“Egypt is heading towards civil war”, composer Mohamed Fairouz plainly states in discussion of his opera, Sumeida’s Song, which had its world premier this past week at HERE Arts Center. Well, civil war may be perhaps too strong a word to describe the current state of affairs in Egypt, but few would argue with Fairouz that the country is going, in his words, in “a particularly bad direction.” After a series of electoral victories, Egypt’s ruling Muslim Brotherhood, nominally operating under its political affiliate the Freedom and Justice Party, effectively spent the last few months of 2012 fast-tracking drastic changes to the constitution that many seculars, liberals, and democratic activists believe provide inadequate protection for women, religious minorities, and other groups, while effectively laying the groundwork for implementation of Sharia law in the country (“Sharia law in Egypt?”, Fairouz asks plaintively, before giving in to nervous laughter, “I mean, it’s not Saudia Arabia, it’s Egypt!”). These moves – coupled with President Mohamed Morsi’s decree granting himself broad powers beyond judicial review – ignited another round of fierce, often deadly, street fighting between Islamist and non-Islamist factions, and represented, for many, the final rending of the broad-based coalition that toppled Hosni Mubarak from power in early 2011. The changes to the constitution were passed in December through a popular referendum marked by low voter turnout, lack of judicial oversight, and disproportionately high support for the Muslim Brotherhood in rural parts of the country.
That opera can serve as a vessel for social commentary and change is not a new concept. Composers ranging from Mozart in The Marriage of Figaro to John Adams in Nixon in China grounded their works in particular historical moments in order to draw into focus the underlying tensions enveloping these moments and the people who inhabited them. The animating ethos of the Prototype Festival is the spotlighting of chamber-sized works of opera-theater. Festival organizers gleefully make reference, both in person and in print, to the Washington Post’s recent declaration that, “Red Curtain Opera is out, and Black Box Opera is in”. Of course, it’s difficult to look upon this statement and not immediately think of the various hardships that have afflicted New York City’s more noteworthy opera companies in recent years. But it’s also clear from viewing works like Sumeida’s Song, that black box opera’s virtues are not simply ones of economy. In the black box setting, emotion moves more tightly, in tandem, between performer and orchestra. The heightened intimacy is felt not simply between the audience and the work, but between the very physical components of the music itself. Smaller gestures carry a lot more meaning. In this setting, the very visceral nature of the art form – the great, uninhibited inexpressibles it so effectively conveys – can assume a raw nuance, and a renewed urgency.
Sumeida’s Song is a study of tensions: tensions within a family, tensions among competing views of society, tensions between the imperatives of convention and the identifiable need for individuals to free themselves of these conventions. The plot, by itself, is simple and straightforward. A mother, Asakir (performed in New York by Rachel Calloway), awaits the return of her son, Alwan (Dan Kempson) to her village in Upper Egypt after a seventeen-year exile in Cairo. There, he has studied to become a sheikh at Al-Azhar, the Islamic university that, for several centuries, was the primary institution of higher learning in Egypt. While awaiting the arrival of her son, Asakir recounts with her sister Mabrouka (Amelia Watkins) the horrifying circumstances that led to Alwan’s being secreted away from the village at a young age: the grisly murder of his father by a rival family in supposed retaliation for the suspected murder by his father of one of their own. Alwan returns to the village – accompanied by his cousin Sumeida (Edwin Vega) – unaware that he is now expected to avenge his father’s killing with the very same knife used to kill him. It is his refusal to kill – and his insistence that the people of his village change their ways and embrace modern civilization – that sets in motion the conclusion of the piece.
