OPERA / Sarajevo: opera in the front line: Opera is well-equipped to tackle the subject of the civil war in the former Yugoslavia, as Nigel Osborne tells Nick Kimberley

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The Independent Culture
The term 'balkanisation' encapsulates everything smug and dismissive about our political culture. For some, what has happened to the former Yugoslavia only fulfils the word's bleak promise: but, as the critic Claudio Magris wrote, ' 'Balkan' is an adjective with insulting overtones . . . Anyone who has seen the streets of Sarajevo, and its bazaar, as sparkling as a mirror . . . and compares it with what obtains in cities or countries held up as paragons of civilisation, is inclined to use the word 'Balkan' as a compliment.'

Writing in 1986, Magris couldn't foresee what would befall Sarajevo, but his thoughts find an echo in the words of the composer Nigel Osborne who, writing last month in the Independent, spoke of Sarajevo's 'distinctive human dynamic . . . the fluidity, wit and moody passion; the subtle cultural overlay'. Having recently returned from the besieged city, Osborne could still call it 'in its strange way, a happy Jerusalem' and admit he 'ached to return'.

Osborne was writing of the genesis of his music-theatre triptych Sarajevo, which opens tonight in London in an Opera Factory staging directed by David Freeman. The constituent parts of Sarajevo are: an abridged version (in Don Taylor's translation) of Euripides' The Trojan Women, for which Osborne and the performers have devised some integral (as opposed to incidental) music; Osborne's fully scored chamber opera Sarajevo, a kind of Bosnian Romeo and Juliet story around which coalesce textual fragments by sundry Sarajevo writers; and Osborne's oratorio-setting of Sand Storm, a text by the poet Craig Raine.

During a break in rehearsals, Osborne described the process of shaping the work, which began with collecting texts for the central section. 'It became a series of very acute little images, but there was a paradox: here was a series of miniatures that required a small, intimate scale; yet there was also an image of the siege in Sarajevo that required a fresco, a huge space. I'm not sure whether musically or verbally we have the means to deal with suffering and tragedy at that level, yet the subject needs to be spoken properly. And Euripides found a way of saying it in The Trojan Women. I felt I needed to bring in reinforcements from ancient Greece. The analogies with the Trojan War are dangerous, but one that helps is that this is an invasion, not a civil war: Bosnia was invaded and its capital surrounded.'

In The Trojan Women, Euripides savaged the hypocrisy of his epoch by reminding his fellow-citizens of atrocities committed by the Athenians during the siege of Troy. It is a work which, in the view of the director David Freeman, retains the power to anger: 'It's the most profound and, curious as it sounds, the most contemporary version of a siege ever presented in any art form. While Nigel's chamber opera is about surviving in Sarajevo, The Trojan Women is a scene that has not, thank God, taken place: the fall of Sarajevo, when there's total chaos and arbitrary mayhem. We've chopped it down rather mercilessly, there's only about 40 per cent of the text left, but it remains The Trojan Women; and The Trojan Women is happening again.'

The final panel of the triptych is Osborne's setting of Craig Raine's Sand Storm, which the poet had sent him some time before Sarajevo began to take shape. Osborne says: 'I'm not superstitious, but Craig's text was there on my desk and I do believe that things occasionally find their way into the right places. By a strange coincidence, Sand Storm reflects the subject matter, not just of Sarajevo, but of The Trojan Women, material which had to be reflected upon, to be cast into some other space. Sand Storm provides a kind of contemplation of ritual grief in a highly stylised form.'

Sceptics and cynics might describe such a project as opportunistic, sentimental, simplistic, but David Freeman insists: 'No one involved is trying to present a gloss on the situation in Sarajevo; we're not trying to offer a simple answer, or any answer. People talk about being saturated with Sarajevo - I'm sure the people in Sarajevo are saturated. Until the siege is over I think it's pretty trivial to say 'I'm saturated.' Perhaps we might be accused of bad taste, but the worst taste is not to say anything.'

As Nigel Osborne puts it, 'So many lies have been told about Sarajevo. We've come to a new kind of politics of complacency, petty bourgeois politics at a frightening apogee of corruption. I felt that, if there's a story to be told about Sarajevo, it's not necessarily about destruction and grief and catastrophe but rather about human sensitisation, about people living on the edge and how this affects their love, their passion, their compassion. My guiding philosophy has always been a pacifist one, but there's a moment at which that stops: when the murderers get loose. One practises pacifism rigorously until the point where you have to stand between a murderer and their victim.'

Sarajevo's cast includes not only singers who have regularly worked with Opera Factory, but also three actors from Sarajevo: Rade Serbedzija, Katya Doric and Selma Alispahic. Each of them has been active in ensuring that cultural life in Sarajevo survives despite the atrocious circumstances, and some of their experiences have found their way into Sarajevo. In Katya Doric's view, 'I don't think that any performance, any art, changes public opinion, but if the audience stays with us, thinks about what it sees, feels something, that is enough. I was in Sarajevo for 19 months of the war and the biggest problem was not whether I had something to eat - sometimes I had nothing to eat for days - the biggest problem was to continue my life in art. If you are in this situation you must try to continue your life, your job, your fantasy - that's all we have, it's the only way to stay alive.'

That emphasis on fantasy - 'sparkling as a mirror' in Claudio Magris's words - is part of the 'distinctive human dynamic' which Nigel Osborne wrote of in the Independent, and which set him to writing Sarajevo: 'Opera is most effective at dealing with personal, intimate things in relationship with bigger things, and I wanted to use opera to do what it does best. I think that some of what is needed to inform any political perception is indeed the question of personal experience. We've had a dreadful abstraction about what it feels like to be menaced as these people have been: the siege of Sarajevo means, every day, people in prison, no electricity, no water, being shot at every time you walk out of the door.'

As Selma Alispahic puts it, 'One thing is certain, the world failed in the case of Bosnia. We don't think we can stop the war or change the world, but at least we can talk about it, in a shout or a whisper.'

'Sarajevo', sponsored by Spero Communications in association with the 'Independent', opens 7.45pm tonight, Queen Elizabeth Hall (071-928 8800) in a fundraising performance for the Obala Arts Centre, Sarajevo, and the National & University Library of Bosnia- Herzegovina; further performances 25, 26, 28 Aug, 2, 3 September; on tour to Oxford Playhouse (0865 798600), 13, 14, 16, 17 Sept

(Photographs omitted)