Tuesday, February 15, 2022

A Conversation with Sheila Silver

The Composer of A Thousand Splendid Suns

Sheila Silver is an important voice in American music today. An award-winning composer, she has written for solo instruments, large orchestra, opera, and feature film. Audiences and critics praise her music as powerful, emotionally charged, accessible, and masterfully conceived. “Only few composers in any generation enliven the art form with their musical language and herald new directions in music. Sheila Silver is such a visionary.” (Wetterauer Zeitung, Germany)
Sheila spoke with Seattle Opera over Zoom for a chat that covered her inspirations for composing A Thousand Splendid Suns, her deep dive into Hindustani music, growing up in Seattle, and more.

Seattle Opera: Why did you want to tackle a project like A Thousand Splendid Suns?

Sheila Silver: I think that in order for a story to have opera potential it has to be ‘larger than life.’ Opera tells big stories in big ways, even if it is few in characters. I fell in love with Mariam and Laila and wanted to tell their story. It is the story of two women, a generation apart, who are each forced into marriage with the same brutal man. While there are a few big scenes with many people on stage, it is mostly an intimate story, set in the homes of the characters. But the emotions and the actions of Laila and Mariam are on a grand scale—their love is deep, their struggle and sacrifices are heroic, and the circumstances under which they are living are brutal. A Thousand Splendid Suns is a powerful and emotional story that lends itself to being sung.

Seattle Opera: Were you intimidated to take on a narrative of this intensity?

Sheila Silver: Yes, of course. I remember talking to a friend and colleague, pianist Gilbert Kalish, about composing an opera on A Thousand Splendid Suns. I told him I wasn’t sure I could do it. It was bigger in scope and emotion than anything I’d ever undertaken. His advice was ‘To follow your heart…follow your instincts.’ Which of course I have been doing all my life. But he gave me that little nudge I needed. That was in 2011. I just committed to myself to compose this opera and here we are in 2022 with the opera in full production. Pretty exciting! An opera composer has to have a lot of patience. In the summer of 2012, over lunch, Khaled Hosseini asked me how long I thought it would take to compose the opera and get it performed. I said somewhere between six and eight years. That was wishful thinking!

Winner of the 2007 Raymond and Beverly Sackler Prize in Music Composition for Opera, The Wooden Sword received its fully staged world premiere performance at the University of Connecticut’s Nafe Katter Theater in November, 2010. Credit: Peter Bagley

Seattle Opera: Tell me about some of your other operas.

Sheila Silver: My first opera, The Thief of Love, is a feel-good romantic comedy based on a 16th-century Bengali tale about a very smart princess who can’t find a man who is smart enough for her. Being an unmarried woman in my 30s at the time, I saw it as a modern story told in ancient mythical times. My second opera, The Wooden Sword, is a chamber opera based on a Jewish folktale about trusting in joy and not in fear—something we all need to do. It was awarded the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Prize in Music Composition for Opera in 2007.

Seattle Opera: Have you always wanted to be composer?

Sheila Silver: No. The idea of being a composer wasn’t in the realm of my imagination as a young girl growing up in Seattle. I knew of no women composers. Composers were men and mostly dead white men. But I was always very serious about playing the piano. I started at the age of 5. It defined me. I was the kid who went home to practice [Wolfgang Amadeus] Mozart or [Béla] Bartók when the other kids were hanging out. My mother was a very good violinist who stopped playing when she graduated college and started having kids. My father listened to classical music constantly. But back in the ’60s in Seattle, most women got married out of college.

After graduating from Rainier Beach High School (1964), I spent two years at the University of Washington. Being a pianist or a musicologist seemed to be the only avenues open to me. After a junior year abroad, I ended up at UC Berkeley, where, towards the end of my undergraduate studies, I began to compose. Upon graduation, Berkeley awarded me the George Ladd Prix de Paris to study composition in Europe for two years, and I was off and running. In Paris, I saw my first woman composer, Betsy Jolas, take a bow at a concert. ‘That’s what a woman composer looks like!’ I thought to myself.

Back then, there were not many women composers. Now there are many. In 1979, I was only the second woman to win a Rome Prize. In March 2020, I was invited to be the Elliot Carter Distinguished Visiting Composer at the American Academy in Rome. Both of the Rome Prize Fellows in Composition that year were women—both were African American! Now that’s a change! I was fortunate to have mentors like Miriam Gideon. She was a generation older than me. I had opportunities that she never had and my women students are getting opportunities that I didn’t have. Slowly the situation is changing.

Seattle Opera: Why is it important to tell Laila and Mariam’s story now?

Sheila Silver: For obvious reasons, the world is focused on Afghanistan right now. But Afghanistan has been a part of our lives for more than 20 years. Unfortunately, America’s collective memory is short. The story is important, first of all, because it provides an understanding of a country and culture that we Americans know little about. Secondly, Laila and Mariam’s story is universal. Their bonding is a universal bonding that women experience. Thirdly, it is important because throughout the world, abuse and suppression of women is an ongoing problem.

Director Roya Sadat (left) and composer Sheila Silver (right) in Sheila's studio in 2022.

