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

Seattle Opera premieres a newly-commissioned opera based on the novel by Afghan-American novelist Khaled Hosseini.

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

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

A Thousand Splendid Suns, Seattle Opera’s world premiere that 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 doesn’t reflect American or Western culture. But it speaks to world culture, to human cruelty, to human bonds, to divided war-ravaged countries, to downtrodden 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 playing non-Western instruments such as tabla (drums), Tibetan singing bowls and bansuri (bamboo flute). Add to that 21 roles (11 of them soloists), 30 supernumeraries, and vibrantly colored scenery designed to be spun around by people, not motors, showing highly detailed domestic scenes. As complex as the opera is, as much as some of the music is based on unfamiliar-to-Western-ears Hindustani ragas, the piece will get around, I’m betting.

Foreground, 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 credit: Antone Patterson.
Foreground, 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 credit: Antone Patterson.

The opera reminds us that basic human rights of Afghan women continue to be curtailed and threatened by the ruling Taliban, if Afghanistan is a half-world away, and Americans are no longer militarily involved. The bad times are not over, and A Thousand Splendid Suns opens our eyes, consciences and hearts to some of them.

The opera’s optimistic title comes from an ancient poem about Kabul’s beauty by 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 the mountain dust. The story, which follows two women from different generations married to the same abusive man over three decades, is far from optimistic, and it twists and turns with many characters to keep track of. But the piece follows a linear timeline from 1974 to 2001, so tracking the story is not a chore. Plus, it’s sung in English, with supertitles.

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 obvious villain in the story whose voice ages well over 30 years. Once married, against Mariam’s will, he takes little time to start the abuse. He beats her, convinces her to wear a burqa (“a woman’s face is only for her husband,” he sings), and forces her to eat rocks when she fails to cook his rice according to his whims. She is not allowed to eat at the same table as he does.

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

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 keeps women from traveling without a man or divorcing — and it is partially over these frustrating soul-sapping conditions that Mariam and Laila do eventually bond. In the end, though, the sacrifice is huge, and within the almost 3-hour opera, the everyday state-sanctioned violence and abuse are tough to watch, even if 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 drama pick up. The arias, mostly Mariam’s in the first 75 minutes, are diminished by a too-loud orchestra, and her voice comes off as thin. It does strengthen, and the orchestra adjusts, as the opera goes on. But in the second act, a Romeo- and-Juliet drama between Lalia, grown up now at 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 gorgeous, 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 Seattle Opera. Photo credit: Antone Patterson.
Rafael Moras as Tariq (left) and Maureen McKay as Laila (right) in A Thousand Splendid Suns at Seattle Opera. Photo credit: Antone Patterson.

The hardships pile on 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 early-1990s attack and Rasheed digs Lalia out of the rubble, and 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, at first at odds, bond over their husband’s cruelty and the Lalia’s children. Lalia now has a favored son by Rasheed and a girl by Tariq who is banished to an orphanage. Lalia is told Tariq is dead, which is a lie, and the women try to escape. Guess what? Rasheed catches up with them, pulls them back to his wretched home, and beats them. In this turmoil, Tariq turns up, Rasheed finds out about his visit, and goes into another rage. Mariam saves Laila by killing Rasheed in his fury, and 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 – where she is lit by a dramatic brilliant light, praying in a white robe and blue burka, is stunning and shocking. She looks like the Virgin Mary except that the armed Taliban warriors are lined up behind her, rifles cocked. This final image exaggerates the opera’s ethos, where women’s faces are lit up brightly in most scenes against the dark, foreboding atmosphere. But the lighting decision makes its point and the image stays with us after the curtain closes. Mariam has gone knowingly and even thankfully to her death because she saved the others – a family she finally got. Nevertheless, it is a tragic ending to more than Western eyes.

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

Some backstory

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Based on the best-selling 2007 novel by Hosseini of the same title, the opera’s coming-to-stage has a long history, if not as tortured as Afghanistan’s. Composer Silver heard A Thousand Splendid Suns on audiobook in 2009 and asked Hosseini’s permission to make an opera from the tale. 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 incorporates. By 2015, Seattle Opera then-director Aiden Lang was interested, the opera is work-shopped, and in 2018, SO commissioned it under the new leadership 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 brilliant set designer Misha Kachman, who overlaid his interior twirling sets with moonlit mountains. The cast of singers was assembled, fight/intimacy coach Geoffrey Alm was engaged as were Lighting Designer Jen Schriever and Sound Designer Robertson Witmer. The national and international hunt for authentic clothes, some made from scratch, was led by Deborah Trout. Sung in English and delayed by Covid, the opera premiered Feb. 25. It closes 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 Seattle Opera. Photo credit: Sunny Martini.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Angela Allen writes about the arts, especially opera, jazz, chamber music, and photography. Since 1984, she has contributed regularly to online and print publications, including Oregon ArtsWatch, The Columbian, The San Diego Union-Tribune, Willamette Week, The Oregonian, among others. She teaches photography and creative writing to Oregon students, and in 2009, served as Fishtrap’s Eastern Oregon Writer-in-Residence. A published poet and photographer, she was elected to the Music Critics Association of North America’s executive board and is a recipient of an NEA-Columbia Journalism grant. She earned an M.A. in journalism from University of Oregon in 1984, and 30 years later received her MFA in Creative Writing/Poetry from Pacific Lutheran University. She lives in Portland with her scientist husband and often unwieldy garden. Contact Angela Allen through her website.

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One Response

  1. Thanx very much for this fascinating review, Angela.
    When I lived & produced concerts in Seattle (86 -92), I would occasionally hear Sheila Silver’s name without ever hearing her music, dang it to L.
    So, thanx to you, I just bookmarked her website & will FINALLY be giving some of her works a spin . . .

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