaries of the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement were of Native American ancestry on their own ancestral land struggling for freedom from 500 years of white invasion. As one Peruvian friend of mine said, “We’re all indigenous. When you walk down the street just look at our faces. The Spanish conquerers didn’t bring any women with them.”

Here’s another difference between real life and Bel Canto. While Patchett’s novel focuses on music as the only international language shared by all the characters, in real life Spanish was a common tongue, and the revolutionaries spent their time trying to educate the leaders of the privileged class about the reality of the lives of poor indigenous people in Peru under the policies the privileged class was enacting and enforcing. The revolutionaries used guns to get the people’s attention, but did not shoot. The real terrorists were directed by the government of Peruvian President Fujimori, who sent armed police and soldiers to kill the revolutionaries.

After-performance commentary in a recent broadcast called the opera a work that celebrated inclusion and unity. Yet all but one of the multi-ethnic international cast left onstage at the end was dead, massacred by U.S.-trained-and-supported Peruvian government forces. The only survivor onstage was an American woman bathed in a beam of heavenly light as she turned her back on the carnage and alone sang that she would “walk forward, forward and ahead.” This uniquely North American definition of “inclusion and unity” is chilling, especially as the new President of the U.S. claims he will “make America great again” by building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border and force his Mexican neighbors to pay for it.

In real life Vladimiro Lenin Montesinos Torres, Fujimori’s Chief of Intelligence, was one of the most notorious graduates trained at the School of the Americas in torture techniques (paid for by U.S. tax dollars)The United States supported and worked closely with Fujimori in violently suppressing dissidents in Peru, including the massacre dramatized at the end of the opera.

But the revolutionaries’ attempts to educate the hostages did bear fruit over time. For example, the New York Times reported that former-hostage “Shigeru Taki, the president of Matsushita Electric Peru, told his family that he had read a book by Mao Zedong.” And “Rodolfo Munante, the Agriculture Minister, drew up plans for cooperatives in the coffee-growing regions of Peru, home to some of the rebels, and began teaching one young guerrilla how to draw.”

In real life, former Peruvian President Fujimori was sentenced to 25 years in jail for this, and other, massacres of revolutionaries. A member of the United Nations Human Rights Watch said, “With this ruling…the Peruvian court has shown the world that even former heads of state cannot expect to get away with serious crimes.”

About Lynette Yetter

Lynette Yetter is the author of the books "72 Money Saving Tips for the 99%" and "Lucy Plays Panpipes for Peace, a novel." Lynette is a permanent resident of Bolivia and a graduate student in the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies Program at Reed College.

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