Q & A: Niloufar Talebi on ‘Abraham in Flames’ & Being a Multi-Faceted Creator

By Chris Ruel

Niloufar Talebi is an author, award-winning translator, multi-disciplinary artist, and producer.

She has received commissions from Carnegie Hall, Cal Performances, and the Atlanta Symphony, and her work has been featured at Stanford Live, Brooklyn Academy of Music, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Kennedy Center, World Literature Today, PBS Frontline, ArteEast, Bidoun, Poetry International, Rattapalax, and Mother Jones Magazine.

Now she is adding “opera creator” to her resume with “Abraham in Flames.” The opera, set to have its world premiere in May of 2019, connects with themes found in her recently finished book, “Self Portrait in Bloom.” In both works, Ms. Talebi explores happiness, knowledge, and the journey we undertake to become our true selves.

OperaWire recently connected with Talebi to talk about the challenges of creating an opera in today’s landscape.

OperaWire: In the “Abraham in Flames” opera workshop video, you speak of commitment to one’s calling. When did you discover your calling as an artist? Did you know from an early age that you wanted to devote your life to art or did that come later?

Niloufar Talebi: I don’t remember a time when I did not know deep in my bones who I was. I don’t have a word for it — I suppose we could call it artist, but that sense of “Knowing” one’s nature is preverbal and post-category. I just knew. So I can’t determine an exact moment of inception, like the Birth of Venus, or decision, like the Judgment of Paris, for being/becoming an artist.

OW: What were some of the challenges you overcame to fulfilling this calling?

NT: Reading over my old journals I see years in dilemma, questioning whether I should be taking a safer route to relieve my parents’ concerns about the wellness of their child in the world, agonizing about how my life would turn out. But I also never made serious efforts to do anything else, deferring the implications of my “commitment” to my calling to the eons that lay in the distance. Well, that eons-away future is here, revealing to me more and more as I get older the consequences of my choices. In fact, our opera, “Abraham in Flames,” is very much about wrestling with these fundamental choices in life.

And though I have tried on many different mediums, writing has always been the foundation of my “multi-faceted” and multimedia work. I just finished writing “Self-Portrait in Bloom,” a part memoir, part biography, part photo-essay, and part poetry-in-translation book that explores the tension between our quest for Happiness and our sense of Knowing. Self-Portrait in Bloom is the book I always wanted to write, and it also happens to be an “exploded view” of Abraham in Flames. 

OW: Let’s talk about “Abraham in Flames,” starting with the title of the opera; what’s the meaning behind it?

NT: The title, “Abraham in Flames,” is borrowed from the title of the 1974 book of poems by the iconic Iranian poet, Ahmad Shamlou (1925-2000). The book’s title and title poem conjure the biblical story of young Abraham who believed in the one true god and broke the idols in his family’s store. The king of Babylon ordered Abraham to be burned in a fire. Abraham just sat in the fire and walked away peaceful, face illuminated, as if in a garden.

Shamlou used this story as a metaphor for those who fought for and sacrificed their lives for their truth, specifically the activists who resisted the Shah of Iran’s despotic regime. Shamlou paid homage to these committed people.

I have adopted that notion to explore the purity each of us starts with and the choices we must make swayed by Fear versus our sense of Knowing and our desire for Happiness, all tugging at our human hearts. The opera is set up somewhat as a medieval morality play, and the young women’s chorus who plays the lead character in the opera, singing the role of Everygirl, confronts having to make a life choice. The opera is about the trials of fire we humans endure in our journey to become truly ourselves. I endured a trial by fire during the creation of the opera and book, which fed into the overall concept.

OW: “Abraham in Flames” is about living an authentic life and pushing aside fear and self-doubt. How has the process of creating “Abraham in Flames” impacted your journey towards authentic selfhood, both as an artist and a person?

NT: It has not been so much the creation of the work but the obstacles that I have had to overcome to create “Abraham in Flames” and “Self-Portrait in Bloom” that have confirmed to me what I am made of. I had to fight to gain back my voice after a devastating act of silencing.

The creation and spearheading of the work has been the most challenging task of my life. It pushes me past my comfort zone. It has been much like a teenager’s growth spurt. And harrowing: to do this opera has meant to walk a narrow, cliff-side path that only climbs up to a summit I cannot see. It is discomfort 100 percent of the time, and yet, such commitment-confirming elixir. I’ve also learned the value of surrounding oneself with the best possible team.

OW: “Abraham in Flames’” main character is the girls’ chorus. Can you talk about why you and your collaborators, the composer Aleksandra Vrebalov, and the director, Roy Rallo decided to put the chorus front and center? How do you bring such a character to life? What’s the journey the young women embark upon in song and story that makes the character compelling?

NT: The idea to place the Young Women’s Chorus of San Francisco front and center was spawned while our director and dramaturg Roy Rallo and I were at the Janet Cardiff “Fort Part Motet” installation. Those forty voices surrounded us, and we heard them as we otherwise never could. Experiencing the beauty and transparency of those voices was the turning point for the opera during a moment it had to shapeshift in the face of obstacles. It went from being about the cinematic life and staggering work of Shamlou, its inspiring poet, to being about his impact on my life (my parents hosted him at our home from 1980-1984, the tumultuous four years we lived in Iran after the 1979 revolution), hence about the young women representing Everygirl.

OW: You describe yourself as a seasoned team player. What’s the process been like working with Aleksandra and Roy, on “Abraham in Flames?” What’s the chemistry, and what unique perspectives do Aleksandra and Roy bring to the project?

