Chasing windmills: Man of La Mancha sparks hope

Chasing windmills: Man of La Mancha sparks hope
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<p>Man of La Mancha courtesy Portland Opera</p>

Man of La Mancha courtesy Portland Opera

Ph: Cory Weaver

In times of chaos and uncertainty, the world needs dreamers, perhaps more than anything else. It seems that is likely what Miguel de Cervantes hoped to portray with his epic tale of Don Quixote (El ingenioso hidalgo don Quixote de la Mancha). Along with his faithful sidekick Sancho Panza, Don Quixote is determined to bring back chivalry and restore justice to the world. Regardless of whether his efforts are considered a success or not, a topic for serious debate in literature courses the world over, the character of Don Quixote never lacks determination and holds steadfast to his ideals no matter the personal cost. The term “quixotic” was coined, based on that character, and refers to an endeavor that is exceedingly idealistic, unrealistic, and impractical.

Miguel de Cervantes lived a life that was at times quite difficult including his capture and indenture to Barbary pirates, an active military involvement in major battles, and his excommunication during the Spanish Inquisition. Perhaps one reason the story of Don Quixote has moved so many artists to create dance, theatre, and film works based on the story is that the personal pain experienced by the author seems infused within the story, lending it an emotional quality that is inescapable.

There have been several noteworthy adaptations of the story of Don Quixote over the centuries since Cervantes wrote the book. The ballet by Ludwig Minkus and choreographed by Marius Petipa continues to enjoy a prominent place in the repertoire of dance companies world-wide. The opera Don Quichotte by Jules Massenet has also continued to be popular among opera-goers.

One of the more recent incarnations of the story is the musical theatre work Man of La Mancha, a 1964 musical with a book by Dale Wasserman, lyrics by Joe Darion, and music by Mitch Leigh. It was adapted from Wasserman's non-musical 1959 teleplay I, Don Quixote, which was in turn based on the original story by Miguel de Cervantes. The work was presented recently by the Portland Opera. In this musical theatre piece, the life of the writer and his character are juxtaposed within the work using the clever plot device of a “play within a play”; as Miguel de Cervantes sits in jail awaiting the Inquisitors he portrays the character of Don Quixote in his own play as a way to pass the time with his fellow prisoners, awaiting their horrible fate. The audience of his fellow prisoners onstage along with the audience attending the performance share in the experience of the enactment of the exploits of Don Quixote.

Not all times in history are as dark as the era of the Spanish Inquisition that Miguel de Cervantes experienced first-hand, but certainly there have been and continue to be periods of history where the world is pushed to the brink. If we can’t take a lesson from one of the best writers ever published on how to cope with these struggles, then who can we listen to?

You can choose to see a deeper meaning behind the story of Don Quixote when you see the musical Man of La Mancha. The theme song “The Impossible Dream(The Quest)” has been performed by many artists and has become popular in it’s own right, but when it is sung in the context of the musical, it carries along with it the emotion of the actors on stage, who after all have been in a prison setting for the entire performance. This may be one reason why some opera companies, like Portland Opera, have added this work to their repertory.

Reaching beyond the experience of the night of the performance of Man of La Mancha, you find yourself contemplating the meaning behind the work and your respect and admiration for Cervantes and his character Don Quixote seem to grow the more you do so. You find yourself feeling just a little hopeful, despite the news headlines, and you realize that this is exactly what you should be experiencing. You might even ask: what if more people were able to connect with the story of Don Quixote on this level and what if they were similarly moved to feel hope? Would that change the world? Who knows?

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