With any world premiere, the big question arises: Will it last? Does it have the legs to get around the world – or even the country?
A thousand brilliant suns, Seattle Opera’s world premiere, which opened Feb. 25 and continues through March 11 at McCaw Hall, has a good chance of spicing up the repertoire—despite its remote cultural landscape.
Unlike recent world premieres I’ve seen-Blue, Fire shut up in my bones, and Central Park Five-this opera does not reflect American or Western culture. But it speaks to world culture, to human cruelty, to human bonds, to divided war-torn countries, to oppressed women bound by antiquated traditions.
And it’s a big production, with a plot that unfolds over 30 years. It features 150 minutes of exotic music by Seattle-born Sheila Silver with a libretto by Stephen Kitsakos, 700 props, a 57-member orchestra, including those who play non-Western instruments such as the tabla (drums), Tibetan singing bowls and bansuri (bamboo). . flute). Add to that 21 roles (11 of them soloists), 30 extras and colorful sets designed to be spun around by people, not engines, depicting highly detailed domestic scenes. As complex as the opera is, as much as some of the music is based on Hindustani ragas unfamiliar to Western ears, the play will come around, I’m guessing.
The opera reminds us that the basic human rights of Afghan women continue to be curtailed and threatened by the ruling Taliban, if Afghanistan is half a world away and Americans are no longer militarily involved. The bad times are not over, and A thousand brilliant suns opens our eyes, conscience and hearts to some of them.
The opera’s optimistic title comes from an ancient poem about Kabul’s beauty by the 17th-century Iranian poet Saib Tabrizi. It contrasts with an unsentimental narrative in a war-torn country built on Taliban principles that grinds women into the mountain dust. The story, which follows two women from different generations married to the same violent man over three decades, is far from optimistic, and it twists and turns with many characters to keep track of. But the play follows a linear timeline from 1974 to 2001, so tracking the story isn’t a chore. In addition, it is sung in English, with subtitles.
The main character, Mariam (mezzo Karin Mushegain), is an uneducated isolated illegitimate girl who was married off at 15 to a 45-year-old Kabul shoemaker named Rasheed (baritone John Moore), the story’s obvious villain whose voice ages well. over 30 years. Once he is married, against Mariam’s wishes, he spends a short time starting the abuse. He beats her, convinces her to wear a burka (“a woman’s face is only for her husband,” he sings), and forces her to eat rocks when she fails to cook his rice at his whim. She is not allowed to eat at the same table as him.
Fifteen years later, the beautiful Laila (soprano Maureen McKay) is born down the street to Hakim (bass-baritone Ashraf Sewailam) and Fariba (mezzo Sarah Coit), a more liberal couple whom Rasheed has forbidden Mariam to befriend. The opera introduces us to her as educated (her father is a teacher) and 15 years younger than Miriam.
The oppressive society prevents women from traveling without a husband or divorcing – and it is partly over these frustrating soul-obscuring conditions that Mariam and Laila finally bond. Ultimately, the sacrifice is great, and over the course of the nearly three-hour opera, the day-to-day state-sanctioned violence and abuse is hard to watch, even though the scenery is beautiful, the voices are lovely and the Hindustani-influenced music is in a class of its own.
In the second act, the music and the drama pick up. The arias, mostly Mariams in the first 75 minutes, are diminished by an overly loud orchestra, and her voice seems thin. It strengthens, and the orchestra adapts as the opera continues. But in the second act, a Romeo and Juliet drama between Lalia, now 15, and Tariq (sung lyrically by tenor Rafael Moras), who has lost a leg in the unrest, begins to play out. “Do You Remember the Other Day”, a duet between the two, is just lovely, perhaps the highlight of the opera’s music.
The difficulties pile up in true novelistic fashion. (The opera is based on Khaled Hosseini’s 2007 bestseller of the same title.) Tariq goes to Pakistan to help his parents while Lalia stays home, impregnated by Tariq, to help hers. Her parents are killed in an attack in the early 1990s, and Rasheed digs Lalia out of the rubble, then insists that Mariam nurse her back to health. Soon he demands that Lalia marry him, and she agrees.
The plot thickens, and Mariam and Lalia, initially at odds, bond over her husband’s cruelty and Lalia’s children. Lalia now has a favorite son by Rasheed and a girl by Tariq who is banished to an orphanage. Lalia is told that Tariq is dead, which is a lie, and the women try to escape. Guess what? Rasheed catches up with them, drags them back to his squalid home and beats them. In the midst of this turmoil, Tariq appears, Rasheed finds out about his visit, and becomes even more enraged. Mariam saves Laila by killing Rasheed in his rage, then convinces Laila and Tariq to take the children and flee.
Mariam stays behind, knowing she will be executed for killing Rasheed. And that execution scene—the last in the opera—in which she is illuminated by a dramatically brilliant light, praying in a white robe and blue burqa, is stunning and shocking. She looks like the Virgin Mary, except the armed Taliban fighters are lined up behind her, rifles cocked. This last image exaggerates the ethos of the opera, where women’s faces are brightly lit in most scenes against the dark, foreboding atmosphere. But the lighting decision makes its point, and the image remains with us after the curtain closes. Mariam has died knowingly and even happily because she saved the others – a family she finally got. Still, it’s a tragic end to more than Western eyes.
Some back stories
Based on the best-selling 2007 novel by Hosseini of the same title, the opera’s arrival on the stage has a long history, if not as tortured as Afghanistan’s. Composer Silver heard A thousand brilliant suns on audiobook in 2009 and asked Hosseini’s permission to make an opera from the story. He gave his OK in 2012, and she teamed up with librettist Kitsakos, a regular partner. Silver moved to Pune, India, for six months to study Hindustani music, which the opera includes. In 2015, Seattle Opera’s then director Aiden Lang was interested, the opera is work-shopped, and in 2018 SO commissioned it under the new direction of Christina Scheppelmann.
SO hired Afghanistan film director Roya Sada and Anderson Nunnelley to direct and Viswa Subbarraman to conduct. Cultural consultants Rik A. Sadat and Humaria Ghulzai were hired, along with the brilliant set designer Misha Kachman, who covered his inner spinning set with moonlit mountains. The cast of singers was assembled, combat/intimacy trainer Geoffrey Alm was engaged as were lighting designer Jen Schriever and sound designer Robertson Witmer. The national and international hunt for authentic clothing, some made from scratch, was led by Deborah Trout. Sung in English and delayed by Covid, the opera premiered on 25 February. It closes on March 11. See Seattle Opera for more information and ticket prices.