Seattle Opera: How has it been to work with Roya Sadat, the director, on this?

Sheila Silver: I am thrilled to be working with Roya. She has been a champion of women’s rights for years, and now, due to the recent upheaval in Afghanistan, she is seeking asylum in the US. Seattle Opera has invited a gifted Afghan storyteller, filmmaker, and television producer to bring her vision to this story presented in a Western art form, opera, which is not part of her heritage but which she has embraced with astonishing alacrity. She will infuse the production with an extraordinary authenticity. She grew up in the same places as Laila and Mariam. Today, Roya is the same age as Laila would be. She has lived (and continues to live) this story. I think bringing someone from a non-Western background as a guest artist to collaborate as director will yield unique results for our Western opera. Bottom line: Roya is a force—she takes my breath away. I love the diversity of our team.

Sheila Silver (left) with Pandit Narayanrao Bodas (right) during the opening ceremonies for a Katak dance concert.

Seattle Opera: In preparation for writing this opera, you took a deep dive into Hindustani music.

Sheila Silver: Yes. When I decided to make A Thousand Splendid Suns into an opera, I said to Steve [Kitsakos], my librettist, that I didn’t believe my Eastern European American Jewish roots could take me far enough for this project. I decided to find a way to go to India and study Hindustani music, the classical music of Pakistan, Northern India, and Afghanistan. On the web I found the blog of Deepak Raja, an acclaimed Hindustani musicologist. I wrote to him and he immediately offered to mentor me and help me find the right teacher in India. He taught me online for six months and introduced me to the Bodas family, Pandit Narayanrao Bodas (Nana) and his son Pandit Kedar Bodas, both of the Gwalior school, who agreed to take “the American woman.” Coincidentally, I got a Guggenheim grant that would cover the costs and so in June 2013 I set off on the initial six-month sojourn in India with my husband and 14-year-old son.

In Pune, I went to my teacher’s house every day except Sundays. Bodas Senior taught me sometimes but mostly I was taught by his son, Kedar. From eight in the morning to one in the afternoon, it was rigorous learning. The Bodases are vocalists and there is a long tradition of learning Hindustani music first through the voice, so I went prepared to sing. Our studio consisted of a core of students who, like me, came every day. They were mostly the age of my graduate students and I delighted in being a student again. Bansuri and sitar players also came frequently to study with Kedar. And there was always a tabla player or two around. I was in the inner sanctum of a musical family and community and was welcomed into their homes and hearts. I had no idea when I went how powerful the experience would be and how profoundly it would influence my compositional voice.

Sheila Silver (center) with tabla teacher Amey Parwate (right) and Pandit Kedar Bodas (left).
Seattle Opera: How did this experience affect your writing?

Sheila Silver: Studying Hindustani music has influenced the pacing of my harmonic rhythm and has suggested fresh melodic ways to use tonality. In the opera, most of the arias and themes are based on a raga. A raga is a collection of notes: Sa, Re, Ga, Ma, Pa, Dha, Ni, and Sa, much like our Do, Re, Mi...Except there are hundreds of ragas, and in Western tonal music, we focus primarily on two scales: major and minor. A raga is a collection of notes that has identifying melodic characteristics and specific voice leading rules. As a composer, the voice leading rules were easy to grasp because we have them, albeit different ones in Western music.

Each raga also has a specific spiritual meaning and times of day with which it is associated. I fell in love with every raga Kedar taught me. Often, when we’d start a new one, I’d think to myself, ‘this can be the basis for the love music,’ or ‘this can be used for the lullaby,’ or ‘this can be for Mariam when she is dancing around the tree waiting for her father.’ Once the themes are established, like any leitmotif, they can return, be transformed, etc. Importantly, my opera is not Hindustani music. I could never write Hindustani music. In fact, one doesn’t write down Hindustani music. It is improvised. A Thousand Splendid Suns is Western operatic music. But Hindustani music inspires the opera’s sound world. From the moment the orchestra opens on a drone (which is used consistently in Hindustani music), with a melody on the bansuri played above it in Raag Bilas Kanitodi, this Western music says we are somewhere in Hindusthan.

Seattle Opera: Is there anything else that you would like our audience to know about A Thousand Splendid Suns?

Sheila Silver: This collaboration of Hindusthan/Muslim culture interfacing with Western opera is going to be unique operatic event. I find that amazingly exciting. I think your audiences will find that exciting too!

Based on Khaled Hosseini's best-selling novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns has captured the hearts of millions, including American composer Sheila Silver and librettist Stephen Kitsakos, who adapted the novel for the opera stage. Directing the production is Afghan filmmaker Roya Sadat, whose trailblazing work as one of Afghanistan’s first female film directors has garnered more than 20 international film awards, including the 2021 Kim Dae-jung Nobel Peace Film Award and the 2018 International Women of Courage Award presented by the United States Department of State. Seattle Opera's world premiere of A Thousand Splendid Suns runs Feb. 25 & 26 and Mar. 3, 5, 8 & 11, 2023 at McCaw Hall. Tickets & info at seattleopera.org/suns.


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