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From Symphony Halls to Security Councils, Composer Mohammed Fairouz Uses Voice for Political Change

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Mohammed Fairouz (Photo: Samantha West)

When composer Mohammed Fairouz isn’t busy writing symphonies or operas, he’s likely writing about international politics for the Huffington Post, On Being, or Foreign Policy. “I’m engaged in geopolitics and diplomacy on a fairly involved level,” he said in a recent interview. “I’ve been in conversation with people as diverse as Prince Turki bin Faisal Al Saud,” former head of Saudi Intelligence and Ambassador to the United Kingdom and United States, “and Lana Nusseibeh,” the Permanent Representative of the United Arab Emirates to the United Nations. “I am very comfortable speaking at the Munich Security Conference.”

Unsurprisingly, Fairouz, who BBC World News called “one of the most talented composers of his generation,” is also comfortable using music to speak about current events. “Art is the ultimate statement that this day and age needs,” he said. “When you make a commitment to art, or architecture, like my friend the late Zaha Hadid, or music, or whatever, you’re actually saying, ‘I am committed to construction. I am committed to creation.’ We’re living in a world where we’re surrounded on a daily basis by destruction. Destruction, destruction, destruction. And there are a lot of people pontificating about the need to build bridges and peace and this and that, and it’s wonderful. Let’s talk about it. When you’re creating art, you’re not just saying it, you’re doing it. You’re taking action.”

In his Symphony No. 4, “In the Shadow of No Towers,” Fairouz took action in response to the 9/11 terrorists attacks by Al-Qaeda on the United States. Though the fall of World Trade Center complex is mentioned in the title of the symphony, Fairouz said, “It’s about the aftermath – how the nation dealt with the trauma, divisiveness, and jingoism that followed. It takes the wound of the 9/11 attacks as its point of inquiry, then moves forward. I wasn’t interested in composing a threnody for the victims. I was interested in doing something a lot less emotionally mawkish. It’s very difficult to take responsibility for mourning the victims for an attack of that scale.”

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An excerpt from Art Spiegelman’s “In the Shadow of No Towers”

“In the Shadow of No Towers” also takes inspiration from Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel of the same name. Fairouz said the author and illustrator “was very receptive to the idea. I think it was refreshing for him to revisit his work, and the specific panels [from his graphic novel] that I took as my inspiration.”  The first movement is based on a panel divided into three parts called “The New Normal.” The first part illustrates life in the United States before the attacks, the second depicts the attacks themselves, while the third shows life after the attacks. “What’s so stunning is that the first and third are basically unchanged.” The third movement, “One Nation Under Two Flags,” divides the instrumental ensemble into two groups, representing the “United Red Zone of America” and the “United Blue Zone of America.” Spiegelman called the movement a “schizo-scherzo.”

Some of Fairouz’s other symphonies also take current events as their subjects.  His Symphony No. 3, “Poems and Prayers,” addresses the Arab-Israeli conflict through the poetry of Yehuda Amichai, Fadwa Tuqan, and Mahmoud Darwish. His Symphony No. 5, commissioned by the Abu Dhabi Festival is, “is about the resurface or re-emergence of global prosperity in a new ‘Wild Wild East,’ where massive growth is happening,” he said.

But for Fairouz, opera is perhaps one of the best media to explore complex political issues. “Opera forces you to paint on the largest possible canvas the time,” he said. “The problem with so much contemporary political opera,” he explained, “is that you walk into the theater and you know within two minutes the point of view that the artist has. More often than not, you sort of share that point of view. And ninety minutes later, it’s still going, though you got it within the first two minutes.”

To create a successful political opera, according to Fairouz, a composer must remember two things. First, “if you don’t have a riveting human story, there’s no point in telling it. It’s not the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting.” Secondly, he said, the role of an artist should be, “to engender discussion, to move people, and to open up a series of questions,” rather than to “sermonize,” so that audiences are “leaving with political curiosity, or itching to learn more about these characters.”

During the 2016-17 season, the Dutch National Opera will present the world premiere of Fairouz’s opera The New Prince, inspired by Niccolò Machiavelli and his infamous book The Prince. Washington Post columnist and thriller novelist David Ignatius has teamed with Fairouz to create the libretto.

