Arab-American singer reframes music on crusades
Classical singer Karim Sulayman loves Western European music from the 16th and 17th centuries. But this Lebanese-American tenor is aware that much of this music demonizes and stereotypes Arabs and Muslims. Thus, in a new stage of work called unholy warshe reframes these stories through an Arab-American lens.
unholy wars is a unique piece. It brings together dance (with dancer Coral Dolphin), theatre, visual arts and, of course, old and new music, with a cast of three singers – soprano Raha Mirzadegan and bass-baritone John Taylor Ward, as well than Sulayman.
The room opens on the Gloria Patri by Claudio Monteverdi Vespers of 1610. “It’s this echo of two tenors, and I sing both tenor lines in it,” says Grammy-winning Sulayman.
“And it’s so melismatic,” he continues. “It’s almost reminiscent of that call to prayer in Islam. It sounds like the echo not only of a church, of two voices in a church, but it sounds like if you’re in a very popular souk – you hear a call to prayer and you hear all the noises of the city.”
Many of the artists who worked with Sulayman on this project also have Middle Eastern roots, including composer Mary Kouyoumdjian, who wrote the new music that weaves between the Baroque selections.
Kouyoumdjian says she wants audiences to understand that even as a composer today, her musical reference points go back millennia – far older than the music of Monteverdi and Handel in ungodly wars, which, by comparison, are only about 300 and 400 years old.
“I think it’s something that comes very naturally to me and a lot of the cast members,” she says. “I took piano lessons and learned [Frédéric] Chopin before I learned Middle Eastern folk. But this idea of folk music is deeply rooted in us, even without our knowledge. So putting those elements together felt very natural – here’s European music, but also here’s music that’s lived even longer. You know, for thousands of years Middle Eastern folk has been a thing on our planet.”
unholy wars premiered last month at the Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, SC Its executive director, Mena Mark Hanna, says the piece not only weaves together many eras, but many ways of seeing. “What Karim is doing is extremely smart because it creates a longer narrative between all these different works,” he enthuses. “It’s like period music plus liquid motion plus a graphic novel.”
The centerpiece of unholy wars is a play by Monteverdi, The fight of Tancredi and Clorinda. Based on a text by Torquato Tasso, it depicts the fictional story of the crusades of Tancredi, a Christian soldier, who fell in love with Clorinda, a Muslim woman who went into battle disguised as a man. In the end, they fight and Tancredi mortally wounds her. He finally lifts his helmet and realizes who he hurt. Not only does Clorinda forgive him – in her final moments, she asks him to baptize her as a Christian.
“Yes, there is this very strange thing that happens at the end of Combatobserves Sulayman, “where Clorinda, after this bloody fight where they — these two people — believe so strongly in their religion and in their God that they are ready to die for it — which we see all the time today — at the end of while she is choking on her own blood, she is able to say: “OK, you were right, baptize me”. Everything is fine.'”
“I think Tasso was trying to make this story more palatable to his Italian Catholic readers in the 16th century,” Sulayman says, “that, of course, that Muslim would ask for that baptism. But as we read now in the modern world, we say , ‘Oh, this is so messed up.’ But it’s still an incredible and important piece of music, so instead of never doing it again, we want to look at the issues and look at it with a really critical eye.
unholy wars director Kevin Newbury says that right now there’s an impulse to cast aside such problematic material. But that’s not what this team did.
“As artists, our job is to reflect our cultural moment and the world around us and to interrogate the material we put on stage or screen,” Newbury explains. “That doesn’t mean we’re throwing it all away. We’re in this moment of cancel culture, where anything problematic is kind of taken off the charts or off screen, like we can’t present it anymore. But what if we were looking at this material through a new lens?”
Sulayman says he has no interest in being didactic. “You never want to be too prescriptive with these things. I clearly have a point of view, and I have a point of view on what I’m trying to say, but some people don’t want to come to the theater for that – some people just want to enjoy really good music, and I kind of want to explore the gray area anyway.
“I hope,” Sulayman continues, “people will leave the theater talking about it, wondering, reading about the Crusades, reading about our current foreign policy in the Middle East. But some people will also come in and say: “I had never heard Italian Baroque music from the 17th century before, and I think that is amazing. It’s also something important and worthwhile.”
On stage, the work is intimate and elementary. The props are simple: chairs, rope, buckets of water and soil to suggest borders. The animated projections created by visual artist Kevork Mourad evoke Armenian manuscripts, Arabic calligraphy and the architecture of his native Aleppo, Syria.
“For me,” says Mourad, “it is natural to capture the images of my childhood and bring them into this piece and have a communication with Western audiences. I continually try to capture and document what has been lost there.”
The simplicity of the set works both logistically and aesthetically. On the one hand, Newbury notes, it makes future stagings cost-effective, despite the high-tech spotlights and fancy lighting.
“I like to say that the $5 idea and the $5 million idea have to be the same idea,” laughs Newbury. “We could tell this story in the street with the buckets, the earth, the rope and the water.”
Mourad says these simple elements also evoke both the family stories of many of the participants in unholy warsbut also today’s refugee crises.
“I want the set to be anywhere,” says Mourad. “So almost like a troubadour or a refugee, we take these images with us like a tent. We could just hit it wherever we want.”
Through all these elements, unholy wars becomes a very topical reflection on intergenerational trauma, belief and self-identity. The creative team hopes they will soon be able to bring their theatrical meditation to audiences across the United States.
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