Abraham in Flames: Art and Authenticity Through a Persian Lens
When Niloufar Talebi was growing up in post-Revolution Iran, her parents held literary salons, and Ahmad Shamlou, considered by many to be the father of modern Persian poetry, was a frequent guest. Shamlou was a larger-than-life figure for Talebi, who made a deep and lasting impression on her as she was coming of age, and throughout her life as a female Iranian seeking her true, authentic self. Memories of those inspirational visits form the basis of Talebi’s latest work, Abraham in Flames, an opera premiering on May 9–12 at Z Space in San Francisco.
Based in San Francisco since 1994, Talebi is an award-winning translator, author, and multidisciplinary artist whose projects have been commissioned by many prestigious organizations, including Carnegie Hall, Cal Performances, and the Kennedy Center, and has been the recipient of numerous awards and grants. This project, however, was conceived and created by her independently, a process she admits has been exhausting, but richly rewarding.
Abraham in Flames is also the title of one of Shamlou’s book of poems. “It was a book written about and dedicated to people who fought for freedom — people like Che Guevara and other Iranian freedom fighters who were being persecuted under the shah’s regime,” said Talebi, explaining that it is based on a metaphor from the biblical story of Abraham who is thrown into the fire by the king of Babylon because he doesn’t believe in idols, just one true God. But he doesn’t get burned. “His chains melt and he walks out of the fire, his face glowing like gold.”
Talebi started working on the opera seven years ago on December 12, 2012 —Shamlou’s birthday (he died in 2000). Dedicated to his legacy, she hopes to share his artistic message as something that could echo through to the next generation. “It’s basically a reflection of Shamlou through my experience of him, as a young artist and a young woman coming of age,” said Talebi.
In early 2014, director Roy Rallo came onboard, who Talebi met through her husband, who “set me up on a blind artistic date with Roy,” said Talebi. “We met for a glass of wine, and we have not stopped talking about it. He basically became the best friend and the sounding board and the dramaturg of this project.”
After attending a performance of Janet Cardiff’s sound installation The Forty-Part Motet at Fort Mason with Rallo, where the 40 vocal parts are projected through 40 individual speakers, they were both so moved by the glorious choral sound, they decided to do something unconventional — to cast the Young Women’s Choral Projects (YWCP) of San Francisco as the main character, Girl, in the opera. “They are so hardworking and the most amazing artists,” said Talebi. “And they are exactly at the age when I knew Shamlou, between 11 and 18, and there’s still that angelic quality about them.” She goes on to explain that when they workshopped the piece in 2017, many of the girls told her how meaningful the libretto was to them, and how it spoke directly to their own challenges in life.
Inspired by a question Talebi’s father asked her when she was a girl, about who she really wanted to be, the girl in the opera is struggling to be authentic. She is pushed, pulled, and taunted, provoked and challenged by the five soloists in the opera: Angel (countertenor Ryan Belongie), Poet (mezzo-soprano Renée Rapier), Fear (soprano Nikki Einfeld), Knowing (bass Kirk Eichelberger), and Happiness (tenor Andrew Metzger). “Calling it an opera is really a random thing,” said Talebi. “Yes we have opera singers in the show, but we really look at it as performance art.”
The original score, which Talebi describes as a combination of rock ’n’ roll, with a little bit of Balkan, Middle Eastern, and classical, was written by composer Aleksandra Vrebalov. After searching for the right composer for a long time, when Talebi heard some of Vrebalov’s music, she said, “It struck me how beautifully she set text, and that’s not an easy thing to do. The music was really visceral and I could tell that she was an artist with a capital ‘A,’ not just a composer.” She had someone introduce them, and after several conversations, Vrebalov was brought on board.
At that time, the project was mostly focused on Shamlou’s life, but Vrebalov thought it would be more interesting to focus on women and the story of coming of age, how art changes us, and how we use the creative process as a way of looking into the world. This immediately resonated with Talebi. It was also Vrebalov’s idea to cast the role of the poet Shamlou as a woman, which Talebi thought was brilliant. “Now we don’t have this imposing baritone figure as the larger-than-life figure looming over a group of 40 young women who are rising to claim their agency.”
The “orchestra” will be conducted by Musical Director Stefano Flavoni, and comprises an eclectic mix of musicians and instruments, including Ron Borelli on accordion, Matthew Boyles on clarinet, Lucas Chen on cello, Rachel Patrick on violin, and contemporary chamber-arts duo The Living Earth Show, (guitarist Travis Andrews and percussionist Andy Myerson) on a variety of instruments.
Talebi says she hopes to expose audiences to multiple messages in the opera, including taking a fresh look at Iran and introducing them to Shamlou, a world-class cultural figure that they have probably never heard of. And then there’s the deeper, universal message of discovering and insisting on being our own true selves. “It’s a very serious, dramatic, beautiful, and emotionally complex piece,” says Talebi. “It has taught me that I can do anything I want.”
Now in its last week of rehearsals, Talebi said they are still tweaking and fine-tuning the piece. “It is like putting the final touches on a couture dress that so many hands have touched,” she said. “It will be the harvest of a long collaborative process, one we are all working to bring to life so that we can finally ‘meet’ the new creation about to be born.”