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COLUMBIA/BARNARD collaboration previews at London’s Royal Opera House

Columbia Professor Rosalind MORRIS and Barnard College Professor Yvette CHRISTIANSË make their Royal Opera House debut as librettists with the opera Cities of Salt, composed by Syrian-born Zaid JABRI.

The opera, loosely based on Abdelrahmin Munif’s novel, Cities of Salt (translated by Peter Theroux), will be showcased at the Royal Opera House’s Linbury Theatre on 22 July 2015 in an excerpted concert performance. The showcase will see four scenes and an intermezzo performed before a sold-out audi- ence.

The opera tells of the momentous transformations that ensued after oil was discovered in the Gulf States in the 1930s. In the Morris/Christiansë adaptation, the opera follows a Bedouin community forced to leave their desert oasis of Wadi al-Uyoun when it is overtaken by oil prospectors. Their exile takes them to the sea, where a small city is becoming a great port, its skyline lit by oil refineries. Caught in the whirlwind of forces embodied in the local oligarchy and a foreign oil Company, the wadi’s survivors come to understand that the love of power fuels history as much as oil.

Morris and Christiansë conceived of the opera after reading Munif’s novel, convinced that it could reach people by humanizing the epic of geopolitical conflict and environmental destruction to which we are all heir.

They set about writing the libretto while still searching for a composer. After listening to the work of over 200 contemporary composers, they settled on Zaid Jabri. Born in Damascus, Jabri had studied with Riyad Sukar before moving to Krakow, where he obtained his doctorate in composition under the supervision of the great European modernists, Zbigniew Bujarski and Krzysztof Penderecki.

“When we first approached Zaid the libretto was essentially complete, but we knew that some of the language would be acting as a placeholder for music. Our hope was always for a symbiotic relation between the verbal and the musical languages. From the first bars Zaid played for us on a Midi file, we knew that it was a perfect fit,” Christiansë says. 

Jabri’s music sustains and propels the narrative with harmonic and melodic idioms that use microtonal strategies and instrumentation of Middle Eastern regional traditions, while remaining within a contem- porary musical language. Even when citing historical Arab forms, Jabri’s music resists the museological and the folkloric.

“From the start, we were all in agreement that this should not be an exercise in sentimental nostalgia. This is a story about the present and the future, as much as the past,” says Morris.

Jabri adds, “The opera is a series of questions: what happened? And now, what?”

The 22 July Royal Opera House audience will be treated to an extraordinary exercise in global cultural production. Conducted by Michał Klauza, conductor of the Podlasie Opera and Philharmonic in Białystok, and Associate Conductor of the National Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra in Katowice, the concert will feature singers from Syria, Britain, the US, including Talar Dekrmanjian, Ross Ramgobin, Mark Milhofer, Damian Thantrey, Adam Green, Adrian Dwyer and Nicholas Tamagna. Southbank Sinfonia and the Borough Chamber Choir round out the performers.

The event is cosponsored by the Shubbak Festival and Brunel University’s Institute for Contemporary Middle Eastern Music.

Rosalind MORRIS is professor of anthropology at Columbia University. Her most recent book is Accounts and Drawings from Underground (2014, with William Kentridge). Yvette CHRISTIANSË is professor of English and Africana Studies, Barnard. She is the author of Toni Morrison: An Ethical Poetics (2013), Unconfessed (a novel), and the volumes of poetry, Castaway and Imprendehora. Her new novel, Eclipse, will be published in Spring 2016. Zaid JABRI is an instructor at the Krakow Academy of Music. His prizes and honors include the Adam Didur composer’s competition, ‘2 Agosto’ competition and the George Evans memorial fellowship. Christiansë, Jabri and Morris are also the recipients of a Rockefeller Foundation/Bellagio Centre residential fellowship for work on the opera.