Phoenix couple compose an opera about the healing power of love
Main characters Harry Baechtel as Adam, left, and Catherine Olson as Mara stand with the Black Madonna, played by Phoenix resident Shelly Cox. (This cutline has been updated online.)Photo courtesy of David Lovere

A Phoenix couple have composed an opera-oratorio set in 2010 Louisiana chronicling how a veteran and his environmental activist wife overcome twin traumas through the healing power of love.

Called "The Canticle of the Black Madonna," the opera by Ethan Gans-Morse and Tiziana DellaRovere will premiere Feb. 16 at the University of Oregon in Eugene.

Baritone Harry Baechtel plays Adam, a solider returning home from the Afghanistan war. As Adam strives to cope with post-traumatic stress disorder, his young wife, Mara, played by soprano Catherine Olson, faces her own crisis — mitigating the horrific damage done by the Gulf oil spill.

The couple's encounter with the Black Madonna — which Gans-Morse and DellaRovere say is a representation of ancient, divine love — transforms Adam and Mara and sets them on a path of healing.

The opera is "intended to take the audience through the ritual experience of the suffering of a man and a woman and the love they have for each other as an experience of divine life," says Gans-Morse, who composed the music. "The audience goes through the pain as transmutation in a vivid and visceral way — and Mara's pain is the other side of the PTSD coin."

Gans-Morse is a composer, teacher, conductor, concert pianist and founder of the Ambrosia Ensemble. His works have been performed by numerous groups throughout the Northwest.

DellaRovere, who wrote the libretto and is artistic director, is a painter and author who founded Adorata, a nonprofit organization that offers spiritual teachings and retreats.

"This project is our personal contribution to restoring balance to a society that feels increasingly out of touch with its own soldiers and with its own motivations for war," Gans-Morse says in an artistic statement.

"When civilian society refuses to accept the emotional burden of our nation's wars, when we are unable to take on the guilt and shame that results from the horrors of war, then we condemn our veterans to shoulder that burden alone."

Portrayed with equal intensity is the wife's trauma and her struggle to understand this man who has come home as a very different person, says DellaRovere, who grew up in Italy coping with her father's PTSD from World War II.

"From the woman's point of view, we see a not-so-subtle message of the need to incorporate the sacred feminine for the healing of the world," DellaRovere says. "Adam's healing comes through Mara, as she embodies the Black Madonna."

The Black Madonna refers to paintings and statues of the Virgin Mary with dark skin created in Europe during medieval times, some of which are said to have healing powers.

In Gans-Morse and DellaRovere's opera, the Black Madonna is an on-stage character who, along with a 16-member Greek chorus, sings wisdom the actors need to know. Their masks, made of engraved and gold-painted leather, are the work of DellaRovere.

The production will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 16 in Beall Hall on the UO campus. It is free and open to the public. Agnieszka Laska is stage director and Vincent Centeno is music director.

More information on the opera can be found at

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at

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