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Guggenheim Award winner works on new opera

Sheila Silver is the winner of a 2013 Guggenheim Award. (Metsha Renois)
Sheila Silver is the winner of a 2013 Guggenheim Award. (Metsha Renois)

Stony Brook Music Department Professor Sheila Silver was recently named as the winner of a 2013 Guggenheim Award for her work in the field of music composing.

But for her, it is not so much about winning the award, but what winning the award will allow her to accomplish.

“The award is a great honor,”  Silver. said “And it also gives me money and time off to write music, and do what I need to do.”

Silver already has many accomplishments, like winning the George Ladd Prix de Paris, the Rome Prize and the ISCM National Composer’s competition twice. Now, with the grant money she will Guggenheim award, she has been given the opportunity to tackle her most challenging and complex opera to date.

“The prestige of this Guggenheim will enable us to get a start on this project,” librettist Stephen Kitsakos said.

The project Kitsakos is referring to is an opera called “A Thousand Splendid Suns,” which Silver is currently composing, and in which he serves as her librettist.

Silver’s newest piece is based on a novel of the same name by Khaled Hosseini, who also wrote the highly acclaimed novel “The Kite Runner.” She said she fell in love with Hosseini’s book almost immediately, when she first heard it several years ago in an audiobook format.

“When I first heard this, listening to the books on tape, driving on my way to Stony Brook, and tears were streaming down my eyes,” Silver said.

However, she initially thought the story was too complicated to be made into an opera. It was not until she came back and read the book again a few years later, that she changed her mind.

One of the moments in the book that made Silver think the story should be made into an opera was a scene in which one of the main characters was executed. In the story, the character of Mariam sacrifices her own life, so another character, Laila, can continue to live.

“I remember thinking that this is such an operatic moment,” Silver said. “She has taken an action to save somebody’s life, and realizes that she is a person of consequence. And that she has created this opportunity for the younger wife [Laila] to go on and live. She’s a hero, and she sees her own nobility.”

One of the obstacles Silver ran into early on in the project was that Hosseini was initially not interested in having his novel made into an opera. It was not until Silver wrote him multiple letters that Hosseini decided to sign off on the project.

“I realized I need to write to him merely more than simply, surface wise,” Silver said. “So I sat down and wrote him a very, very heartfelt letter, about why this is an opera, and he called me and said okay.”

Since then Silver and Hosseini have maintained a relationship through phone calls and emails, and she even had the opportunity to have lunch with him in his hometown of San Jose. Hosseini is also expected to be in attendance when the opera eventually hits the stage.

Another issue Silver encountered was that writing such a complex piece would be extremely time consuming and difficult to do on her own. So she was advised to have someone else work on the libretto for the project.

She then turned to Kitsakos, someone whom she had already known for 30 years, and had collaborated with on two one-act operas, “The Wooden Sword” and “The White Rooster.”

“I thought, of all the people I talked to about writing, Steve would be the most fun to work with,”  Silver said. Kitsakos also enjoys their working relationship, and says the two get the best out of each other when working together.

“My background as a theatre writer helps to ground the possibilities for theatrical expression and Sheila’s unique voice as a composer inspires the execution of story and words,” Kitsakos said.

Kitsakos also said the two had been looking for a large scale project to work on together that specifically deals with the disenfranchisement of women. After Sheila gave him the Hosseini book to read, he realized that this was the piece they had been looking for.

“I thought it would be the perfect opportunity for musicalization,” Kitsakos said. “The emotions are powerful, the plot is gripping and it features two Islamic heroines.”

This summer, Silver and her family will travel to India for six months. While there, she will study Hindustani music, in the hopes that it will help her through the composition process for “A Thousand Splendid Suns.”

She has already arranged to have a guru, whom she will meet with often while in India. “He has a syllabus of things he thinks I can reasonably learn in six months time,” Silver said. “He’s going to show me a couple of ragas and talas, which are the rhythms.”

Silver is not sure exactly how the Indian music will influence her, but she does expect it to have a positive effect on her composing for the piece. “By having to sing, and having the music, it will get into my body,” Silver said. “Since Hindu sounding music is at the heart of Afghan music, I may want to have some authenticity of sound, or some exoticism. And I can draw from that exoticism from whatever I learn in India.”

While Silver is excited about “A Thousand Splendid Suns,” she admits that the opera is still quite a bit of time away from being on stage. “Best case scenario we’re looking at 2018 for a premiere,” Silver said. “That would be really fast.”

She also says that this will be her most challenging piece. “Because of the emotional breath, and heaving to merge the western music and non-western music, it’s just incredibly ambitious. But, it’s great.”

Until then fans of Silver’s music can catch her latest creation, “Beauty Intolerable,” being performed on June 13 at the Peter Norton Symphony Space in New York City. Silver composed the music for the collection of 15 songs based on the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay.

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