Powerful new opera by Sheila Silver premieres at Seattle Opera

Story of a friendship that bridges suffering during Afghan wars

By Peter Alexander March 6 at 11:48 p.m.

Seattle Opera has premiered a powerful and deeply affecting new opera by the composer Sheila Silver. 

The Market scene from Seattle Opera’s production of A Thousand Splendid Suns. Photo by
Sunny Martini

A Thousand Splendid Suns, which premiered at McCaw Hall Feb. 25, is based on the novel of the same name by Afghan-American writer Khaled Hosseini. It tells the story of Mariam and Leila, two Afghan women a generation apart who share the same abusive husband and forge a friendship that bridges deep suffering and personal sacrifice.

Composer Sheila Silver

Hosseini’s novel has been skillfully adapted by librettist Stephen Kitsakos, keeping the major characters and focusing the emotional arc of the story. A tough read, the book vividly describes the suffering, especially of women, amidst the horrors of the Soviet-Afghan war and the takeover by the Taliban. 

The opera portrays the same events, but Silver’s evocative music provides a sense of beauty that allays some of the brutality inherent in the plot. Silver—a composer previously unknown to me—studied Hindustani music in India for this opera and skillfully incorporates south Asian elements to evoke the setting. 

The orchestra, enhanced by various hand drums, Tibetan bowls, bansuri flutes and sparkling percussion, creates moods convincingly. This is especially notable in the beautiful passages depicting nighttime, and at the end, when the otherwise bleak final scene is infused with a bright serenity and hope.

Mariam (Karin Mushegain) and Laila (Maureen McKay). Photo by Sunny Martini.

If the vocal lines are less memorable, they fit the text well and are imminently singable, with no treacherous leaps or jagged lines. Extreme registers are reserved for extreme emotions. Duets between Mariam and Laila are especially moving. This is an opera that communicates directly with the audience and should be accessible to most listeners.

Mariam, the older of the two women, carries the emotional weight of the opera, as she progresses from a spirited teenager, through disillusionment to seething resentment and a final moment of fury. Seattle Opera is fortunate to have mezzo-soprano Karin Mushegain for this crucial role. The night I attended (March 3), Mushegain not only carried the opera handily; she provided a vivid portrayal of Mariam at every stage, singing with conviction and strength. Hers is an impressive talent, vocally and dramatically.

Laila is a more conventional operatic part—a young girl overcome with a love that she holds onto and that gives her the courage to survive. Soprano Maureen McKay brought a lovely sound to this more limited role, singing brightly and sensitively. Her love interest, Tariq, has the most conventional music of all. Rafael Moras sang his ardent declarations of love with a soaring Italianate tenor that was not out of place. Laila’s and Tariq’s duets were among the highlights.

Rasheed (John Moore, center) at home with Mariam (Karin Mushegain, l.) and Laila (Maureen McKay, r.). Photo by Sunny Martini.

Another crucial role is Rasheed, the brutal husband of Mariam and Laila. He is the opera’s villain, treating both women with cruelty. John Moore used his baritone to convey Rasheed’s roughness, but moderated his sound to a more tender, lyrical style, first for Laila and then for his son, whom he favors above his wives and daughter. He so effectively conveyed the ugliness of Rasheed’s character that his death was the first I have seen applauded in an opera house.

Laila (Maureen McKay) and Hakim (Ashraf Sewailam). Photo by Sunny Martini.

Ashraf Sewailam, known to some readers here as a CU graduate and veteran of Central City Opera, portrayed one of the few likable male characters—Laila’s refined and progressive father, Hakim. He sang beautifully, using his resonant bass to create contrast with the violence that surrounds his family. The smaller parts were all filled effectively, raising the entire cast to a high level.

The production was stage directed by Roya Sadat, an Afghan film producer and director who was chosen for her insight into the culture and environment of Afghanistan. She made good use of the space provided by set designer Misha Kachman. 

The realism of Kachman’s designs contributed to the impact of the opera, as they recalled photos we have seen of the violence in Afghanistan. Coincidentally, the opera appears just as Taliban control, apparently broken after the opera ends, has returned with renewed oppression of women. Thus A Thousand Splendid Suns is again as timely as ever.

The sets were at times minimal but always highly effective. One scene set in a neighborhood market was especially eye-catching. Deft touches included the turning of the wall of Rasheed’s house to show how the blank exterior conceals the troubled interior. A swing, hung from a disembodied tree branch, served to remind the audience that there were always children near the center of the action.

A special word about lighting designer Jen Schriever: there were moments of mesmerizing beauty in her lighting plot, particularly in the portrayal of night and the colors of the sky. In the splendidly lit final scene, Mariam seemed both radiant and weightless.

Deep Singh plays tabla in A Thousand Splendid Suns at Seattle Opera. Photo by Sunny Martini.

Conductor Viswa Subbaraman held the disparate musical threads together well: singers, orchestra, south Asian instruments. Hearing an opera for the first time it is difficult to judge interpretation, but the momentum never flagged. Thanks to Silver’s effective scoring, the singers were largely audible, with heavy brass sounds reserved for moments of violence or threat. Sound designer Robertson Whitmer should be recognized for pulling the hand drums and the bansuri flutes, each in isolated spaces that were miked, into balance with the full orchestra.

Representatives of other opera companies attended Seattle’s performances. I hope they will take up A Thousand Splendid Suns in the coming seasons. A powerful telling of an ultimately beautiful story, it delves into the human tragedy that often accompanies the news. The Seattle audience’s response, whether applauding Rasheed’s death or gasping at the unexpected reappearance of a character, showed how deeply they were drawn into the story.

# # # # #

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Sheila Silver
Libretto by Stephen Kitsakos
Seattle Opera
Viswa Subbaraman, conductor
Roya Sadat, stage director

Remaining performances:
7:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 8

7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 11

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s