New opera ID, Please took on a shocking realism for its female British-Iranian composer at the height of Trump’s “Muslim Ban”. Here Soosan Lolavar writes for IAM on her experience – and how fact turned out to be stranger than fiction.
ID, Please, a new opera about immigration and borders with a libretto by Daniel Hirsch, will receive its European premiere on 25 July as part of the 2017 Tête à Tête opera festival. It was previously premiered at Pittsburgh Opera in April 2017.
A year ago, when myself and the playwright Daniel Hirsch discussed a storyline for the opera that we would write together, we had no idea how acutely world events would become entangled in our work. At the time, I was living in Pittsburgh, USA studying Iranian classical music at Carnegie Mellon University with the help of a Fulbright Scholarship. As a British-Iranian immigrant to the US, I was deeply disturbed by the rhetoric of the Republican primaries unfolding around us, particularly the much discussed ‘Muslim ban,’ supported in various gradations by every single Republican candidate. At the time (the halcyon days of early 2016) such a move seemed like grotesque political posturing: a racist and divisive move, but surely one that no sane candidate would ever actually enact. Against this backdrop we briefly considered writing an opera about Trump, but decided that he would likely be gone from public life by the time of the opera’s performance and so might seem like a strange choice of figure. In the end we settled on a piece about immigration, set at border control in an unnamed country and time and considering contemporary rhetoric on borders, nationalism and others.
In February 2017, five days before I was due to fly to the US to attend the rehearsals of our immigration-themed opera, ID, Please, I received the news that, due to my dual British-Iranian nationality, I was officially banned from entering the country. My experience was, thankfully, shortlived, since soon enough the privilege of my British passport swung into action and dual nationals of the UK were given special dispensation to travel. This is not to say that I experienced immigration without fear. On landing at JFK I braced myself for extra questioning and, in an eerie echo of one of the lines from the opera, “clutched my passport so hard it made my hand hurt”. Oddly, in the end the officer asked me no questions at all. Perhaps he was just tired after an exhausting week, perhaps he forgot, or perhaps it was due to the fact that the Temporary Restraining Order on the bill had been enacted just four hours before I landed. I suppose I will never know.
Needless to say, the events of this year have brought the opera into terrifyingly sharp focus, with the shape of the work altering several times as a result. In reaction to world events, Daniel Hirsch added references to ‘building walls’, ‘checking their teeth’ and ‘a billionaire tyrant’, as well as an instance where a Muslim passenger is asked to visit a different queue on disclosure of her religion (eerily enough, this line was added before we could be sure the Muslim Ban was anything other than bloviating election rhetoric).
Despite these oblique contemporary references, the opera as a whole is located everywhere and nowhere, with the travellers representing everyone and nobody at all. Of a total of three singers, only the baritone border guard represents a fixed and conventional character. The other singers act as ciphers playing multiple travellers with no names, switching gender, religion and backstory dozens of times throughout the opera. Thus, while one singer proclaims themselves a refugee in one instance, they may disclose that they are a drug smuggler, a human-rights activist or a student soon after. Our intention was that the audience is left with a feeling of uncertainty of who anybody really is. Are any of us truly and completely honest at borders? Can the list of questions asked really enable you to know someone? Is there such a thing as an innocent or a guilty person?
As a result of such shifting characters, the work as a whole eschews a conventional narrative arc. A question I’m regularly asked is how many of the travellers make it through to the other side of the border. The answer is we have no idea. We focus on the plight of one person only briefly and, before we know the outcome, the action shifts to someone new. Here the story explores how individuality (and humanity) can be erased at borders as unique life experiences harden into case numbers. This is true both for travellers facing the power of the state, and for those that work at border control whose individualism is stripped away by a life of dull, repetitive tasks.
ID, Please has become a complex process through which I work through my feelings of instability in the new world order, my fears for immigrant communities across the world and my concerns for the safety of my family and friends. As a result of recent political events, I certainly feel a greater sense of responsibility to produce a piece of work that adequately represents the complexity of such positions.
Soosan Lolavar is a British-Iranian composer, sound artist and educator who works in both electronic and acoustic sound, and across the genres of concert music, contemporary dance, installation, film, animation and theatre. Her work has been performed at the Royal Festival Hall, V&A, National Maritime Museum, ICA, Chisenhale Gallery, LSE New Academic Building, Blackheath Concert Halls, Jacqueline Du Pré Music Centre, Bonnie Bird Theatre, Circus Space and broadcast on BBC Radio 3.
The 25 July premiere at Tête à Tête opera festival will be preceded by a free panel discussion at 6pm alongside Counterpoints Arts – an organisation promoting art by refugees and migrants – in which we will discuss the recent tide of xenophobia in the UK and ask what role the arts should play in responding to anti-immigrant rhetoric. The opera is funded by Carnegie Mellon University, Arts Council England and Iran Heritage Foundation.