The Trials of Patricia Isasa, an opera by Kristin Norderval and Naomi Wallace (dir. Pauline Vaillancourt), is the story of a young human rights activist arrested by the police and held in captivity for two years, never charged, but tortured before being finally released. The premise of this narrative, based on a real story of Patricia Isasa, is bone chilling. The brutality and the perversity of the act places it at the scale of not just any incarceration. Dictatorships have existed and continue to exist all over the world. Millions of people have gone missing and/or have become victims of repressive regimes. However, every time something like this surfaces, it only reminds us that torture and excesses of the powerful/elite/governments are not a thing of the ancient past. It has little to do with systems of governance, political ideology or global politics. In the end these instruments of state control are used to ensure that the status quo is maintained and all forms of disruptive activism quelled and silenced.
The Trials of Patricia Isasa is based on the real life story of the person by the same name, who was imprisoned and tortured by the Argentinian Junta that controlled the country in the ’70s and ’80s. Isasa was 16 and among thousands of others who were either killed or just went ‘missing’. The opera recounts the story and also speaks to the horror that was all pervasive in Argentina at the time.
The opera begins with a dialogue between the younger Patricia and the now older Patricia. This was an interesting start to the story and simultaneously presents the two alternate realities of the same person’s life. Younger Patricia is tortured and still idealistic, while the older one tries to logically present opinions based on her life story. This part of the story drags a bit. It takes about 25-30 minutes for the story to really take off and get into the heart of the narrative.
Director Vaillancourt cleverly and very creatively makes impressive choices of silhouetting names of victims of the government’s excesses. This hits you like a rock and personally reminded me of my other experiences in spaces that recount history of genocide, incarceration and other acts of inhumanness.
The story progresses as we hear chants of other parents who lost their children/loved ones in these raids. The supporting choir in the background puts on headscarves as they parade with their children’s pictures, attempting to bring light to their personal loss. The human faces are penetratingly tragic and mock the very basis of humanity.
A tirade of government officials and even the judge who presided over Isasa’s detention trial take the stage and defend the ideology of autocracy and capitalism. How rounding up people and putting them in jail is in the benefit of the masses. How order must always come before any sort of social (change) upheaval. This rhetoric, though unnerving, serves to remind us how the majority is either placated or kept under the cloud of fear, to perpetuate the longevity of any autocratic government.
The chants of the choir, the people who lost their loved ones, haunt parts of the Opera. The most prominent are the actors who play Isasa and give very credible performances: Kristina Norderval (adult Patricia) and Rebecca Woodmass (younger Patricia). The image of Isasa sitting in the darkness, motionless for over 20 minutes, as the audience filed into their seats at the start of the show stayed with me.
Written by Kristin Norderval and Naomi Wallace, the piece has lucid projections of the city space where Isasa now walks, as the show concludes with a sense of hope, that 33 years after she was freed, her trauma had to come out and attempt to empower everyone who suffered like her. While the perpetrators may have been tried and punished, the fear of thousands of other Isasas continues to live in all corners of the world. Patricia Isasa was in attendance and took to the stage after the curtain fell.
I wasn’t completely convinced that the operatic form was the best format for this, for theatrics seemed to constantly overshadow the dramatic.
The Trials of Patricia Isasa played at Moument Nationale until May 21, with simultaneous sub-titles in French and Spanish.