Artist of the Week: Zara Houshmand

Iranain-American Librettist Premieres New Work at Music of Remembrance

By Francisco Salazar

On March 10, 2024, Music of Remembrance will present the world premiere of “Phoenix,” a work that was inspired by the 16-year-old Nika Shakarami who joined other Iranian girls and citizens in protesting the death of Mahsa Amini and who died in the custody of the Iranian morality police after appearing in public without the mandated head covering.

The new piece is composed by Sahba Aminikia and features a libretto by Zara Houshmand, an Iranian American writer raised in the Philippines and educated in London, whose work bridges cultural divides and includes poetry, theatre, memoir, and literary translation.

In anticipation of the world premiere, OperaWire did a short interview with the acclaimed librettist.

OperaWire: Tell me about having the work premiere at Music of Remembrance and what does that mean to you as a librettist?

Zara Houshmand: Music of Remembrance commissions and presents music that explores the consequences of persecution and intolerance. The inclusiveness of their mission, and its focus on social justice, speaks to me deeply. So much of my professional life I have felt the need to defend Iranian culture—not the Iranian regime, of course, but the Iranian people, literature, music, arts—in the face of stereotyping and prejudice. At the same time, I don’t want to be stuck in that pigeon-hole because that identity is far from the totality of who I am and my work ventures into many realms that have nothing at all to do with Iran. I want my work to be bigger than questions of identity, and I want it to speak to a broad audience inclusively.

Given the humanitarian crisis in the Middle East today, the opening of old wounds, and the relentless demonizing of Iran as a threat in the background, for Music of Remembrance to present this piece right now is an act of courage, and a bridge that links person to person, heart to heart, in a terribly polarized world. I’m proud to be part of that.

OW: How does it feel to have the piece premiere around International Women’s Day?

ZH: In the same way that I don’t want to be limited by identifying as an Iranian American artist, I don’t want to be confined to writing about women. One of the most inspirational aspects of what is happening in Iran now is that women are driving a cultural shift that changes everything. It’s not just about women’s rights per se, it’s about the entire society—of which women are an essential part—and in this moment it is women who are the leaders. Even more, it is ordinary young women, not women who have spent a lifetime trying to advance in a man’s world. That’s a radical change, and if International Women’s Day can honor that change, so much the better. But it’s a matter of years, and lifetimes, not just one day.

OW: As an Iranian American librettist, what was the biggest challenge of doing this piece and what do you hope people take away from this piece?

ZH: The piece has origins, for me, in a book I’ve been working on for many years—a family memoir that includes many stories of the extreme courage and resourcefulness of Iranian women over several generations. It was a long, solitary, and sustained project and I was hungry, artistically, for the kind of collaborative experience I’ve had working in theatre. I wanted to do something more spontaneous, in the moment, and connect with other people. When Sahba approached me with the germ of an idea for a piece on the women’s movement in Iran, tied to the Phoenix theme, it was the spark that lit a fire. The writing happened almost instantaneously if you don’t count the years that I lived with the deeper stories underlying it, as if a large pot finally reached temperature and suddenly boiled over. The challenge of working in a new-to-me medium, writing for music, was another kind of spark. Everything about the process felt fresh and invigorating to me.

What I’d like people to take away is how that same creative energy I experienced represents the spirit of Iranian women and what they are doing today. It’s there historically, it’s not new, but it’s boiling over right now.

Further Readings 

To learn more about the librettist you can read “Moon and Sun,” “Running Toward Mystery,” and “A Mirror Garden.”

You can watch a candlelit reading with Houshmand.



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