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‘A Thousand Splendid Suns’ opera spotlights Afghan women

Minutes before Afghan filmmaker Roya Sadat entered her first Seattle Opera production meeting for an adaptation of the novel “A Thousand Splendid Suns,” she learned that her hometown of Herat had fallen to the Taliban.

The celebrated director’s first foray into opera started out as a look back at a painful chapter in her country’s history through Khaled Hosseini’s story of two women whose lives are marked by the Taliban’s brutal and repressive rule in the 1990s. 

But the surge back to power of the hardline Islamists in August 2021 brought the story roaring back to the present for Afghan women.

And it added new weight to the production, as the Taliban again placed an ever-tightening vice on women’s liberties, despite vowing a departure from their infamous first reign.

For Sadat, the Taliban return changed both her world and the one she wanted to create on stage. 

“When I started I thought, let’s try to have more symbolic elements and move between surreal expression and realities,” she told AFP ahead of the opera’s premiere on February 25 in Seattle, Washington.

“It wasn’t just something that changed emotionally for me. There was a change to what I was thinking for the structure of the opera and I decided I should use more realism and bring out the reality of the situation,” in everything from colors, to costumes and set design. 

It’s a reality Sadat is intimately familiar with, having pushed boundaries to create under the first Taliban rule when arts were harshly controlled, before becoming one of the country’s first women filmmakers after their ouster in 2001. 

Her most successful films — including “A Letter to the President” and “Three Dots” — focus on women and their perseverance in the face of extreme odds.

It’s a theme that courses through “A Thousand Splendid Suns” for Sadat, who said the opera is a narrative of the resilience of women, who are “always the first to suffer” from conflict and political violence.

“Right now the only strong dissidence is from women in Afghanistan,” she said. “Even if the Taliban tortures them, even if they ban them… they have their voices.” 

With the opera, “We’re asking to please listen to this voice.”

– Weaving musical traditions –

Voices take center stage in more ways than one in this iteration of Hosseini’s 2007 bestseller. 

Composer Sheila Silver was first drawn to the story as rich material for opera nearly 15 years ago, because of the characters of Laila and Mariam and the bond they form as their lives are upended by familial and political turmoil.

“Opera is larger than life and they’re larger than life,” Silver said. “Their resilience and their love for one another sustains them and they survive through the power of their love.” 

Drawing inspiration from the story’s setting as she went to work with librettist Stephen Kitsakos, she wove Western operatic tradition with music at home in Afghanistan. 

Silver studied Hindustani music traditions — which…

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