Western Washington Gets Real: New Afghan opera written by Seattle-born composer

SEATTLE — A Seattle native-turned-award-winning composer is sharing the adventure of writing her latest opera with audiences at the Seattle Opera.

“A Thousand Splendid Suns” was a best-selling book by Khaled Hosseini.

Now it is an opera, composed by Sheila Silver, whose love for music took root here in the Emerald City.

This brand new opera is being brought to life by an international cast as Western Washington Gets Real.

“I first listened to the book on tape,” said Silver. “And I fell in love with these two women. I did not consider that they were of a different culture because the universal womanhood is what I’m celebrating in this opera.”

Silver is the award-winning composer of “A Thousand Splendid Suns.”

It is the harrowing story of love, loss, and the devastating pain that can accompany both.

Set in 1970s Afghanistan, it follows the lives of two women, born under different circumstances, whose paths converge when both end up married to the same abusive man.

In its tenets, a commentary on the lives of women wherever in the world they live.

“As an artist, I think we should be encouraged to share different cultures and to explore different cultures,” said Silver, “and therefore, to develop the empathy and realize we are all humanly connected.”

“What Sheila’s written at the end is just the most, it’s a tour de force,” marvels conductor Vishwa Subbaraman, himself a rarity in the world of opera.

“I don’t look like a conductor of what people think,” Subbaraman said. “I’m not an old white guy.”

He is South Asian, born in Texas.

“But it’s the music I fell in love with,” Subbaraman said. “And it’s one of the joys of being here in Seattle. Frankly, you know, it’s my third season to conduct here at Seattle Opera. It’s one of my favorite places to work. Because it’s one of the great companies when it comes to dealing with diversifying our field.”

That diversity is at the heart of “A Thousand Splendid Suns.” The director is an acclaimed female Afghan filmmaker. The cultural consultants are native Afghans, too. And Silver has written in the instruments of Hindustani, the classical music of Afghanistan and its neighbors.

Still, none of the singers are Afghan.

Bass-baritone Ashraf Sewailam was born in Egypt. But, he says, the opera’s theme of hyper-masculinity and its costs is familiar.

“Oppression of women,” says Sewailam. “This is commonplace in such cultures around the world. But also it’s universal because oppression of women is, you know, happens by degrees. This opera is one of the bleakest manifestations of it. But it’s everywhere. It’s everywhere.”

Still — Silver’s score manages to find beauty even in the bleakness.

“This is larger than life,” she says. “This is like the father jumping into the fire to save the child, throwing the child out of the window even though he knows he’s going to perish. This is the sacrifice humans make for the people we love.”

“The music is beautiful and it’s moving and it’s as passionate as Puccini,” said Subbaraman. “It’s Sheila’s triumph, 100%, her. What she has created is one of the great new operas. It will be in the canon. It deserves to be.”

And it will all have started right here.

There is still time to see “A Thousand Splendid Suns.” Its final performance is at McCaw Hall this weekend.

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