El Niño

A Nativity Oratorio (1999)

Commissioned by Chatelet, San Francisco Symphony, Lincoln Center and the Barbican.

Dedicated to Peter Sellars

First performed in Paris in December of 2000, El Niño is a Nativity oratorio with texts drawn from English, Spanish and Latin sources ranging from the pre-Christian prophets to mid-twentieth century Hispanic women writers. The work was designed with a flexibility of presentation that would allow it to be performed either as a fully staged production or as a concert oratorio. For the European and American premieres, Peter Sellars created a version of the work that included dance and film as well as staging for the chorus and soloists.

El Niño is approximately two hours long and is divided into two parts. The solo voices are soprano, mezzo soprano, bass baritone and three countertenors. SATB chorus, a childrens’s chorus and an orchestra of approximately 45 musicians are all integrated by a sound environment designed by Mark Grey. Scores and performance materials are available from Boosey & Hawkes.

The first performance took place at the Théâtre du Chatelet on December 15, 2000. Kent Nagano conducted the Deutsches Symphonie Orchester, the London Voices, the Theater of Voices, La Maitresse de Paris and soloists Dawn Upshaw, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and Willard White.

The American premiere took place January 11, 2001 at Davies Hall, San Francisco with Kent Nagano conducting the San Francisco Symphony and San Francisco Symphony Chorus, the Piedmont Children’s Choir and the same soloists as the Paris premiere.

El Niño (“the child”) follows the traditional narrative of the annuciation to Mary, the visit to Elizabeth, the birth and adoration of Jesus, Herod’s massacre of the innocents and the flight into Egypt. But, unlike Handel’s Messiah, which in most other respects is the obvious model, Adams’s treatment of text moves freely over a long continuum of time and place. The oldest texts are the prophetic utterances of Haggai and Isaiah. The newest are by the Mexican poet and novelist Rosario Castellanos, four of whose poems stand at the pychological and emotional center of El Niño. Among the other sources are Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Gabriela Mistral, Rubén Dario, the Wakefield Mystery Play, Martin Luther’s Christmas Sermon, passages from the Gospel of Luke and several “gnostic” gospels from the Apocrypha. In the finale of Part I, Gabriela Mistral’s “The Christmas Star” is woven into a choral setting of the Latin chant, “O quam preciosa” by Hildegard von Bingen.

John Adams conducts the Cleveland Orchestra and Chorus and soloists in El Niño, November 2022

John Adams conducts the Cleveland Orchestra and Chorus and soloists in El Niño, November 2022

New production of El Niño in a staging by Lilieana Blain-Cruz, conducted by Marin Alsop.

New production at the Metropolitan Opera of El Niño in a staging by Lilieana Blain-Cruz, conducted by Marin Alsop

Metropolitan Opera, New York City, April 23, 2024 – May 17, 2024

Featured Recording

Deutsches Sinfonie-Orchester Berlin, London Voices, Kent Nagano, conductor

Dawn Upshaw, Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson, Willard White

Winner of the Diapason d’Or award, and selected “Best Recording of the Year” in the Opera and Vocal category by amazon.com and the Boston Globe.

Orchestra & Cast

Soprano, Tenor, Bass-baritone
Chorus (minimum 36 voices, lightly amplified)

  • 2 flutes (1&2=picc)
  • 2 oboes (2=Cor anglais)
  • 2 clarinets (2=bass clar)
  • 2 bassoons (2nd =contra)
  • 3 horns
  • 3 trombones
  • 2 steel string guitars
  • 1 harp
  • piano (=celesta)
  • keyboard sampler (=celesta)
  • 3 percussion (glock, almglocken, crotales, chimes, gongs)
  • strings (minimum number)
  • 14 violins
  • 6 violas
  • 6 celli
  • 4 contrabasses