‘Behold the Man’ Librettist’s Local Roots Run Deep
Andrew Flack’s yearly drive from Colorado to Long Beach Island usually goes like this: “The first day is exciting, the second is less exciting, the third day is really tough, and the fourth you’re just itching to get there.” Every year, he said, his dog gets better in the car. Other than that, not much changes.
But this year, Flack was a little more antsy than usual as he and his wife made the four-day trek to their summer home on the Jersey Shore. He was still coming down from the previous week’s live performance of his comic opera “Behold the Man” in Borja, Spain – on his birthday, no less. After all the excitement, he “couldn’t wait to get down (here) and just lay on the beach.”
The performance was the culmination of at least four years of work. Flack started working on “Behold the Man” with musician Paul Fowler in 2012. Flack wrote the libretto, the text of the opera, and Fowler composed the music.
“I pretty much outlined the story and outlined the characters and gave the plot direction,” said Flack. “And then Paul came up with the music to fit the words.”
Though Flack said 85 percent of what he gives Fowler is used as is, the collaboration was not just between the two artists, but took part in a larger musical conversation as well because he “is quoting from so many things, Lady Gaga, REM, Psy’s Gangnam Style.” In “Behold the Man,” these pop songs are combined with old Gregorian chants, as well as traditional operatic music and music from the Zaragoza region in Spain, where the opera takes place.
All these musical references add resonance to what is a very modern miracle based on the internet.
The opera tells the true story of Cecilia Giménez, who, in an attempt to save a forgotten and sadly deteriorated fresco of Jesus, tried her hand at its restoration, only to make matters worse. When a photo of her botched restoration went viral, tourists from around the world arrived in the tiny town of Borja, whose population is 5,000. This new tourist attraction revitalized the town’s struggling economy, a turn that the opera portrays as mysterious, if not downright miraculous.
In 2014, Flack asked in a New York Times article: “Why are people coming to see it if it is such a terrible work of art? It’s a pilgrimage of sorts, driven by the media into a phenomenon. God works in mysterious ways. Your disaster could be my miracle.”
That article estimated that since the restoration was completed in 2012, the image had attracted more than 150,000 tourists from around the world.
The Borja showing of “Behold the Man” is a continuation of the economic revitalization of the town. The show was covered by press outlets from all over the world. The New York Times pre-wrote the event the week before the Aug. 22 performance, as did The Guardian.
“After being in marketing and PR for more than 30 years, I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Flack. “There were journalists in Borja from every corner of Spain, and from all over Europe. And this little village isn’t easy to get to. For three days I did interviews morning, noon and night.”
The mayor of Borja has begun making plans for a three-city tour of a condensed version of the opera, beginning in December in Madrid and traveling on to Barcelona and Zaragoza. This is in hopes to further build interest by the Spanish government and the private sector for a full production of the opera.
With all these balls in the air professionally, Flack is ready to take a few weeks and rest on his home beaches of LBI. Though he resides full time in Colorado, Flack pointed out, “I was conceived on The Causeway. I’m LBI through and through.” In addition, Flack got his artistic chops locally. His very first introduction to theater came when he was 5 years old in 1957 in the form of a production of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs at the Surflight Garage in Beach Haven.
Flack became a working artist in 1971, when “The Beachcomber published my first poetry for $15. At one point I went into the Wizard of Odds (antiques shop in Long Beach Township). I was 20 years old, poking around. I started talking to this girl. I told her I had a poem in The Beachcomber. She said, ‘What’s your name?’ I told her, ‘Drew Flack ,’ and she said, ‘I loved those pieces.’ It was the greatest thing that had ever happened to me at that point.”
Now that Flack is an adult and a working artist, he sees some similarities between his work then and now. “Mortality was the bread and butter of those poems, and existentialism, if you want to call it that.” Today, “I’m still working toward making meaning in my life, if no one else is gonna do it.”
But Flack’s work today isn’t just comparable to the work of a younger Andrew Flack. On their cross-country drive, Flack and his family were accompanied by the CD version of the musical-pop crossover sensation “Hamilton.” Flack has been told by critics that “‘Behold the Man’ could do for light opera what ‘Hamilton’ did for musicals.”
— Tim Hone