Towards the new Jerusalem: 'Perhaps opera is the only way to tell the story of Sarajevo': Nigel Osborne describes the genesis of his new operatic trilogy, opening in London in August

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I first visited Sarajevo some 30 years ago. I was a tender 17, hitch-hiking back from the Middle East, ill with a nasty bug. Even through a feverish blur, the first glimpse of the city, from the Romanija hills, touched a nerve: the bright ribbon of the Miljacka river, the minarets and campaniles. The appeal of Sarajevo for me at that age was visual and exotic, something of the whole of Europe and a little of Asia, as the poet Adrian Mitchell describes it, 'glowing white as a translucent china cup'.

It was in later years, through artistic and personal contact, that I got to know the distinctive human dynamic of Sarajevo: the fluidity, wit and moody passion; the subtle cultural overlay, where some older Muslims went to pray in the wooden stalls of Christian churches to save their knees, and where anyone's religious festival was the excuse for a party.

But the impulse to write an opera about the city came from a bleaker source. Some day I hope to tell the story of how, at the outbreak of war in 1992, small groups of people, here and elsewhere, tried to offer modest help and support to Bosnia, while Western governments left it to bleed or, worse, manoeuvred against it. The fact that the help of rank amateurs was welcome at all is in itself terrifying. The campaign was hard. Sometimes the traumas of a cruel war spilled over and divided us; there was never money.

In Sarajevo, the doors of the Presidency were surrounded by sandbags. The building was under regular bombardment, and the wind blew through broken windows and dark corridors. Somehow, through improvisation and a great deal of lateral thinking, the besieged government, made up primarily of academics and ex-prisoners of conscience, managed to conjure something from absolutely nothing and mount a resistance to the tide of genocide. There are plenty of rough edges on the Bosnian government, but against all the odds it has remained democratic, multi-cultural and worthy of its citizens. This is a little miracle the world did nothing to deserve.

I saw the massive communications machine of the world's media and the UN's agencies, billions of dollars' worth of hardware rumbling through Bosnia in the name of democracy, while the Bosnians had one ailing fax machine in operation. Until just a few months ago, the armoured cars of a 'protection force' drove past streets where children were mown down by snipers. At international meetings, men in Armani suits and smart cars came from Belgrade and Zagreb. Well-fed Western emissaries sat down with war criminals to draw meaningless maps around towns whose names they could not pronounce, where people were being pounded by shells and starved to death. I am afraid that part of the impulse to make an opera, ridiculous as it seems, was anger.

The English language and the habits of our literature fall short in describing certain things. Such is the case with the atmosphere of Sarajevo during the worst of the war. In a city resembling an open carcass, with no real food or running water, where every goodbye was as if for the last time (just in case), a special spirit came about - a resourcefulness and creativity, and at the same time an electricity of human sensitivity, love and compassion which passed, and still passes, almost tangibly through the air. Of course there were tensions, suspicions and intrigues, and the massive influx of refugees has caused enormous strain and alienation. But the poet Goran Simic, not a sentimental man, calls Sarajevo a 'holy city'. It is, in its strange way, a happy Jerusalem.

Leaving the mortars and ice of Sarajevo at the height of the war, and being disgorged by a Hercules transport in Adriatic sunshine, I felt a smug sense of elation at having got out alive. But the euphoria lasted to the end of the first beer. After a long hot shower, I wondered why on earth I had left, and ached to return. Others have felt the same way.

Perhaps in such matters, where language breaks down, or where it collapses under the weight of propaganda and untruth, music, opera and music theatre are ways of touching certain emotional and spiritual urgencies. It is entirely alien to Anglo-Saxon traditions of thinking, but perhaps opera is the only way to tell the story of Sarajevo. Maybe I have failed, but some day I am sure someone will get it right.

