Aristides de Sousa Mendes faced a massive humanitarian crisis: It was June 1940, and the Portuguese diplomat stationed in Bordeaux, France, could not ignore nearly 120,000 refugees amassed down the road from the Portuguese consulate.
The refugees lived in squalor in a field the size of three city blocks, without access to food, shelter or sanitary facilities. They were desperate to escape the Nazi persecution rolling toward them like the darkest of storm clouds.
Portuguese dictator António de Oliveira Salazar issued a vehement directive to deny safe haven to the refugees, but Sousa Mendes still issued more than 30,000 visas in a matter of months. The story of this Portuguese Oskar Schindler and the repercussions of his defiant act of humanity are explored in the new dramatic oratorio "Circular 14: The Apotheosis of Aristides." Composed by Neely Bruce, the show has its world premiere Sunday at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles.
"You may wonder why you've never heard this story," Bruce said in an interview last week. "Because, of course, everybody knows about Schindler."
Schindler, the factory owner credited with saving the lives of more than 1,000 Jews during the Holocaust, is vastly better known despite the fact that Sousa Mendes is credited with what scholar Yehuda Bauer has called "perhaps the largest rescue action by a single individual during the Holocaust." His contribution to history hasn't received the same recognition mainly because Salazar took great pains to bury his story, Bruce says.
After Sousa Mendes' actions were discovered, his case went to the Supreme Court of Portugal, where he was essentially given a slap on the wrist. The punishment wasn't severe enough for Salazar, so the dictator had Sousa Mendes stripped of all diplomatic privileges as well as his license to practice law. When Sousa Mendes married his second wife, Andrée Cibial, the couple were not allowed to marry in Portugal. Family members found it hard to secure employment.
"The petty cruelty involved was just ridiculous," Bruce says.
Sousa Mendes died in poverty in 1954, and he was buried in a wooden box in the cemetery of Franciscan monks.
It's a beautiful yet tragic tale, filled with larger-than-life characters — all the hallmarks of great opera, Bruce says, adding that the piece has been in the works for more than five years and that he ended up writing the libretto himself.
"I wasn't writing a fairy-tale opera. I was writing an opera about real events, so I wanted to be as accurate as possible," says Bruce, who has often visited political issues in his compositions and once set the Bill of Rights to music.
One of the biggest rewards of composing the oratorio was getting to meet some of the people whom Sousa Mendes saved, an ever-widening circle of people who are discovering the truth about the source of their visa. Salvador Dalí and "Curious George" authors Hans and Margret Rey were among those rescued, but most were ordinary families.
"This is a story about political action in the face of great adversity, and about doing the right thing even if it has tragic consequences," Bruce says. "He died alone and impoverished, but he did the right thing, and he always knew it."
"Circular 14: The Apotheosis of Aristides" stars Los Angeles Opera tenor Robert MacNeil as Sousa Mendes; L.A. Opera soprano Marina Harris as his first wife, Angelina; L.A. Opera tenor Ashley Faatoalia as Salazar; New York bass-baritone Stephan Kirchgraber in the role of Rabbi Chaim Hersz Kruger, who inspired Sousa Mendes to issue as many visas as he could; and L.A. Opera soprano Katherine Giaquinto as Sousa Mendes' second wife, Cibial.
The spoken role of Sousa Mendes' brother César is played by Michel Gill from the Netflix series "House of Cards." Gill also happens to be the son and grandson of Sousa Mendes visa recipients.
Sousa Mendes was not officially vindicated for his actions until 1988, when the Portuguese parliament dismissed all charges against him and restored him to the country's diplomatic corps by a unanimous vote. Bruce says works like "Circular 14: The Apotheosis of Aristides" should strengthen his legacy and spread the word to those who have still not heard the story of selfless heroism.
'Circular 14: The Apotheosis of Aristides'
When: 3 p.m. Sunday
Where: Gindi Auditorium, American Jewish University, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Los Angeles