Glowicka’s Dream of Middle Eastern Feminism

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GLOWICKA: Unknown, I Live With You / Malgorzata Walewskam, Raehann Bryce-Davis, Sara Jo Benoot, mez; Lucia Lucas, mez/bar; Gala Moody, voice; Tomasz Aleksander Plusa, Aleksandra Kwiatkowska, vln; Clara Sawada, vla; Natania Hoffman, cel; Katarzyna Glowicka, electronics / Dux 1444

According to the notes for this disc, “popular Western opera librettos represent various acts of sexual repression. Carmen, Medea, Turandot, Mimi…the conflict and proximity between female desires (not only sexual) and death show the extent to which our culture is founded upon.” This work, described as a chamber opera, uses the writings of contemporary Afghan female poets (under pseudonyms) to describe their battle against political and social restrictions on them.

It’s a good idea, and as a woman I applaud it, but I think the annotator, Agata Araszkiewicz, either misconstrues or doesn’t really know that several Western opera libretti actually empowered women. Rosina in Il barbiere di Siviglia, Carmen, several Wagnerian heroines and even Turandot, whose sexual repression was of her own making—her father was dead set against it—were, for their time and place, liberated women who chose their own paths. We need to throw this initial premise out and just admire these Afghan women poets for standing up against oppression in their countries, and be happy that in the West things are, for the most part, quite different.

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Glowicka

The composer, Kataezyna “Kasia” Glowicka, wrote quite remarkable music for this piece. It has the harmonic edginess prevalent in the work of so many modern composers nowadays, but is channeled in such a manner that the notes reflect the mood of the texts with remarkable fidelity. Interestingly, the opera is sung not in Arabic, the language of the poets, or Polish, the language of the composer, but English—and although some of the singers have a little problem with diction, most of it is surprisingly understandable.

And make no mistake, many of these lyrics are powerful and even painful to read/hear. We in the West have no idea what it’s like being born female in a Muslim country. Just to quote three brief excerpts:

If I were not a woman
The day I was born
Mom wouldn’t have suffered,
Dad wouldn’t have warned
her, You’ve brought shame
to the house!

God damn you!
For building a wall in front of my will
For beating me
For forcing me
blaming me,
Damn you! Damn you! Damn you!
God damn you! for playing me
For crushing me…

Do they not understand
That Dignity is my soul?
Like water running
to the sea,
self-worth won’t return to me.

Like much modern opera, the music is written in strophic lines, almost like sung recitatives. Nothing here approaches or forms an aria, and the background music, comprised mostly of electronics and strings, flows like a river without coming to loud climaxes for the most part. The music has an aura of sadness without pushing the boundaries of angst too far. These women’s sufferings are very real but also held inside; they have to be or they’d be killed.

The basic problem, however, does not lie with the music or the words per se. It lies in the fact that listening to it brought upon me feelings of deep sadness mixed with complete and utter helplessness. When you hear what these women went through, and continue to go through, and you can’t fix it or change it, you feel impotent, and that’s not a good place to be. Since neither I nor the composer nor anyone else can do anything to help these women except to tell them to get the hell out of Afghanistan, and they either won’t or can’t, there is no other possible human reaction, other than rage, but impotence. This is a problem that can’t be fixed within their own societies and country because the oppression of women there will never change.

An interesting work, then, and a good performance. All of the singers have fine voices and, as I said, mostly fine diction. I will certainly be on the lookout for other works by Glowicka. But although this opera has a relevant message and is moving, it is not something I would want to hear again.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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