A Journal Entry: Director David Herskovitz
Three days into our process on SUMEIDA’S SONG and I cannot believe how much we have accomplished. One thing I like doing is a challenge for performers: ask them what they want to do. As I said on day one, ‘I know what I know. I’m not interested in what I know. I am interested in what I don’t know.’ But this group of people makes it easy. Mimi and Rachel and Dan and Edwin are full of ideas and questions, thoughts and impulses for me to work with. What a luxury for a director.
The sixth day of our process is the day of Egypt’s constitutional referendum. It is too simplifying to equate “Sumeida’s Song” and present day struggles within Egypt. And yet. Of course the opera has a startling resonance today, as demonstrations sweep Tahrir Square and beyond; the complex weave of Egyptian culture today connects directly to Tawfiq al Hakeem’s great play.
Steve Osgood our music director points out that there are passages in the music that slip out of naturalism. People appear to hear things or know them before they happen. I love these passages when the opera tips just slightly into the surreal. For example, Asakir is the passionate mother whose drive for revenge fuels all the action, and lately I have been thinking that she sort of has magical powers which we see projected over the people around her in different ways. She is like Medea.
In fact, the play is amazingly Aristotelian: it’s a cousin of Greek tragedy. Not only does al Hakeem give us the unities, the reported action from offstage, the small cast size, but the emphasis on shame, on hubristic transgression, and the attempted resolution of a cycle of bloody personal revenge by the establishment of a larger impersonal system of justice all echo the Oresteia.
So the story is both inescapably local and sweepingly mythic. It reflects a sophisticated literary intellect expressing the urgent concerns of his own culture, while also engaging in conversation with western literature as a whole. How can we live in this very specific place and time, the upper Nile in the early twentieth century, and yet also honor the aspects of the story that are timeless? Our production must do both.