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Miriam Khalil in Bound, photo Darryl Block for Against the Grain Theatre

Opera in the age of Trumpism: An interview with Lebanese-Canadian soprano Miriam Khalil

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FROM THE CANADIAN OPERA COMPANY’S

ISSUE 3 of NOTES

A Conversation with 

SOPRANO MIRIAM KHALIL


As part of their work in the COC’s Company-in-Residence program, Against the Grain Theatre has been developing a new opera. BOUND  takes Handel arias and ensembles, reconstructs them through a new interpretation by composer Kevin Lau, and layers the music against new English-language texts drawn from real-life world events. In the leadup to tonight’s opening, we asked Founding AtG member and Ensemble Studio graduate Miriam Khalil to share her thoughts on the challenging process of creating art that responds to contemporary realities of persecution, oppression, and asylum.

n BOUND each artist’s performance is informed by a real-life story in the news. What’s the background of the character you portray?

My character is based in part on Amani Al-Khatahtbeh, a Muslim-American journalist who was detained upon her arrival at an airport in France and forced to remove her hijab under threat of deportation.

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How are the singers being tasked with developing these characters?

The past couple of weeks have been spent in challenging discussions about the real-life stories that serve as the launching pad for our characters, but we’ve also been bringing them out of the documentary realm into interpretation and characterization. It is a true collective endeavour, in that all of us are researching our characters deeply and then bringing that back to the rest of the creative team for continued exchange and collaborative dialogue. It’s a powerful process that builds a kind of shared reserve of empathy and nuance that we can draw on to get closer to these realities.


I understand you’ve also been having lots of conversations with subject matter experts in refugee and immigration law, trans rights, and marginalized and underrepresented people as part of the project. What’s that been like?

Alia Rosenstock, a Toronto-based immigration and refugee lawyer, explained the basics of Canada’s refugee system. We learned about some aspects of a refugee’s experience that we wouldn’t ordinarily encounter, including the hardships people are willing to endure to escape to Canada and some of the obstacles they face upon arrival.

Many refugees are illegally detained and tortured in their countries of origin, only to be detained again, once they’ve arrived in countries where they’re seeking asylum, including the USA and Canada.

Some are detained for long stretches of time, while their files are being processed. The effects of long-term detention can be devastating to an individual’s mental health and on the family members who rely on them, including children.

With Rania Younes, a representative from the Canadian Arab Institute, we talked about the hijab, women’s rights in Canada, and Islam. For her personally, wearing the hijab remains a form of self-empowerment.

But there are also prejudices that affect so many aspects of daily life for a hijab-wearing woman in today’s political climate, from obstacles to full participation in the public sector, to feelings of invisibility to being treated with hostility.

Of course we could only absorb a small amount of what she goes through, but it was sobering to begin understanding what it takes simply to practice the freedom that our country guarantees.

I’m really in awe of each and every one of our special guests for their openness, generosity, and curiosity. For my colleagues and me this whole project is about much more than just an opera production—it’s about an expanding scope for empathy and inclusion that we can carry with us as artists and human beings.

Detail of BOUND poster, designed by Eitan Zohar, illustration by Dmitry Bondarenko

Detail of BOUND poster, designed by Eitan Zohar,
illustration by Dmitry Bondarenko

Your family immigrated to Canada in the 1990s. The lived experience of people of colour in this country is often at odds with the way Canada likes to present itself as an almost utopian post-national state. What was your experience growing up here?

My immigration to Canada was mostly positive. I was bullied for a time, but I don’t know if that had anything to do with race. I attended a small school and I was the new girl that didn’t speak the language (my first language was Arabic).

First Canadian school photo, courtesy of Miriam Khalil

First Canadian school photo, courtesy of Miriam Khalil

My parents and older brothers had much bigger struggles and were much more alert to the pressures of assimilation. My father worked odd jobs for the first year and eventually bought a restaurant (Italian, of course), where he and my brothers worked until my father’s retirement. My brothers each pursued their own career path while helping at the restaurant and are all business owners now.

My parents worked really hard to build a life for us in Canada. My mother was a stay-at-home mom in Damascus, but when we moved to Canada she learned English, learned how to drive, and took Early Childhood Education courses. She became a licensed caregiver and eventually ran a home daycare after years of working in the Ottawa School Board.

First summer in Ottawa: Miriam’s mother Taghrid (standing in the middle) surrounded by her children Nabil and Wassim (also standing) and Miriam and Maher (crouching in front). Photo courtesy of Miriam Khalil.

