Tapestry Opera’s Forbidden asked its audiences to question what they believe an opera can be. In the opera, a child is punished with isolation and rote repetition. After Lucifer reveals the world’s cruel realities, he tempts the child to taste the forbidden fruit, after which she learns to forge her own path. Although Forbidden ends with this utopic release from dogma, does its music offer the same vision?
As discussed in the preview to this opera, composer Afarin Mansouri combines three opposing styles: opera, Persian classical music, and rap, testing the musically forbidden to explore six situations in which dogma can have dreadful results. Donna-Michelle St. Bernard’s libretto ties these situations together as a series of vignettes seen by a Child who is learning, or rather unlearning, to trust in absolutes.
Using spoken word has a long history in opera, including Mozart’s Singspiele like Die Zauberflöte, or even more extreme Arnold Schönberg’s sing/sung technique of Sprechstimme in Ewartung. Unlike these Classical works, what makes Forbidden so remarkable is its combination of three genres that attract very different audiences. Forbidden is an ambitious metaphor for how different peoples can cohesively work together.
The Words Were Too Good
From a poetic standpoint, St. Bernard’s text was executed beautifully, drawing attention to patterns of the words and how they return in different forms throughout the opera to bring coherence to the piece. However, the sparseness of the text made the plot hard to follow, making you wish you could see it more than once. Although poetry is fundamental to rap, it draws too much attention to itself for opera, making the music seem like ambient sound rather than an essential partner in the narrative.
Opera Performers Try New Styles
Because of the intimacy between the performers and the audience in the Ernest Balmer Studio, it is always thrilling to experience opera performed here. This proximity allowed the Child performed by Neema Bickersteth to perform both rap and opera in practically one breath. Although her inexperience with rap made her sound amateur in comparison to Säye Skye and the Boy, it suited the part of a newly exposed Child. Bickersteth has a distinctive colour to her voice, but the tension in her singing makes her upper range strident and unfocused. Although the opera performers traversed the unknown realm of rap, it seemed unfair that Skye did not try out opera to demonstrate each characters’ crossing of genres. Despite this reservation, Skye was a committed performer on stage, but his hip-hop based movement stood out from the opera performers at moments when they should have been in sync.
Not only beautiful to watch on stage, Shirin Eskandani’s resonant mezzo-soprano voice rang throughout the small space. An interesting note, the slow pace at which her vibrato spun made her voice sound omnipresent or like a drone beneath the music. Alexander Hajek wielded his powerful baritone voice with intelligence and really sank his teeth into the part of Lucifer dancing across the stage. The Persian instrumentalists — Padideh Ahrarnejad on the Tar, Kianoush Khalilian on the Ney, and Ali Massoudi playing the percussion — acted like shapeshifters in the performance, at times sounding exotic and at others blending with the other two styles seamlessly.
The costume and set design by Erin Gerofsky were appropriately versatile and abstract showing what seemed like a spine to the brain in which the Child was caged by the pages of a book. Yehuda Fisher’s lighting design carried the drama and scene changes effectively.
What Does This Music Say About Our Future?
Although Mansouri’s score shows skill and ingenuity, having seen the opera in its entirety, I am left wondering about how the music portrays the text.
Throughout the opera, the three musical styles intermingle in different ways. Other critics have noted that they intermix without conflict, but I think ignoring the conflicts among their integration would miss the point. For me, the different ways in which Mansouri combines these genres draws our attention to struggle among them to peacefully coexist, like the absolutes being deconstructed by the Child.
For example, there were moments where the music clearly fell into the domain of hip-hop such as Säye Skye’s raps with rhythmic Persian accompaniment. These sections were set in juxtaposition to moments of pure opera like when Eskandani gave voice to the censored and banned books by operatically singing the words “Come open me.
Then Mansouri would break down these absolutes or pure forms of these styles. In the “Come open me” scene, Eskandani’s solo expands to include rap thereby creating tension to portray the character being forbidden to reveal herself. There were also examples of cohesion including when Hajek as Lucifer sang operatically in short repetitive patterns drawing together opera and the rhythmic patterns in hip-hop. I interpreted these various attempts at combining these disparate musics as a representation of the power struggles or resolutions in such situations as woman being objectified or the child terrorist promised heavenly reward.
A Troubling Conclusion
Although the musical journey was intriguing throughout, I found myself troubled by the opera’s conclusion. When the child frees herself from dogma by writing her own rules, picking and choosing from several books, Bickersteth performs a rap closest to what we would expect of the genre. Abruptly after she ascends to the purest form of opera as she soars up to the highest note in the performance to the words, “I am God.”
Textually the conclusion suggests choosing one’s own path through a combination of several idioms. On the other hand, the music suggests that this path is not one of cohesion, but maintaining the difference between genres. In my opinion, this undermines Tap:Ex’s purpose: a collaboration among “opposing” genres to create new and interesting pathways. However, Forbidden’s conclusion puts us back where we started from separating opera and hip-hop. I was let down somewhat at the end after seeing so many interesting combinations of these genres throughout the work.
Broader still, what does then does this then say about things that are forbidden? That we should neglect to forge pathways between them and instead keep them isolated and accept them that way? Although this is one possible solution, I think Forbidden demonstrates earlier in the work that there are far more interesting ones to be explored.