The theme of a society irreconcilably at odds with its own identity is one that has acquired increased saliency in the literature and art of Egypt post-2011. The protagonists of Ibrahim Al-Husseini’s “Comedy of Sorrows”, written only a few months after the Revolution, greeted the downfall of the Mubarak Regime with a kind of freighted ambivalence quickly giving way to atavistic panic. But Fairouz first composed Sumeida’s Song in 2008, long before the revolution even took place, and while his assessment of the fundamental fissures in Egyptian society may now seem especially prescient in retrospect, its provenance goes much further back to the middle of the last century, when his source work, the play “Song of Death” by Tawfik Al-Hakim, was first produced. Al-Hakim’s influence on Egyptian letters cannot be understated, even as he remains significantly less known in the West than his contemporary Naguib Mahfouz. Al-Hakim was a playright, trained in Paris initially to become a lawyer. He returned from his studies to Egypt, having been thoroughly steeped in the theatrical culture of Paris, and embarked on a near half-century’s worth of creative output that frequently melded stories of Egyptian folk culture with the emerging modernist innovations of the era. At the same time, he forged an entirely new understanding of theatrical usage of the Arabic language. Al-Hakim is credited with developing a “third language”, as he called it, for an expression of Arabic that lay in between the colloquial language, as had typically been used in Egyptian theatre up to that point, and the more literary classical language, which is rarely employed in everyday speech.
Fairouz has argued for the importance of opera being performed in the vernacular of the audience, stating that Sumeida’s Song can be performed in Arabic as well as English. Although, the “third language” of Al-Hakim’s works cannot easily be perceived by English speaking audiences at the level of idiom, Fairouz’s deft synthesis of leitmotif, dissonance, and counterpoint, with the traditional Arabic melodic mode of maqam, advances his own version of the “third language.” He does this even as the cultural landscape he serves to depict seems only to exist within the characters themselves. Alwan, attired in the traditional jibba of an Al-Azhar-educated sheikh, is accompanied musically by the more identifiably maqam accoutrements of tabla and microtone. His mother, aunt, and cousin, dressed in patchwork peasant clothes, adhere to a mode that – even if structurally maqam – is more recognizably modernist. The titular song, referring to a musical cue the title character gives on his approach to the stage, is introduced by an intense slur of violin arpeggios and calls as much to mind the foreboding undulations found throughout Strauss’ Salomé, as any musical tradition outside the Western canon.
Egypt has often been personified in much of its twentieth century art as a peasant woman, and as Fairouz’s work proceeds, he renders the tension in his piece less about contrasting musical styles or even views of the world, but about one peasant woman’s grappling with the sudden conflagration of all the hatreds and lamentations residing within her. Asakir’s lament is about a longing for vengeance, which creates its own kind of dissonance. Vengeance is an anxious act; even the wanting of it is aggressive. But Asakir’s need for vengeance is essential to who she is as a mother, more essential to her than the physical reality of her son, who is merely an instrument of her need for vengeance and not a flesh and bone man with his own prerogatives. There are cutaways of tension-building throughout her lament, as she ascends – perhaps descends – from one level of lamentation to another, seeming to sputter angrily through the irreconcilable towards the unthinkable. Over only a few measures, she moves from a place of clenched wistfulness to a kind of rage collapsing in on itself until, by the end she is literally left gasping onstage, though whether out of emotional catharsis or spiritual suffocation is really for the viewer to decide.
Al-Hakim was unyielding in his portrayal of the regressive nature of Egyptian village life, an approach that put him in league with a wide swath of Egyptian writers of his generation, including, quite ironically, the radical Islamist icon Sayid Qutb. However, any didacticism that could be read into his work (and indeed much of his work was designed only to be read, and not performed) was entirely intentional and intended to model a new kind of dialogue for a country that, over the course of his lifetime, stumbled back and forth – past occasional bursts of authentic popular revolt – from one form of authoritarianism to another. Nearly three decades since Al-Hakim’s passing, though, this cycle appears to be repeating itself anew in Egypt. This time, however, the allegory has a completely different set of political parameters, with the village representing not so much retributive violence or slavish devotion to tradition, as an almost anxious adherence to the status quo. Fairouz takes the air of desperately hoped-for redemption that permeated Al-Hakim’s original work and recasts it here with a kind of quivering, irresolvable urgency. This urgency speaks not simply to our temporal proximity to Egypt’s revolution, now nearly two years passed, but to the irreconcilable dissonance of tensions too long unresolved. It is a recognizably operatic rendering of something very real and urgent, even if it owes its a patrimony to a much earlier time. “You have a visceral response to what it is happening in the world . . . when you see the world falling apart”, Fairouz admits. “I’m optimistic”, he adds, shrugging his shoulders, “I really am.”
Hani Omar Khalil is a lawyer, writer, and photographer based in Manhattan.