A Thousand Splendid Suns Opera Review

Seattle Opera has done just that with its recent world premiere of "A Thousand Splendid Suns."
A Thousand Splendid Suns Opera Review

Opera has been a beloved art form for centuries, with its grandeur, drama, and emotional power captivating audiences around the world. But as much as audiences love the classics, an opera company's highest calling is to commission new work—to contribute to the history of opera and leave a legacy for future generations. Seattle Opera has done just that with its recent world premiere of "A Thousand Splendid Suns."

The opera, which opened on February 25th at Seattle's McCaw Hall and runs until March 11th, is based on Khaled Hosseini's 2007 novel of the same name, a multigenerational saga that tells the story of three women living in war-torn, Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. The music was composed by Sheila Silver, a Seattle-born alumna of the University of Washington, and the libretto was written by Stephen Kitsakos.

Seattle Opera's commitment to commissioning new works is commendable, as it helps to ensure that opera remains a vibrant and evolving art form. By telling stories that reflect our contemporary world, opera can continue to speak to audiences in meaningful ways. "A Thousand Splendid Suns" is a perfect example of this, as it tackles important issues such as gender inequality, political turmoil, and the power of human resilience.

The opera's creators have done an excellent job of capturing the spirit of Hosseini's novel, which is widely regarded as a modern classic. Silver's music is both beautiful and haunting, with soaring melodies that perfectly capture the emotional highs and lows of the story. Kitsakos' libretto is also a triumph, skillfully condensing the novel's complex narrative into a cohesive and powerful libretto.

In addition to its artistic merit, "A Thousand Splendid Suns" is also significant in terms of representation. As an opera that tells the story of women in a Muslim country, it is an important addition to the repertoire, which has historically been dominated by works that center on male protagonists. By showcasing the voices and experiences of women from a different cultural context, "A Thousand Splendid Suns" adds important diversity to the world of opera.

Seattle Opera's commitment to commissioning new work is a model for other companies to follow. By investing in new voices and telling new stories, opera can remain relevant and vital in the 21st century. "A Thousand Splendid Suns" is a testament to the power of new work, and it is sure to leave a lasting impact on audiences and the history of opera alike.

The Story

Seattle Opera’s world premiere of “The Scarlet Letter” composer David DiChiera’s “Suns of the Empire” is a mixed bag of artistic choices that at times work together in harmony and at other times clash.

The opera, with a libretto by Royce Vavrek adapted from the novel “A Thousand Splendid Suns” by Khaled Hosseini, tells the story of two women, Mariam and Laila, and their experiences living in Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion and Taliban regime.

The music, composed by Sheila Silver, is colorful and absorbing, but sometimes fails to carry or propel the story. The use of Hindustani music, with bamboo flutes and tabla drums, adds to the score’s beauty and authenticity.

The cast is solid vocally, with Rafael Moras as Tariq earning the loudest ovation. However, some of the artistic choices made by the production team feel problematic, such as the reliance on a turntable for scene changes, and the naturalistic acting style conflicting with Silver’s text setting, which asks singers to repeat lines.

The cutesy thread that runs through the piece also works against its gravity, with scenes of skirt-twirling and skipping during the teen years of Mariam and Laila feeling out of place in a story so grim in outline.

Overall, “Suns of the Empire” is a good effort, with some standout moments, but it also falls into the trap of relying on operatic tropes that feel conventional and somewhat overused. Kitsakos’ priority in adapting the novel seems to be locating and extracting operatic hooks, rather than crafting a tight narrative. Nonetheless, it is worth watching for the excellent performances of the cast and the beauty of Silver’s music.

Opera has a long and storied history, but as an art form, it is not immune to criticism and scrutiny. In recent years, many operas have come under fire for their use of outdated and offensive tropes. Among the latest works to face such scrutiny is "Suns," a contemporary opera that has been accused of repurposing a number of problematic tropes.

