A woman’s face: “A Thousand Splendid Suns” in Seattle

A woman’s face: “A Thousand Splendid Suns” in Seattle

John Moore as Rasheed (left) and Karin Mushegain as Mariam (right) in A Thousand Splendid Suns at the Seattle Opera. Photo: Sunny Martini.

With every world premiere, the big question arises: Will it last? Does it have the legs to shoot around the world – or even the country?

A Thousand Splendid Suns, Seattle Opera’s world premiere that opened Feb. 25 and runs through March 11 at McCaw Hall, stands a good chance of enjoying the repertoire—despite its distant 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 of world culture, of human cruelty, of human connections, of separated countries destroyed by war, of oppressed women bound by old 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 playing non-Western instruments such as tabla (bamboo), Tibetan singing bowls and bansuri (bamboo ). flute). Add to that 21 reels (11 of them solo), 30 over-counters, and vividly colored scenery designed to be rotated by humans, not engines, featuring highly detailed domestic scenes. As complex as the opera is, as much as some of the music is based on Hindustani ragas unknown to Western ears, the piece will be popular, I’m betting.

Front row, from left: Andrew Potter as Mullah, John Moore as Rasheed, Karin Mushegain as Mariam and Martin Bakari as Jalil. Background, from left: Ibidunni Ojikutu as Wife #2, Sarah Coit as Wife #3 and Sarah Mattox as Wife #1 in A Thousand Splendid Suns at Seattle Opera. Photo: Antone Patterson.

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 the Americans are no longer involved militarily. 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 the beauty of Kabul by the 17th-century Iranian poet Saib Tabrizi. It contrasts with an unsentimental narrative in a war-torn country built on Taliban principles that grind women into mountain dust. The story, which follows two women from different generations married to the same abusive husband for three decades, is far from optimistic and changes with too many characters to keep track of. But the piece follows a linear timeline from 1974 to 2001, so tracking the story isn’t a chore. Plus, it’s sung in English, with subtitles.

The main character, Mariam (mezzo Karin Mushegain), is an isolated, uneducated illegitimate girl who was married at age 15 to a 45-year-old shoemaker from Kabul named Rasheed (baritone John Moore), the story’s apparent villain. , whose voice ages well. over 30 years. After marrying against Mariam’s will, it takes him a while to start abusing. He beats her, forces her to wear a burqa (“a woman’s face is only for her husband,” he sings), and forces her to eat stones when she fails to cook his rice to his liking. She is not allowed to eat at the same table as him.

Karin Mushegain as Mariam (left), John Moore as Rasheed (center) and Maureen McKay as Laila (right) in A Thousand Splendid Suns at Opera Seattle. Photo: Sunny Martini.

Fifteen years later, the beautiful Laila (soprano Maureen McKay) is born on the street to Hakim (bass-baritone Ashraf Sewailam) and Fariba (mezzo Sarah Coit), a more liberal couple whom Rasheed has forbidden Mariam to befriend. Opera presents us as educated (her father is a teacher) and 15 years younger than Miriam.

Oppressive society prevents women from traveling without a husband or getting divorced – and it is partly on these frustrating spiritual conditions that Mariam and Laila eventually bond. In the end, however, the sacrifice is great, and within the nearly 3-hour opera, the daily state-sanctioned violence and abuse is hard to watch, even if the scenery is beautiful, the voices are beautiful and influenced by Hindustani. music is in a class of its own.

In the second act, music and drama take part. The arias, mostly Mariam’s in the first 75 minutes, are dwarfed by a very loud orchestra, and her voice falls so thin. It strengthens and the orchestra adapts as the opera continues. But in the second act, a Romeo and Juliet drama begins to unfold between Lalia, now grown to 15, and Tariq (sung lyrically by tenor Rafael Moras), who has lost a leg in riots. “Do You Remember Another Day,” a duet between the two, is simply wonderful, perhaps the highlight of the opera’s music.

Rafael Moras as Tariq (left) and Maureen McKay as Laila (right) in A Thousand Splendid Suns at the Seattle Opera. Photo: Antone Patterson.

The odds stack up in truly romantic 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 her own. Her parents are killed in an attack in the early 1990s, and Rasheed pulls Lalia from the rubble and then insists that Mariam heal her. Soon, he asks Lalia to marry him and she accepts.

The plot thickens and Mariam and Lalia, at first at odds, bond over the cruelty of their husband and Lalia’s children. Lalia now has a favorite son from Rasheed and a daughter from Tariq, who has been banished to an orphanage. Lalia is told that Tariq is dead, which is a lie, and the women try to escape. Find what? Rashid catches up with them, drags them back to his miserable house and beats them. In this mess, Tariq appears, Rashid learns of his visit and goes on another rampage. Mariam saves Laila by killing Rasheed in his rage, and then convinces Laila and Tariq to take the children and flee.

Mariam stays behind, knowing she will be executed for Rashid’s murder. And that execution scene – the last in the opera – where she is lit by a brilliant dramatic light, praying in a white robe and blue burqa, is stunning and shocking. She looks like the Virgin Mary, except that armed Taliban fighters are lined up behind her, rifles cocked. This final image exaggerates the ethos of the opera, where the women’s faces are brightly lit in most scenes against the dark and foreboding atmosphere. But the lighting decision makes its point and the image remains with us after the curtain closes. Mariam has gone knowingly and even thankfully to her death, because she saved others – a family she finally got. However, it is a tragic end to more than Western eyes.

Cast members in A Thousand Splendid Suns at the Seattle Opera. Photo: Sunny Martini.

Some stories


Based on Hosseini’s best-selling 2007 novel of the same title, the opera’s staging has a long history, if not as tortured as Afghanistan’s. Composer Silver heard A Thousand Splendid Suns on audiobook in 2009 and asked Hossein’s permission to make an opera out of the tale. He gave the 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 incorporates. By 2015, then-Seattle Opera Director Aiden Lang was interested, the opera was commissioned, and in 2018, the SO commissioned it under the new leadership of Christina Scheppelmann.

SO hired Afghan film director Roya Sada and Anderson Nunnelley to direct and Viswa Subbarraman to direct. Cultural consultants Rik A. Sadat and Humaria Ghulzai were hired, along with brilliant set designer Misha Kachman, who outfitted his sets with rotating moonlit mountain interiors. The cast of singers was assembled, combat/intimacy trainer Geoffrey Alm was hired, as well as 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 February 25. It closes on March 11. See Seattle Opera for further information and ticket prices.

John Moore as Rasheed (left), Karin Mushegain as Mariam (center) and Grace Elaine Franck-Smith as Zalmai (right) in A Thousand Splendid Suns at Opera Seattle. Photo: Sunny Martini.

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