“We thought about it for a long time and we eventually came up with the concept: David thrust Machiavelli from Florence into a futuristic world in 2032 where he is tasked to write advice, on pain of death, for the world’s new dictator. He appears with a sidekick, Henry Kissinger, who of course is being played by Kelsey Grammer. It’s going to be a wild ride.” Other figures from the past and present who appear as characters in the opera include Alexander Hamilton, Bill Clinton, Monica Lewinsky, Dick Cheney, and bin Laden.

Fairouz is also in the midst of composing another opera, Bhutto, about the life of Benazir Bhutto.  “It’s a story about the tectonics and fault lines of modern geopolitics,” he said. “I think it was Madeleine Albright who said, ‘You can’t understand the modern world without understanding Pakistan.’ And she’s right. It’s one of the most misunderstood nations in the modern world. It sits at that fault line of global geopolitics. It’s partially a larger than life story, and on the other hand, it’s a very intimate story about a father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, and his daughter.” Hear an excerpt from the opera below.

 

 

When Fairouz first approached Pakitani author Mohammed Hanif to create a libretto for the story, he wasn’t met with immediate enthusiasm. “I called him on the telephone in Karachi, and he probably thought, ‘Who is this neurotic New Yorker calling me?’” Fairouz had been a fan of his novels A Case of Exploding Mangoes and Our Lady of Alice Bhatti, and when he explained his idea to write an opera about the Bhuttos, Fairouz said, “I think his initial reaction was, ‘You’re crazy. You want to cover thirty years? You’re talking about a story in which there’s a young girl. Her father becomes the prime minister of the country, is overthrown by a military dictator Zia-ul-Haq, is hanged. The daughter is sent to a dungeon, removed from the country as she’s about to die. She comes back, faces the dictator, whose plane crashes in the Bahawalpur desert, vaporizing him and the chiefs of the army. She rises like a phoenix from the ashes and becomes the first woman to lead a large Muslim nation, one of the first major female prime ministers in the world. She’s completely deposed for her antics and mismanagement in government. Her brother is killed right next door to her as she’s prime minister.’ Then during that conversation we realized opera is perhaps the only medium that can tell this larger than life story,” he continued. “These larger than life figures, the Bhuttos, can only be rendered in this gigantic theatrical setting.”

While composer John Adams used similar language to describe The Death of Klinghoffer in media coverage surrounding the Metropolitan Opera’s recent production of it, Fairouz balks at the comparison. “The Bhuttos are an important political family and Zia-ul-Haq was an important figure. They are as public as public figures get. There’s a fundamental difference, I think, when it comes to depicting public figures like them, who are fair game, and taking a private family, where a family member has suffered death at the hands of terrorists. At a certain point, I think the Klinghoffer family was tired that they were being paraded. In a sense you don’t have to acquiesce to anything. We have freedom of speech, you can say anything you want. But I believe in respect, as well. I think at a certain point, if the Klinghoffer family did not want this to happen, I would probably defer to that. They are a private family. The Bhuttos are not. They are a public family and have shaped the modern world.”

With decisive views on a broad range of topics, you can bet Fairouz has strong feelings about the current presidential election cycle in the United States. “I fully endorse publicly and privately Hillary Clinton,” he said. “She represents an establishment that is very important. After the misguided disasters of the George W. Bush administration, Obama overestimated the ability to turn a new page. At the risk of inspiring ire, there are a lot of young people who do not understand that Bernie Sanders, for the longest time, as well intentioned as he is, has been an apostrophe on the American political scene. Someone hoping for the top job in Washington should command the establishment, and if Clinton does, that’s good.

“It’s very clear to me in assessing the current state of affairs that the whole world needs to turn the volume down,” he said. “Americans need to do it. Extremists on the other side need to do it. We’re not headed for a clash of civilizations. Humanity is in a clash for civilization. The civilized voices have to take the mic away from the extremists. Anything intellectually viable and constructive can help turn the volume down. Art, education, and knowledge can do that.”

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