The rape and murder of four women from the United States -- three of them nuns -- in 1980, early in an undeclared civil war in which 75,000 El Salvadorans died, might seem an unlikely source for operatic inspiration.
But when a U.S. composer heard that paramilitary squads sponsored by the Salvadoran government had massacred the three nuns and one lay woman, she vowed to transform her rage into commemoration some day.
Now, after years of research, composer, director and author Liz Swados who comes from Buffalo has resurrected the last days of the women's lives in rural El Salvador in the operatic requiem "Missionaries." The work had its New York City debut at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in last month's 15th annual Next Wave Festival.
"The murders of these churchwomen were an incredible symbol of how out-of-hand hatreds, random violence and paranoia had come to be in El Salvador," Swados told Reuters. In a war in which the United States sent more than $4 billion in military aid to El Salvador's government, massacres of peasants were common, like the one at El Mozote in which hundreds of peasants including children were killed with guns and machetes.
National Guard members threatened clergy, calling them subversives, and, just a few months before the four Americans were murdered, Roman Catholic Archbishop Oscar Romero, who read the names of murdered peasants during services, was shot to death in his church in San Salvador while celebrating Mass.
The nuns, Ita Ford, Maura Clarke and Dorothy Kazel, and lay woman Jean Donovan taught Bible studies to peasant communities. They also delivered food and clothing to shelter centers.
In early December, 1980, National Guard members stopped the women's minivan and shot them at close range. Three days after their bodies were found, U.S. President Jimmy Carter halted military aid to El Salvador, but it was resumed less than a month later.
In 1984, five members of the National Guard were convicted of the killings and sentenced to 30 years each.
Swados, a Jewish New Yorker, had an eclectic resume before tackling "Missionaries." After studying classical music at Bennington College in Vermont, she played folk guitar at coffee houses and political rallies in the late 1960s. Then she absorbed religious and world music while traveling in Africa and the Middle East.
Now she lives in New York's Greenwich Village, where a baby grand piano and tables topped with Latin American folk instruments line one wall of her loft. Her introduction to Latin American politics came when she set words by Chilean poet Pablo Neruda to music for a benefit concert following the assassination of leftist Chilean President Salvador Allende in a military coup in 1973.
Later she composed the late 1970s Broadway hit "Runaways" and several plays with Jewish themes staged at New York's Public Theater. In 1984 she began filling a notebook with details about the murders of the four women in El Salvador.
"The first step was copious reading," she said. Among other things, she read all of Romero's writings. Volumes about El Salvador and the women's published diaries and letters cram one of the bookcases lining another wall of her loft.
Swados has been writing liturgical music regularly since the mid-1980s. Latin-rhythmed folk and liturgical music weave through "Missionaries," whose barren scenery and religious rituals she based on a Central American peasant Mass.
Actors playing Archbishop Romero, the women and peasants sing bits of real letters and diaries in English and Spanish. One sings words Kazel wrote to Carter: "I really would like to know what you think of this situation, Mr. President, and whether you really realize how many innocent people we are helping to kill. How do you reconcile all of this?"
From the mid-1980s until now, Swados has talked to missionaries, relatives and Salvadoran refugees who knew the murdered women. She has also talked to other missionaries who have served in dangerous situations.
"I was interested in knowing why the women stayed at a time when there was less and less respect for clergy and the Guardia was knocking people off more and more," she said.
She said she found a generosity among her sources unlike anything she had ever experienced in writing a theatrical piece. "It's very different from what it feels like to be in cynical New York City."
Actors in the opera sing about their struggle to gain the trust of the peasants and to fight the urge among young peasants to join the guerrillas and take up arms against the Guardia. They also relate experiences of living in a war zone and describe some torture techniques.
Swados said several missionaries and Salvadoran nationals came to see the Brooklyn show. Some told her the real campesinos were more passive and less willing to rise against paramilitary troops than those in the opera, but they said her rebellious peasants were a good dramatic choice.
"Missionaries" will go next to cities with large Salvadoran populations such as Washington, Minneapolis and Los Angeles, Swados says. One day she hopes to take it to San Salvador.
"I want the women to be remembered," she said. "I feel like it's my job."