If you go

WHAT: "El Nino"

WHEN: 7 p.m. tonight; 7:30 p.m. Mon.; 7:30 p.m. May 30

WHERE: Memminger Auditorium, 56 Beaufain St.

COST: $25+

MORE INFO: spoletousa.org, (843) 579-3100

John Adams, the Pulitzer Prize- winning American composer, found the birth of his first child a miracle. "The room of four people, he said, suddenly had five," said John La Bouchardiere, the director of a new production of Adams's "El Nino" at the Spoleto Festival. "He just thought that was miraculous in itself."

The composer had often told that story in talking about the opera-oratorio, which recounts the miraculous origins of Christ and celebrates birth in general. The new fully-staged production premieres at Memminger Auditorium on tonight.

The British director La Bouchardiere, who has also designed this production, was inspired by the imagery used by 15th century Franciscan monks to convert indigenous peoples in Latin America to Catholicism.

"This took me back to the medieval period, which may be the last time in world history when most people, certainly most Christians, still believed everything in the Bible to be literally true," he said. "After that, in the Age of Enlightenment, people started to think of things being sort of metaphorically true."

La Bouchardiere's grandfather was a priest, and the director also sang a lot of church music as a student in Oxford. "I was surrounded by religion, but, like many people, it's become less important in my life. In revisiting this story, I won't say it's made me reconnect with miracles," he said. "But it's certainly made me connect with Christianity itself and what it means to be a Christian."

Like La Bouchardiere, soprano Caitlin Lynch connected to the piece on a personal level. "I have a year-and-a-half-old boy," she said, "And, so much of this direction is about Mary's pregnancy, the nine months of bearing a child and then the intensity of delivering a baby into the world. It's just the human story of a mother giving birth," Lynch said.

"El Nino" premiered at the Chatelet Theater in Paris on December 15, 2000, directed by Peter Sellars, to whom Adams dedicated the work. Sellars and Adams worked together on the libretto, which highlights the significant voices of women and adapts works of famous Mexican poets Rosario Castellanos and Sor Juan Ines de la Cruz.

They also drew from the Bible, the New Testament Apocrypha and theatrical works, making the text a mix of Spanish, Latin and English. Adams has been known to push the limits of contemporary musical traditions. His famous works include the operas "Nixon in China" (1987) and "Death of Klinghoffer" (1991).

Joe Miller steps into his new role as festival director of choral activities this year, and he will be conducting "El Nino." He came to know the piece five years ago when he prepared the chorus for a performance at Carnegie Hall. It was he who proposed that it be performed at the festival. Miller said he is particularly interested in the colors of the music.

"It's quite unique as the orchestration centers around two guitars, a harp, a piano and an instrument called the sampler, which is a keyboard downloaded with different sounds. So there is this percussive heartbeat that drives the piece."

One of Miller's favorite moments in this eclectic piece is the closing passage with its sweet melody that he finds calming, innocent and beautiful, he said. The last movement, accompanied by extraordinary orchestration, "encapsulates the confusion of life but still keeps coming back to the purity of children," Miller said.

Angela Zonunpari is a Goldring Arts Journalist from Syracuse University.