New comic opera celebrates Spanish woman’s botched Jesus restoration

An opera celebrating the story of an octogenarian artist whose attempt to restore a fresco of Christ went disastrously wrong has had its US workshop premier in Arizona.

New comic opera celebrates Spanish woman's botched Jesus restoration
The poster for the opera. Photo: Paul Fowler

A full version of the opera was performed with an orchestra and full cast for the first time last week at the Arizona State University (ASU) ahead of what will be the World Premiere in Zaragoza in 2019.

The collaboration between librettist Andrew Flack and composer Paul Fowler has been five-and-a-half years in the making  and has the full backing of the now 86-year-old Cecilia Gimenez and the mayor in Borja.

It tells the story of how Giménez became an accidental celebrity in her home of Borja, near Zaragoza in August, 2014 and changed the fortunes of a town once crippled by the economic crisis.

The orginal work by Elias Garcia had deterioated before the botched restoration Photo: AFP

Her bodged restoration of an image of Christ with a crown of thorns became the butt of a million jokes on social media and has put the town firmly on the map, attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors to the view it.

Originally called Ecce Homo – Behold the Man – the image quickly won the sobriquet “Ecce Mono” – Behold the Monkey – and was reproduced on T-shirts, souvenir mugs and wine labels.

Described as a tragicomedy, the opera delves into the tale of how a devout woman with her good intentions and amateur brushstrokes transformed the mural from the serene original by Elías García Martínez into something resembling a hairy monkey with a smudge for a mouth.

The work explores how the 'Monkey Jesus' became an overnight internet sensation and how Giménez, initially, vilified and ridiculed, was transformed into the saviour of the town

Flack and Fowler teamed up with Brian DeMaris, director of the opera/musical theatre program at ASU to run the workshop which culminated in two live performances of “Behold the Man”.

Watch the trailer for the opera:

“The primary focus (goal) of the experience was to allow Paul and me to hear the opera for the first time with a full orchestra. Up to this point, we’d heard the material only in concert settings, with singers and piano,” explained Flack.

A concert in the town of Borja in 2016 was one of three such experiences.

“Well, with the orchestra it was a revelation! A total and utter success thanks to 16 incredible musicians (drawn from the local professional ranks, along with a few graduate students) a cast of nine principal singers (mostly grad students and ASU alums) and a chorus of 12 (mostly current undergrads),” said a proud Flack.

The finale performed at ASU. Photo: Andrew Flack

“The week itself was like a kind of “opera boot camp.” Sixteen hour days of setting up and rehearsing. The singers had a total of ten days of rehearsal, and the orchestra four days to put it all together. And they did. How, I don’t know, given that we’re talking about 2+ hours of music…but they did, and beautifully so, too.”

The team hopes to take the opera to New York but will stage a World Premiere in Zaragoza next year to which they hope Giménez will be able to attend.

“She is doing well for 87, living comfortably in Borja within the city's retirement community,” said Flack, who has travelled to Spain on numerous occasions while developing the opera to get to know the artist herself.

“She is such a lovely woman and is delighted with the opera,” he told The Local.

The artist Cecila Giménez and the writer Andrew Flack in Borja in 2017. Photo: Andrew Flack.


Paul Gauguin’s ‘Mata Mua’ returns to Spain

One of French painter Paul Gauguin's most famous paintings, "Mata Mua", will return to a Madrid museum on Monday following an agreement between the Spanish government and its owner, who took it out of the country.

mata mua madrid
Toward the end of his life, Gauguin spent ten years in French Polynesia, where he completed some of his most famous artwork Painting: Paul Gaugin

The artwork had been on display for two decades at Madrid’s Thyssen-Bornemisza museum but in 2020 when the institution closed because of the pandemic, the painting’s owner Carmen Thyssen moved it to Andorra where she currently lives.

Her decision to take “Mata Mua” to the microstate sandwiched between Spain and France raised fears she would remove other works from her collection which are on display at the museum.

“It is expected that the painting will arrive today,” a spokeswoman for the museum told AFP.


In 1989, Baron Thyssen-Bornemisza bought Mata Mua at the Sotheby’s auction in New York. Painting: Paul Gauguin

The artwork will go back on display to the public “a few days after” Thyssen signs a new agreement with the Spanish state for the lease of her collection, she added. The deal is expected to be signed on Wednesday.

Painted in 1892 in vivid, flat colours, “Mata Mua” depicts two women, one playing the flute and the other listening, set against a lush Tahitian landscape.

It is one of the stars of Thyssen’s collection of several hundred paintings which are on show at the museum, including works by Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Claude Monet.

Her collection had initially been displayed at the Madrid museum as part of a free loan agreement signed in February 2002 that was subsequently extended.

But in August 2021 Spain’s culture ministry announced it had reached an agreement with Thyssen to rent the collection from her for 15 years for €97.5 million ($111.5 million), with “preferential acquisition rights on all or part” of the works. The collection includes a Degas, a Hopper and a Monet.

Aside from housing her collection of works, the museum displays the collection of her late husband, Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza, the Swiss heir to a powerful industrial lineage who died in Spain in 2002.

The Spanish state bought his collection in 1993 from $350 million, according to the museum.