IC Alumnus Pens Comic Opera

By Sherrie Negrea, May 7, 2019
“Behold the Man” pokes fun at the art restoration attempt that went very wrong… and then went viral.

Paul Fowler ’01 thought the story had all the elements of a comic opera — a botched restoration of a fresco of Jesus that went viral on the Internet and ended up resurrecting the sagging economy of a village in Spain.

Seven years after an elderly woman’s attempt to repaint a church fresco became an Internet sensation, the opera based on the incident, “Behold the Man,” will be featured at Frontiers, a series of new works presented by the Fort Worth Opera from May 8 to 9. The two-hour work takes its title from the original image in the altered fresco, known as “Ecce Homo.”

Fowler, who composed the music for the two-hour work, says he hopes the performance of a staged reading by a professional opera company will lead to what he and his librettist, Andrew Flack, have been working toward — a full-scale production of “Behold the Man.”

“This is the professional opera world that’s actually showcasing our piece,” says Fowler, who studied composition at Ithaca College and now lives in Boulder, Colorado. “That is the next step, for sure.”

Headshot of man

Paul Fowler ’01 composed the music for “Behold the Man.”

Fowler first heard of Cecelia Giménez, the widow who tried to restore the crumbling fresco in her local church in Borja, Spain, when Flack, a friend and playwright, called him after reading an article about it in The Washington Post. After earning a master’s degree in composition at the University of Michigan, Fowler had toured as a pianist in a jazz band with Flack and had once told him: “If you ever have an idea for an opera, let me know.”

That idea emerged when the story about the ruined fresco broke in August 2012. The image of the butchered restoration, compared to a monkey and a hedgehog in The New York Times, was soon parodied on social media and plastered on a Campbell’s soup can, the “Mona Lisa,” and the face of Marilyn Monroe.

“It’s a story about the Internet that has a lot of ties into our emotional lives,” Fowler says. “We have Christian iconography, we have the good intentions of an older woman just trying to make her place of worship more appealing, and we have the world deciding what’s right for this entire town. It has all those really fascinating dynamics that make for good theater.”

Fowler, who spent five years writing the score, says the music parallels the range of musical styles on the Internet, from Gregorian chant to Spanish pop tunes. “Because of the Internet, we can listen to music that’s 700 years old or seven minutes old,” he says. “I wanted my pallet to be as diverse as that.”

The opera was first performed in two staged readings in 2014 and 2015 in Boulder, where Fowler had been teaching music at Naropa University. Then in 2016, it was staged at Arizona State University, under the direction of Brian DeMaris ’02, artistic director of music theatre and opera at the university.

After nearly two weeks of rehearsals, a cast of graduate students presented the opera to an audience of about 80 people, who offered feedback on the piece. “I think they loved it,” says DeMaris, the former director of opera and musical theater at Ithaca College. “It’s highly entertaining. You get wrapped up in this poignant story but there are moments when the social media takes over, and people are laughing and it has a beautiful finale.”

DeMaris notes that the production at Arizona State featured three IC alumni: Ariana Warren ’16, Eric Flyte ’14, and Miriam Schildkret ’12.

One benefit of the staged readings is receiving comments from the audience, which can lead to revisions in the score. As part of the presentation by the Fort Worth Opera, a jury panel will offer composers and librettists feedback to help them strengthen their pieces.

“We’re nowhere near done,” Fowler says. “The experience is still in the making — bringing it to the audience and getting to have that feedback loop.”

DeMaris, who has conducted opera companies across the country, predicts that "Behold the Man" will achieve a full production once it is performed more. “I think audiences will really gravitate toward it,” he says. “It’s a beautiful commentary on art and life.”