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‘Monkey Christ’ opera makes a hero of woman who botched Spanish fresco

Eleven years after a simple act of devotion in a remote church in north-east Spain unleashed a media storm, spawned countless memes and created an unlikely tourist phenomenon, the trials and triumphs of the amateur artist behind the “Monkey Christ” restoration are being celebrated in an opera that premieres this week in Las Vegas.

Cecilia Giménez, now almost 93, achieved unwanted global fame in the summer of 2012 after attempting to restore a small fresco of the scourged and thorn-crowned Christ in the Santuario de Misericordia near her home town of Borja.

A composite of the Ecce Homo fresco of Christ before, left, and after the restoration, right. Photograph: AP

Her incomplete efforts to save the Ecce Homo (Behold the man) painting – which had been painted on one of the church’s inner walls by the artist Elías García Martínez nine decades earlier – met with local, national and international derision. As well as being attacked as “the worst restoration in history”, Giménez’s handiwork soon acquired the less than flattering nickname of “Monkey Christ” because of its vaguely simian aspect.

The incident immediately caught the sympathetic eye of Andrew Flack, a US public relations expert.

Cecilia Giménez and Andrew Flack at the church in Borja
Cecilia Giménez and Andrew Flack at the church in Borja. Photograph: Enrique Lafuente

“When I saw her face in the newspaper, I just thought, ‘Oh my goodness! She didn’t mean to do this’,” Flack said. “I saw her distress and I saw her innocence. This is a woman of the community. She’d lived in this town her whole life – she was married in that church, her children were christened in that church – so she would never do anything that was hurtful. But she did this and it was a good deed gone wrong.”

Fascinated and determined to help, Flack opted for an unusual show of solidarity. One possible way to help Giménez, he reasoned, would be by turning events across the Atlantic into the comic opera that his friend Paul Fowler, a composer, had been itching to write for years. Flack also sensed the story might yet conclude happily for the artist and her home town.

He was not wrong. After a few very difficult months, during which Giménez’s mind and body were ravaged by stress and misery, things started to change. Local frustrations evaporated once it became clear that the devout woman had only been trying to preserve the fresco and had not been able to finish the job.

Then the tourists started showing up. Between August and December 2012, more than 45,000 people visited the sanctuary, which now has an exhibition centre and gift shop where images of Giménez’s restoration appear on everything from pens, mugs and T-shirts to teddy bears and mouse mats. Today, Giménez is feted as Borja’s most famous and beloved resident – and as the person who put the little Aragonese town on the international map.

“She was really taken to task by her neighbours and they were quite mean to her, but I could see all this turning around,” said Flack. “And darn if it didn’t happen. What really finally grabbed me was her forgiveness: she, as a woman of faith and as a Christian woman, forgave her neighbours and everyone for being so mean. For me, it’s her forgiveness that is so beautiful.”

A painting in Borja celebrating her restoration shows Gímenez at work
A painting in Borja celebrating her restoration shows Gímenez at work. Photograph: Sam Jones/NY Today News

Within six months, Flack and Fowler had the bones of what would become Behold the Man. A mix of fact and fantasy, the modern comic opera charts the suffering and triumph of Giménez – and the rebirth of Borja as a tourist destination – while also managing to examine the power of social media and to find room for both the anxious ghost of García Martínez and the spectre of the economic crisis from which the indignados movement emerged. Its music is a similarly eclectic mix of classical, Spanish folk, Gregorian chant, K-pop – in a nod to all the Gangnam style memes – and the odd power ballad. There are also shades of Henry Purcell, REM, and Radiohead.

Work continued on the opera, which has English and Spanish versions, after Flack travelled to Borja to meet Giménez and her family and received their permission to dramatise the events of 2012.

A woman and a man sit on a bench on a stage looking shellshocked.
Mother and son consider the implications of a good deed gone terribly wrong in Flack’s Monkey Christ opera. William McCullough as ‘Marcos’ and Kimberly Gratland James as ‘Cecilia’. Photograph: Ashley Stone

Now, seven years after some of the opera’s songs were first performed for an audience of 700 people in Borja – and two years after a student production at Wingate University in North Carolina – Behold the Man will get its world premiere in a performance by Opera Las Vegas at the College of Southern Nevada on Saturday 30 September and Monday 1 October.

Giménez, who survived Covid but has dementia, will not make it to the opening night. But her niece Marisa Ibáñez is flying to Las Vegas with her husband to represent the family.

The opera has its world premiere in Las Vegas
The opera has its world premiere in Las Vegas Photograph: Opera Las Vegas

“It’s going to be an expensive trip, but we knew we needed to make the effort,” said Ibáñez. “I’m very excited to be seeing it and about all the amazing publicity it’s bringing to Borja.”

Flack and Fowler hope that despite the dramatic licence taken, the audience will appreciate “the real story” of what happened to Giménez.

“We’re not making fun of her; she isn’t the brunt of our jokes – she’s the hero whose patience and faith and belief and gentleness win the day,” said Flack. “Because that’s Cecilia.”

A singer on stage
Songs from the opera being performed in Borja in 2016. Photograph: Enrique Lafuente

The restoration, he added, served to show the unexpected fruits that adversity can sometimes yield: “That was just the impetus to show people what can be done if there’s kindness and gentleness and understanding of human nature. It’s the aftermath of what happened, and her example, that is the important part of the story.”

Giménez’s illness, in a rare mercy, has rewritten her memories of all she endured at the time. “The only good thing about the dementia is that she only remembers the good part of what happened,” said her niece. “She doesn’t remember the bad bits at all and she’s turned it into a beautiful story. She’s not suffering – and she had such an awful, awful time.”

These days, she said, her aunt was delighted by what her paintbrushes had inadvertently achieved, and by the outpouring of love she can still sense.

“I think people’s affection for her is the motor that keeps her going,” said Ibáñez.

“She’s just a good person. You can look up lots of adjectives to describe her but I think the one that describes her best is ‘good’. It’s a word that’s used so lightly that we don’t realise what it means.”

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