Cities of Salt: A new opera explores how the discovery of oil changed the Middle East

Composed by a Syrian, there's a Syrian singer in the lead role, and it deals with a very topical Middle Eastern theme

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The Independent Culture

Shows at Covent Garden's Linbury Theatre can be either glimpses of heaven, or hell on earth, and the in the past couple of years we've had examples of both. Turkeys like Ben Frost's mind‑numbing demolition of The Wasp Factory and Luca Francesconi's unspeakable Quartett have been offset by Georg Friedrich Haas's miniature masterpiece Atthis, and by the brilliant chamber opera which Philip Glass created out of Kafka's The Trial. This little underground theatre is a test-bed for shows which are either still in development or too commercially risky for the main house upstairs.

The opera Cities of Salt, four scenes of which will air there next week, is in many ways a first: it's composed by a Syrian, there's a Syrian singer in the lead role, and it deals with a very topical Middle Eastern theme. But perhaps we shouldn't be too surprised, because opera has long had a foothold in the Middle East. It was in Cairo that Aida had its premiere in 1871, at a time when the Egyptian bourgeoisie was busy westernising itself with everything from architecture to dress styles and music. And until revolution erupted in 2011, Damascus and Aleppo had been – along with Beirut – Western classical music's beachheads in the Arab world.

The new opera's libretto, by the American professors Rosalind Morris and Yvette Christianse, is based on Abdul Rahman Munif's novel Cities of Salt, which is set in a thinly veiled Saudi Arabia and deals with the discovery of oil in the 1930s and its consequences: the arrival of the Americans, the country's transformation into a modern economy, and the spectral prospect of a future where the oil has run out.

Hence the metaphor implicit in the title: the city built on salt, which may crumble into dust. "We can't understand our world without understanding the place of oil," say the librettists. "But the story of those who have been most affected by its discovery have not often been told. Munif tells a story which everyone should hear."

This view is shared by John Fulljames, who runs the programme for the Linbury. "This piece was interesting to us because we no longer live in a Europe-dominated world," he says. "And opera should no longer be a purely European art form."

The project came to him via an interesting route. Oliver Butterworth and Peter Wiegold, who run the Brunel Institute for Contemporary Middle Eastern Music, have long been bringing Middle-Eastern musicians to London, and when they got a request for a composer from the librettists of Cities of Salt they put forward six names, from whom the librettists chose the Syrian composer Zaid Jabri.

As Butterworth observes, Jabri's music had initially been influenced by Penderecki, but after finding his own voice he now writes in a style which, though using Western techniques, employs microtones in the Arabic manner.

"He's musically bilingual like many Arab musicians," says Butterworth admiringly. "They can play microtonally as easily as tonally in the Western style – something which Western string players find very difficult to do. They just think of it all as music."

And they've cast a formidably good Syrian-Armenian soprano in the central role. Talar Dekrmanjian has long been a hot ticket in the opera houses of Brussels and Paris, and is a noted recitalist on both sides of the Atlantic. But Aleppo is her home town, and she went back to Damascus in 2011 to sing the role of Lauretta for the opening performance of Puccini's Gianni Schicchi in the new opera house.

"I have sung Zaid's music before, and I find it very impressive," she says. "And the story of this opera relates very much to the real world, to the effect the discovery of oil has had on Middle Eastern society. In this work you feel intensely the atmosphere of the place."

So who will come to this one-off performance at the Linbury? Interested parties from other opera houses, and Fulljames has made a point of inviting representatives from Saudi Arabia – though he doesn't yet know if they will turn up. In his view, the ideal co-producing partnership would be between Covent Garden and one of the many new opera houses of the Middle East.

The way things are going in Syria, music looks like an endangered activity, though Butterworth – who went to Damascus in 2012 to re-audition players of the Syrian National Symphony Orchestra – was rung up recently and told that the orchestra had just given a well-attended concert of Beethoven and Brahms. "It's important to remember", he says, "that until three years ago Damascus was the most vibrantly liberal multicultural and multi-religious city in the Middle East."

Last week I met Syria's leading young pianist Riyad Nicolas, who was preparing for a series of recitals in which he is playing works by contemporary Syrian composers as well as the usual Schumann and Beethoven. He talks nostalgically of the way classical music was going from strength to strength in Syria in the first decade of this century, but he says many of his teachers and fellow students have had to emigrate.

He no longer dares to visit his parents in Aleppo, partly because the road along which you must drive to and from the airport is so popular with kidnappers. He can't get in, and his parents can't get out. "When I look at photos of Aleppo now," he says sadly, "I have to remind myself that this is real, and not a terrible dream."

'Cities of Salt' will be performed in the Linbury Theatre, Royal Opera House, London WC2 (020 7304 4000) on 22 July

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