Niloufar Talebi is an author, librettist, widely published writer, and translator, with several awards as the editor/translator of BELONGING: New Poetry by Iranians Around the World (North Atlantic Books, 2008). Her work has been featured at Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center, and the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Aleksandra Vrebalov is a prolific composer with an established presence in the concert world. Her varied body of work includes several collaborations with the Kronos Quartet; the orchestral work Orbits (2002), a churning expression of the Fibonacci sequence on a cosmological scale; the two-act opera Mileva (2011), which premiered at the Serbian National Theater and centers on the character of physicist Mileva Marić; and a new score for the 1923 silent film Salomé (2018).
Talebi and Vrebalov, in collaboration with director Roy Rallo, co-created the opera Abraham in Flames, which will receive its world premiere on May 9-12, 2019 at Z Space in San Francisco. It will feature the Young Women’s Chorus of San Francisco and The Living Earth Show. The opera is inspired by Talebi’s coming of age in Tehran and by the life and work of Iranian poet Ahmad Shamlou. Talebi’s book Self-Portrait in Bloom (l’Aleph, 2019) is a hybrid nonfiction-poetry work that tells the larger story of the opera.
What led to your working together?
Niloufar: I had a developing opera looking for its composer. I care deeply about the beauty and visceral-ness of music, so I considered many composers, and then I heard Aleksandra’s music for a girl’s chorus. I loved its playfulness and depth, as well as her setting of text, so I approached her with the sketch of Abraham in Flames we had at that time. Aleksandra offered key ideas that have shaped the final opera we have today.
Aleksandra: I was very inspired by the story–its universality and timelessness were at the same time making it urgent and specific to where we are in our society. I liked the fact that both Niloufar and I, as well as our director Roy Rallo, are expatriates, and can thus relate to the story of otherness from our personal experiences. I was drawn to Niloufar’s lean, symbolic language and the story told in a non-linear narrative.
Can you discuss the process and goals of your collaboration on Abraham in Flames?
Aleksandra: At the very beginning, we made sure that we were in agreement on basic ideas of the work–the importance of concepts such as identity, belonging, otherness, role of art and artists, and the poetic and philosophical element of the story. Setting a solid base and being in agreement on those defining issues gave us a lot of individual freedom to proceed in our two different mediums: language and music.
Niloufar: We were passionate about telling the story of how we rise against inner and outer obstacles to find, become, and insist on our authentic selves. Certainly the toils of the pioneering Iranian cultural figure Ahmad Shamlou (the inspiring poet of this project whom I personally knew when I was coming of age) as well as our own firsthand experience of being immigrants, women, and artists, informed the opera.
Not having worked together before, Aleksandra and I are, in my opinion, a great accidental match: Aleksandra is highly intuitive, so she expressed my intentions for the story without much discussion and from a very lean libretto. I work in layers during a long process, and because she is nimble with text and story, she incorporated new text for some of the characters at the very last minute into the larger structure!
The lead character in the opera is a girl, portrayed by the Young Women’s Chorus of San Francisco, who participated in the workshop in 2017. Can you discuss the decision to give the central point of view to a girls’ chorus, and how this speaks to the themes within Abraham in Flames, specifically in terms of empowering young/racialized women?
Niloufar: I explain the complicated turns of events that lead to casting the chorus as the lead character in my book, Self-Portrait in Bloom, which is in many ways the literary companion to Abraham in Flames. Essentially, the opera became less centered on Shamlou as the lead character and more focused on the idea of art being passed on, so the new generation, represented by the young women, became the central focus. This flip opened up so many possibilities, one being a new model of casting a chorus as the main, and not the supporting, character.
Aleksandra: One of the discoveries that happens in the story is that we are not alone in our quest for a true self, in a quest for our true calling. For the Girl in the story, the Poet was that mirror that empowered her. On stage, we’ll have many girls who have been each others’ mirrors. In their everyday lives, their artistry and dedication to music requires discipline and sacrifice, and surely sets them apart from their peers who don’t share that experience. At the same time, they belong to this collective where they are encouraged to be themselves, to express themselves freely. In the libretto, it says, “I belong with friends who see me, those few, those few friends who see me,” and that idea being played out in the very realization of Abraham in Flames is empowering.
You have both worked extensively in opera and with voice—recorded, spoken and sung. In what ways did your prior experiences inform your work on Abraham in Flames, and challenge you to explore certain ideas further?
Aleksandra: I was most excited to set Niloufar’s poetic, elegant libretto. It’s filled with imagery, yet without too much verbal material. That left space for me to tell the story through music, through its power to evoke feelings. For me, the most exciting place to explore was how to enable insight into the story and our characters from a visceral, non-verbal place.
Niloufar: In my residency at the School of the Arts in San Francisco, I teach high school writing students how to be better readers for their audiences. This involves awareness of the listeners, elocution, intonation, and more. I have to practice these skills when I perform as a dramatic narrator of poetry. So, proper setting of text and clarity is foremost on my list of priorities. This informs my work as a librettist: I frequently offer multiple options for a word or phrase, so my composer is not limited to one set of consonants and vowels, but free to set the idea as they are putting down notes and working with a singer’s tessitura.
Abraham is a symbol of patriarchy, yet there is a universality to his story. Can you elaborate on the parallels between the narrative of Abraham—a risk-taking iconoclast who is a cultural connector—and the role of creative artists in the twin eras of globalization and social justice?
Niloufar: The biblical story of Abraham’s rejection of idols and submitting himself to fire to stand up for this truth is a universal metaphor for having vision and sticking to it—what artists, immigrants, and many people do on a daily basis. Poets are prophets.
Aleksandra: I was excited about exploring our different backgrounds, sounds and imagery from our native cultures (Serbia and Iran). The enabled us to create an opera that’s very much like the world (in its most positive, ideal aspect) that we live in–a rich, stimulating mosaic of values, identities, cultures, religions, mythologies that pushes us towards self-discovery and self-realization.