First summer in Ottawa: Miriam’s mother Taghrid (standing in the middle) surrounded by her children Nabil and Wassim (also standing) and Miriam and Maher (crouching in front). Photo courtesy of Miriam Khalil.

 

In a big way, we were very lucky because we had family in Ottawa and there is a large Lebanese/Arab community that welcomed us from the beginning. I remember being amazed at the amount of family we finally had in one place.


Tell me about the Handel aria you sing.

“Ah! mio cor, schernito sei,” from Alcina.

It has an introduction of dissonant chords finding resolution and clashing again in a heartbeat-like pulse. It’s very contemporary sounding for its time and is really quite moving.

The B section moves faster and suggests a growing strength, as the character moves to anger and determination, collapsing again into the A section which restates its emotions quite beautifully to find resolution in a tone of sadness.

Music Director Topher Mokrzewski in rehearsal with Miriam Khalil for AtG's BOUND, photo Darryl Block

Music Director Topher Mokrzewski in rehearsal with Miriam Khalil for AtG’s BOUND, photo Darryl Block

 

Why is a Baroque composer like Handel being used to tell these stories?

Handel’s music covers such a wide range of emotions and is so beautiful in its purity. His music breathes and can seem bare at times, which makes it so vulnerable and human and so apt in exploring the emotional journeys of the oppressed.

And then composer Kevin Lau—who has been with us since day one, immersed in our conversations, etc.—will actually orchestrate and manipulate Handel’s music with electronic amplification to create new juxtapositions for future workshops.

“At a time when the world seems to be spinning away from hope and unity, BOUND will look to moments of beauty, acceptance, and diversity.” —AtG Director Joel Ivany. Photo Darryl Block

“At a time when the world seems to be spinning away from hope and unity, BOUND will look to moments of beauty, acceptance, and diversity.” —AtG Director Joel Ivany. Photo Darryl Block.

 

What happens when you bring Baroque music into contact with stories that have a contemporary sense of cultural and political urgency?

Most of Handel’s operas deal with the big themes: war, love, hate, and death. Baroque music can be incredibly moving because it takes on these essential concerns with emotional honesty and musical simplicity. Within that basic vocabulary, however, Handel develops these intricate relationships with dissonance and resolution, which pull the music forward into emotional waves and gestures that seem perfectly matched for our own political and cultural upheavals.

 

What role does art play in the age of Trumpism?

That’s one of the big discussions we’ve been having throughout the rehearsal process: “Can art really make a difference?” I don’t have an answer to that.

I can say that this week has been incredibly transformative for me. We talked about issues related to the Travel Ban on Muslim countries, human rights violations, our right to privacy, and the freedom to wear what we want. As artists I think we’re all so fortunate to be in a creative community in which we can take a week to discuss and debate the injustice that we see on our newsfeeds and meaningfully apply those conversations, those breakthrough moments, to our work.

The depth of these discussions has left me restless and curious.

In the age of Trumpism, it is so easy to feel helpless and voiceless. The blatant disregard of a very specific set of individuals and the lack of care for their well-being is disheartening. However, in discussion with these open-hearted artists, I find myself hopeful and excited by what art can do to create change in our times.

We have it in us to create a higher sense of awareness of the bigger issues and to lay down a foundation of empathy for “the other.”

Miriam Khalil is a Lebanese-Canadian soprano performing in Against the Grain Theatre’s Handel mash-up BOUND, running December 14–16 at the COC’s Culture Hub, 227 Front St. E. in Toronto. Rush tickets ($35 cash only) are available at the door for each performance. Thank you to the Canadian Opera Company and Nikita Gourski for sharing this Issue of NOTES. AtG is proud to be the inaugural Company-in-Residence of the Canadian Opera Company.

Osvaldo Golijov - Alt - Photo John Sann

In many worlds at the same time

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In 2004, the Argentine-born composer Osvaldo Golijov wrote his song cycle Ayre for a voice nobody had heard before.

The voice was famous and celebrated, belonging to American soprano Dawn Upshaw, but it had never sounded like this, with rich shades of darkness and flashes of menace—even violence—intermingling with the purity and angelic stillness that was more typical of her identity as a vocalist.

Ayre—which Upshaw sang at its world premiere in 2004—required her to assume a plurality of emotional registers, while summoning, at Golijov’s urging, something darker and unexplored from within. After recording the song cycle for Deutsche Grammophon in 2005, she told music writer John Schaefer: “I never knew I had a lot of these voices [in me until Golijov wrote the music]. I don’t understand how he knew I could even make certain sounds without hearing them first.”