"Suns," which premiered at the Seattle Opera, has been marketed as a modern, feminist take on the traditional opera. But critics have pointed out that the work draws heavily on tropes that have been criticized in other operas. These include the use of the "madwoman in the attic" trope, which portrays women as hysterical and irrational, and the use of the "fatal woman" trope, which portrays women as dangerous and destructive.

It's important to note that the use of these tropes is not inherently problematic. Many classic operas use these and other tropes to great effect. However, the issue arises when these tropes are used without any critical reflection or examination. In the case of "Suns," critics have argued that the opera fails to engage with these tropes in a meaningful way, instead simply recycling them for contemporary audiences.

This raises important questions about the role of opera in contemporary culture. Should operas be held to the same standards as other works of art, or should they be given a pass because of their historical significance? Is it possible to update classic operas without perpetuating harmful tropes and stereotypes?

These are complex questions with no easy answers. However, it's clear that opera, like all art forms, must evolve to remain relevant and meaningful to contemporary audiences. This means confronting and challenging the tropes and stereotypes that have been perpetuated in the past, rather than simply replicating them.

In the case of "Suns," it's clear that the Seattle Opera intended to create a work that was both modern and feminist. However, the use of problematic tropes has overshadowed these intentions, leading to questions about the opera's true message and meaning. Moving forward, it will be important for opera companies and artists to consider these issues when creating new works, and to engage in critical reflection and examination of the tropes they use.

In conclusion, the controversy surrounding "Suns" highlights the need for opera to evolve and engage with contemporary issues and audiences. While it's important to respect the art form's history and tradition, it's equally important to challenge and critique the tropes and stereotypes that have been perpetuated in the past. By doing so, opera can remain a vital and relevant art form for generations to come.

Among all the tropes “Suns” unabashedly repurposes, many have recently drawn criticism in standard-repertory works, which left me with a lot of questions—especially considering that Seattle Opera’s promotional materials took pains to point up the opera’s contemporary relevance and feminist bona fides:

Why is depicting the abuse of women to push melodramatically the audience’s buttons considered problematic in “Tosca” or “Madame Butterfly,” but not here?

Why are the Orientalisms of “Lakmé” or “Aida” or, again, “Butterfly” considered cultural appropriation, but not here?

And why is a woman’s death, rationalized and glorified as a redemptive noble sacrifice, considered misogynist in “Tannhäuser” or “The Flying Dutchman,” but not here?

The straightforward naturalism of the production’s costumes, sets, and acting and the vivid local color on stage and in the orchestra, all presumably intended to heighten the story’s emotional impact, instead distanced it from us viewers. The meticulous way Seattle Opera’s staging confines the action to a very particular time and place implies that the horrific brew of pathological misogyny, religious fundamentalism and totalitarianism that wrings such tragedy on the opera’s characters is a problem only in Afghanistan.

Contemporary Relevance: The Responsibility of Staging “Suns”

The power of art lies in its ability to reflect the human experience, to evoke emotions and provoke thoughts. However, this power comes with a great responsibility, especially when it comes to telling stories of marginalized communities, cultures, and nations. Such stories have the potential to perpetuate harmful stereotypes, to exoticize, and to other the people they represent. This is precisely the issue at the heart of the recent production of “The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs” opera, as well as many other works of art that claim to shed light on non-Western cultures and their struggles.

In this context, the staging of “Suns,” a three-hour-long opera that tells the story of an Afghan family living under the Taliban regime, raises serious questions about its contemporary relevance. On the one hand, it is a compelling and poignant tale of resilience, hope, and survival, a tribute to the strength and courage of Afghan women. On the other hand, it risks perpetuating stereotypes and reinforcing Orientalist tropes that exoticize and dehumanize the Afghan people, reducing them to one-dimensional characters.

The danger of staging “Suns” lies in the way it treats its subject matter. The opera relies heavily on realism, portraying the Taliban as one-dimensional villains, brutal and ruthless, while the Afghan family members are portrayed as helpless victims. This binary portrayal reinforces the narrative of “us vs. them,” of the enlightened West against the savage East. By framing the story in this way, the opera risks turning the Afghan people into passive objects of Western sympathy and ignores their agency, resilience, and resistance.