NT: I am more of a seasoned instigator of projects since childhood. The process of working with Roy has been long and organic because Roy is an incredible soul. I don’t think the opera would have developed without his sensitive and mindful shepherding. He has been there almost since the seed of the idea (which was late 2012).

Aleksandra joined the team in 2016. She sets words to music so well. She is also intuitive and quickly connected with the big idea behind the project. It was her idea to transform the poet figure in the opera from male to female because the dynamics of a larger-than-life male figure looming over young women was counter-productive to a project that ultimately wants to give people—especially young women—permission to be who they are.

At this moment in history, the normalization of a male figure imposing on young women should not be perpetuated. Aleksandra writes gorgeous and dark music and she has the superpower of flexibility with the libretto as I tweak it in the 11thhour. Roy and Aleksandra also have excellent chemistry, a kind of project-based love affair.

OW: In “So You Want to Make an Opera,” an article you wrote about your decision to create “Abraham in Flames,” you talk about how opera explores the highs and lows of the human experience. You mention the terror you often feel having taken on such a big project. When you hit a low, what keeps you going? Also, what have been the highs, the moments of joy?

NT: What keeps me going when I hit my lows are the team and project I cannot let down. And the art itself.

My high points were the creative epiphanies in the process of imagining the project, as well as hearing Aleksandra’s music during our full-cast fall 2017 workshop.

OW: You were born in London to Iranian parents, and you are a translator and performer of Iranian literature—poetry in particular, both ancient and modern. Listening to, and watching your work, there is a musicality to the Persian language and connection music and performance has with the poetry of the culture. How has this influenced your past musical work, The Persian Rite of Spring, Persian Opera Cycle, Epiphany: A Requiem Mass, and now Abraham in Flames?

NT: I suppose I have never extricated the notion of music from language. So much of writing and translation is based on cadence and pace, the musicality of words. Often times when I am translating, I opt for the more musical choice than a more “strictly faithful” one (and that notion can mean a range of things we cannot get into here).

My penchant toward poetry and poetic experiences has been questioned by some opera makers as not dramatic enough. I understand why they feel that way because they are coming from the narrative-driven Broadway musical sensibility with clean-cut stories and dramatic arcs. But the truth is that I prefer, have always made, and will continue to make projects that affect my audiences in a “poetic” way. I want my audiences to walk away moved, shattered, lifted, transformed, and brought into touch with their humanity in the way that only poetry incites. That is not to say that I have not and will not continue to work on pieces that are more traditionally narrative. I think Abraham in Flames accomplished both.

OW: What was your first opera experience? What was it about the art form that took hold of your imagination and led you to become involved in opera, first as a librettist and now as a full-on creator?

NT: Apparently (from finding an old ticket stub), I went to see Bellini’s “Norma” in my twenties. Later, I was a supernumerary at the San Francisco Opera under Lotfi Mansouri in operas like “Carmen,” “Salome,” and “Rigoletto,” among others, but I like to think that my first operatic moment was seeing Wagner’s “Parsifal.” I was devastated that the life-changing experience was over after only 4 hours. I had not had enough, and thus was born both an opera lover and a Wagner fan.

I am an accidental librettist. I was asked to write a song cycle being that I had paired poetry/text and music before in my own theatrical works. I was also raised around classical music and learned to play the piano in my early years, so it was a natural connection. Soon after the song cycle, I was a resident artist at two opera-maker programs, receiving invaluable training in the art form.

I am not one to wait for others to make things happen for me. Also, I learned that in order to get my big vision to actually materialize, I must take an active part in the thousand steps and details of a project. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE being (only!) the writer. It is the best place to be since your work happens at the front end of projects. But often, I am not aligned with some aspects of the process or final work. So, unfortunately, that leaves me with no choice but to spearhead.

I say “unfortunately,” because then I take on a staggering amount of responsibility which includes gathering and managing my team, people who are more adept than me in their skills. I cannot imagine failing to make good on the larger vision that I have, which inevitably means I am the creator of projects. I think if the fundraising element of a project was not so stressful, I would more wholly enjoy the entire position.

OW: If you could go back to your early days of creating, what one piece of advice would you give yourself? Moreover, what would you say to someone who aspires to be multi-faceted like you? How would you encourage them on their journey?

NT: Master a craft so you can break all the rules. I seem to just break rules.

I did not aspire to be “multi-faceted.” I just do what I want to do. (I have a large public art project in me that is waiting to come out, by the way.) My advice: go ahead and collect all the input you want, but listen only to your inner voice to discover what you want. Banish anyone who expects you to be a certain way. And there is zero competition in the world: there is only one you, and your top job is to be the best you.

As far as encouragement: however bad you think you have it, remember that Van Gogh cut his own ear off and died unknown, lonely, and penniless. I consider this fact daily.

OW: Who has influenced your art the most, particularly your operatic work?

NT: Pina Bausch, the poet of the human condition.

OperaWire: Do you have a favorite opera?

I have several favorite operas: Janáček’s “Jenůfa,” Carlisle Floyd’s “Susannah,” Ted Hearne’s “Katrina Ballads” (even if it’s an oratorio), Osvaldo Golijov and Henry David Hwang’s “Ainadamar,” Ana Sokolovic’s “Svadba (Wedding),” Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel,” Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde,” the second act of Saariaho’s “L’Amour de Loin,”whose libretto by Amin Maalouf is one of the most beautiful texts I have seen. The way Maalouf managed to turn things around with only a couple of sentences at the end is pure wizardry. And I look forward to hearing Missy Mazzoli’s recent operas with librettist Royce Vavrek.


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