When soprano Miriam Khalil first heard the recording of Ayre, she was instantly transfixed, both on a personal level and as a singer.

Especially because some of the material wasn’t new to her. Traditional Arabic songs, “Wa Habibi” and “Aiini taqtiru,” which Golijov had arranged for the middle section of Ayre, had been a part of Miriam’s childhood in Ottawa ever since she and her family had settled there after emigrating from Syria. In the nation’s capital, at the Melkite Catholic Church, she heard those two songs “every single year of my life” during Easter mass. It would prove to be a valuable experience to draw on this past summer, as she plunged into Ayre as a performer at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity.

When I called Golijov to ask about Miriam’s performance in Ayre, he observed, “It’s very interesting. I wrote [the song cycle] with Dawn [Upshaw] so much in my mind, but Miriam takes it to a whole new place.

“The fact that she speaks Arabic from her childhood makes the Arabic sound very true. But also every other song she sings, there is this torrential power in her voice. That’s something that I love. Even when she restrains it, you can sense the energy and the undercurrent, that tension between sometimes singing very intimately but with that wonderful and sweeping undercurrent.”

“The first thing [Osvaldo] told me,” Miriam recalled, “was ‘I don’t want it to sound like opera at all. These are folk songs.’”

The experience of hearing Ayre for the first time is both vivid and disorienting.

Golijov has called it a “forest that can grow in all directions;” a diary that explores “the music I inhabit;” and a journey, in both spiritual and geographic terms. Eleven folk songs chart a pilgrimage along the Mediterranean coast, moving from southern Spain to Italy to Jerusalem (with two small detours to Argentina through original compositions by guitarist, producer, and frequent Golijov-collaborator Gustavo Santaolalla). That the cycle begins in southern Spain during a moment of cross-cultural harmony (Jews, Arabs, and Christians lived in relative peace on the Iberian Peninsula until the Alhambra Decree of 1492 expelled non-Catholics from Spain) poignantly connects with our current reality of massive dislocation and refugee migration.

Most of the melodies are based on traditional material from Jewish, Arabic, and Christian cultures. The earliest texts date back to the 12th century. The sung languages include Arabic, Hebrew, Spanish, Sardinian, and Ladino (a nearly extinct vernacular spoken by Sephardic Jews in 15th-century Spain). It’s a living history of musical echoings and borrowings, of deeply personal routes of exile criss-crossing the boundaries of language, time, and the shifting ground of one’s own identity. The atmospheric multiplicity of the piece is dazzling: it veers from the semi-chaos of a medieval street fair to the tenderness of a lullaby (whose quiet words belie the uncanny terror of the text); from an angry mob alive with violence, to a mother’s ethereal voice in the night offering comfort to her child.

“My constant state of exile defines who I am.”

Golijov told me during our conversation: “Even when I was a child in Argentina, I was living in many worlds at the same time.”

Those worlds included European classical music, traditional Jewish and klezmer songs, as well as the new forms of tango emerging from the composer Astor Piazzolla, whose performances Golijov experienced live in Argentina.

If it was an eclectic musical education, it also imbued Golijov with the belief that authentic creation was not the exclusive provenance of European capitals and centres; that other places on the world map had a legitimate stake in the project of musical expression. Meanwhile, under the regime of General Videla, Golijov became increasingly aware that his Jewishness was incompatible with Argentina’s powerful elite, and moved to Jerusalem. He lost his home, but gained a vital encounter with Arabic music and language, slotting it into the ever-expanding cosmos of his orbiting influences.

The simultaneity of Golijov’s different worlds is acutely felt and heard in Ayre.

The klezmer of American clarinettist David Krakauer, the folk songs of Lebanese superstar Fairuz, the climbing scales of jazz trumpeter Miles Davis all intermingle with traditional melodies of manifold origins. Similarly Golijov’s arrangements deploy not only traditional chamber instruments but also ones like the ronroco (a small Andean guitar), and the laptop, grafting the new with the old, and setting many worlds in motion at the same time.

The perceptual mode of simultaneity manifests itself another way. In a late trilogy of songs, Golijov layers the verse of Mahmoud Darwish, the national Palestinian poet, with work from Yehudah Halevi, the 12th-century Jewish poet of exile. Nine hundred years of history evaporate as the Jewish poet from the medieval era and the eloquent voice of the nationless Palestinian people seem to recognize each other—suspended in a human oneness that is simultaneously solid and dissolving, of two worlds at once.

Nikita Gourski is a Toronto-based editor, writer and opera enthusiast. He hails from Belarus.

Photo: Osvaldo Golijov by John Sann