Furthermore, the way the opera frames the story leaves no room for allegorical interpretation or subtext. It is a straightforward, literal portrayal of the Afghan experience, devoid of any universal or timeless message. This approach risks limiting the relevance of the story to a specific time and place, and to a specific audience that may not see the connection between the Afghan experience and their own. This narrow interpretation of the story ignores the fact that the issues raised in the opera, such as misogyny, oppression, and violence, are not exclusive to Afghanistan, but are prevalent in many societies, including the West.

Another problem with the opera is the way it encourages the audience to feel morally superior to the story being told. By portraying the Taliban as brutal savages, the opera risks letting the audience off the hook, absolving them of any responsibility for the similar atrocities committed in the West. This approach is not only hypocritical but also harmful, as it reinforces the narrative of Western superiority and ignores the complexity of the issues at hand.

To avoid these pitfalls, any production of “Suns” needs to be approached and presented in a way that acknowledges the complexity of the issues raised in the story. The opera needs to resist the temptation to rely on stereotypes and to exoticize the Afghan people. Instead, it needs to highlight the agency, resilience, and resistance of Afghan women and to challenge the Western narrative of superiority.

Moreover, the opera needs to be framed in a way that allows for allegorical interpretation and subtext. It needs to be relevant not only to the Afghan experience but also to the universal human experience of oppression, violence, and resistance. By doing so, the opera can transcend the boundaries of time, place, and culture, and become a powerful statement on the human condition.

In conclusion, the staging of “Suns” raises serious questions about the responsibility of art in telling the stories of marginalized communities. While the opera is a worthy piece, its approach needs to be rethought to avoid perpetuating harmful stereotypes and reinforcing the narrative of Western superiority. By acknowledging the complexity of the issues at hand, highlighting the agency and resilience of Afghan women, and

Contemporary Relevance

In today's world, where globalization has brought countries and cultures closer than ever before, it is important to approach art and media with a critical eye towards their representation of diversity and inclusion. This is particularly important in the performing arts, where stories and narratives are brought to life on stage through the interpretation of actors, directors, and designers. The power of theater to create empathy and understanding cannot be overstated, but it is equally important to consider the potential harm that can be caused when stories are told in ways that perpetuate harmful stereotypes and tropes.

The article above discusses the opera "Suns of the Prophet" and its problematic representation of Afghan culture and people. While the opera may have been intended to highlight the strength and resilience of Afghan women, it ultimately fell short in its execution, perpetuating harmful tropes and allowing the predominantly white audience to feel superior to the story being told. This is a clear example of the importance of considering the contemporary relevance of a work of art and the impact it may have on the audience.

It is not enough to simply tell diverse stories. The approach to telling these stories must also be carefully considered to ensure that they are told in a way that does not perpetuate harmful stereotypes or contribute to othering. This is particularly important in a world where racism, xenophobia, and other forms of discrimination are still prevalent. Art has the power to both perpetuate harmful narratives and challenge them, and it is up to artists, producers, and audiences to approach it with a critical eye towards its impact on society.

In addition to the importance of considering the contemporary relevance of a work of art, it is also important to ensure that diverse voices are represented in the creation and production of that art. This means not only hiring diverse actors, but also ensuring that writers, directors, and designers from diverse backgrounds are given a seat at the table. This will not only lead to more authentic and nuanced representations of diverse experiences, but it will also help to break down the systemic barriers that have prevented marginalized voices from being heard in the arts.

In conclusion, the contemporary relevance of a work of art must be carefully considered to ensure that it does not perpetuate harmful stereotypes or contribute to othering. The power of theater to create empathy and understanding is immense, but it must be approached with a critical eye towards its impact on society. By ensuring that diverse voices are represented in the creation and production of art, we can work towards a more inclusive and equitable world.

Opera Review
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