As the orchestra plays the last notes of the beautiful overture by Sheila Silver, the stage lights up on a soft Herat, Afghanistan, sunrise. A young Mariam is baking bread with her mother Nana, and the two are arguing over whether her father will visit for her birthday. In front of the subtly rich opera set, Mariam laments that she has been told stories of ice cream but has never had the chance to experience it.
Although Mariam eventually gets to taste ice cream, it comes at a hefty price when, after her mother’s suicide, she is pushed into marriage with a businessman in faraway Kabul. The man appears to be in his forties and is a widower, while Mariam has just turned 15.
This is the beginning of the story, which takes us across Afghanistan into the capital city during the '70s and up to the aughts.
By the time Mariam is 19, her husband has beaten her down to a shell of who she used to be. She has been made to wear a niqab against her will, despite the fact many Afghani women walk around in simple veils or none at all and varying levels of modesty. It is her husband’s misplaced pride and control that makes her hide her face.
While Mariam suffers, another girl, Laila, is born in a house on the same block. We are then whisked 15 years into the future where Laila is in love with a disabled young man and beloved by her father. With war comes loss, and Laila soon finds herself an orphan and pregnant with an illegitimate child and a dead lover.
Laila soon becomes the second wife, and although the women have a difficult relationship at first, they soon realize they have much more in common with each other and do everything they can to protect each other. It is that love that gets them through hard times and the Taliban’s oppressive rule. Mariam makes the conscious decision not to assist the patriarchy by treating Laila as someone to cherish and love instead of as a competitor for a horrible man’s temper.
I will not spoil the ending for you, but it is the first time I have openly wept at a stage production. I was surprised by my own visceral reaction. Karin Mushegain (Mariam) delivered a particularly heartfelt and devastating performance as she took us from 15-year-old Mariam to the woman at the end who had experienced all of life’s bitter truths.
“A Thousand Splendid Suns” is based on the book written by Khaled Hosseini in 2007. The Seattle Opera put no small effort into bringing the show to life — an effort worthy of the story being told. In 2009, Sheila Silver and librettist Stephen Kitsakos began discussing turning the book into an opera. In 2011, Osama bin Laden was assassinated. In 2017, Silver and Kitsakos began working with cultural consultant Humaira Ghilzai. In August 2021 when director Roya Sadat began meeting with the Seattle Opera, the Taliban captured control of Afghanistan once more.
Even as the Seattle Opera came together to tell the painful story of Mariam and Laila, representing issues that women in Afghanistan faced decades ago, those stories have now become relevant again. Although Afghanistan is no longer in the news like it was in 2021, the Taliban is still rolling back rights for women and girls to the same authoritarian levels as the 1990s when Laila and Mariam try to escape their husband’s horrific treatment. The Seattle Opera makes sure to acknowledge that the issue of gendered violence and patriarchy is a global issue, not only one associated with Central Asia and Islam.
There had been a stage production done of a “Thousand Splendid Suns,” but there still needed to be an entire score and orchestration created. Silver’s writing is sublime. Rather than a “typical” Westernized opera score, the music is cinematic. The 57-piece orchestra under the baton of Viswa Subbaraman has all the standard orchestral instruments as well as two that were new to me: the bansuri, which is a Central and South Asian flute, and a tabla, hand drums.
Although some of the chord progressions and tonal shifts are familiar to Western ears, I greatly enjoyed Silver’s use of Hindustani music. Hindustani music is the classical music of Pakistan, Northern India and Afghanistan. The mixing of musical influences and instrumentation has some beautiful moments. My personal favorites included a trombone solo that emulated the adhan (call to prayer) and the suspenseful music rising and then suddenly shifting time meters for dramatic effect when Laila and Mariam are trying to escape Taliban rule.
The stage design and choreography also lends itself to the beauty of the music. I was captivated when the beams of light lingered on the set, illuminating the rough stone walls of the set or the backlit mountains of Kabul twinkling with the lights of homes as the music played. Every moment of “A Thousand Splendid Suns” was planned so that the audience could breathe and process the beauty and sorrow of the show we experienced. The orchestra is strong but does not overwhelm the vocalists.
The music also manages to not be orientalist in its approach. In many examples of Western media, we hear Arab-inspired music in a stereotypical pentatonic scale, especially when something “evil” is happening on screen. In “A Thousand Splendid Suns” it is clear that Silver crafted the music with a careful and knowledgeable ear. A look through the composer’s notes reveals that she spent time studying Hindustani music with Pandit Kedar Narayan Bodas for several months.
Opera has always been a spectacle. Since Jacopo Peri staged Euridice in 1600 — generally accepted as the oldest surviving opera — audiences have gathered to be transported to a world outside their own with both stagecraft and music. Opera now is associated with upper class and refinement, but in Mozart’s era, opera was for the working class to gather and see stories bigger than themselves, to cheer and jeer along with the heroes and villains.
I happened to be at the Seattle Opera on the pay-what-you-can night, and I felt the audience reflected how opera was always supposed to be. In my 20 years of classical music-going, this was one of the more diverse audiences I’ve seen for a venue where tickets start at a higher price point than most are comfortable with. The audience was also exhilarating. People gasped and jeered, just like audiences have been for more than four centuries. As the show went on and people became more comfortable, I found myself smiling at the beautiful experience of live opera performances. When a hero makes an unexpected return towards the end, the audience erupted in cheers. During the Q&A, the actor shared it was the first time they experienced that. Even for the performers, there is a potential for firsts.
If you have never been to the opera, if you are interested in seeing the small stories of these women portrayed with the bigness they deserve, I recommend it. After all, stories about ice cream aren’t the same as eating one.
Read more of the Mar. 8-14, 2023 issue.