The short chamber opera Sarajevo forms the central part of a trilogy. It is somewhere between an opera, a cabaret and a song-cycle, and the texts came mostly through direct personal contact. In the smoky vortex of Cafe Ragusa, Vedran Smailovic introduced me to the poet Admiral Mahic, whose poem 'Vedran's Cello' I quote from. There are excerpts from the journalist Mensur Camo's war diaries, full of razor-sharp observation of daily life during the siege, and bone-dry black humour. We had an unwelcome opportunity to discuss this when we were marooned together in a ghastly hotel at Heathrow waiting to fly to urgent meetings in the US while the worst snowstorm in living memory swept across the eastern seaboard.

I owe my contact with Goran Simic to the English poet David Harsent, who sent money and letters for Goran with me to Sarajevo. For much of the war Goran has found it difficult to write, but now there is an outpouring of poetry of plangent narrative power: 'After everything - I wanted to write poems like newspaper reports, so heartless, so cold, that I could forget them, forget them in the same moment that someone might ask me, 'Why do you write poems like newspaper reports?' '

The rest of the trilogy arrived by serendipity. I had an eventful collaboration with the poet Craig Raine and director Peter Sellars working on The Electrification of the Soviet Union at Glyndebourne. In that case, I had asked Craig for a libretto; now he sent one to me. Sand Storm was originally written for the composer John Woolrich, but John was apparently not at ease with it. The libretto, which takes the form of an extended cry of pain, set the right wheels turning, but then sat on my desk for more than a year. I had almost forgotten about it when one day a spark jumped from the end of Sarajevo and joined it to Sand Storm as if it had always bean intended that way. Craig's libretto has strong classical references, and is almost a mirror inversion of the last part of Euripides' Trojan Women. Excerpts from Don Taylor's elegant translation of the Greek playwright's own reaction to Athenian atrocities now form the first part of the trilogy as a play with music, whose raison d'etre I have no need to explain.

The Opera Factory production team is the old firm, part of a long-standing collaboration with David Freeman and David Roger, and the piece continues a line of work in the theatre we have developed through Hell's Angels, Faust and Morte d'Arthur. Singers Marie Angel and Tom McDonnell have come much of this way with us; now we are joined by Claire Daniels, Andrew Burden and music director Nicholas Kok. There are three ex-Yugoslav performers in the opera: Rade Serbedzija, probably one of the outstanding European actors of our time; Katja Doric, who was responsible for the wartime production of Hair in Sarajevo; and the talented young Bosnian actress, Selma Alispahic. Some of their experiences have been woven into the piece, like Katja caught by snipers in her high heels, unable to run, unwilling to fall to the ground . . .

The opera is itself something of a Trojan horse. The most significant and joyful inspiration for the piece was the work of the artists of the Obala Gallery, who created grace and beauty from the debris of war. Two installations from their Witnesses of Existence exhibition will form part of the performance at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. (The full exhibition, in collaboration with Richard Demarco and Kingston University, will be shown at the Atlantis Gallery after the run.) Nusret Pasic's piece, whose title gave the name to the exhibition, will stand in the foyer, and Sanjin Jukic's 'ghetto spectacle' installation, which makes an appearance at the very centre of the opera, will also feature outside the concert hall.

My only hope is that, when Jukic hangs his logo 'SARAJEVO' on the face of the Queen Elizabeth Hall, in letters like the sign on the Hollywood Hills, studded with phosphorescent pearls, that some reflection of the neon light may perhaps be caught on the ripples of Father Thames and bounced under Hungerford Bridge . . . to the other side of the river.

'Sarajevo': 7.45pm, Queen Elizabeth Hall, South Bank Centre, London SE1 (071-928 8800) 23, 25, 26, 28 Aug, 2, 3 Sep. Sponsored by Spero Communications in association with the Independent. Tickets pounds 10- pounds 25, except for the premiere, when tickets carry a pounds 10 premium in aid of the reconstruction of the Obala Art Centre and the Unesco appeal for the National and University Library of Bosnia & Herzegovina

(Photograph omitted)