Q&A: Composer Zaid Jabri on the Composing Process for ‘Southern Crossings’

On June 16 and 18, 2022, New York audiences will have the opportunity to experience the world premiere of “Southern Crossings.”

The work, to a libretto by Yvette Christiansë and Rosalind Morris, centers on the story of the meeting between the famous astronomer John Hershel and Charles Darwin and how different characters lived and hoped that this meeting would have unfolded. . The opera will be directed by Crystal Manich and conducted by Mark Shapiro.

At the center of it all is the music of Syrian-born composer Zaid Jabri. Jabri trained in Poland at the Academy of Music and his works have been performed worldwide with organizations such as Kremerata Baltica, English Chamber Orchestra, Ensemble Zeran, Teatro Comunale Orchestra Bologna, the Polish National Radio Orchestra and the Syrian National Symphony Orchestra, among many others.

OperaWire had the opportunity to speak to Jabri about his experience composing “Southern Crossings” and what he hopes audiences will take away from the new opera.

OperaWire: What inspired the creation of Southern Crossings? What about those characters you were hoping to explore? What did taking on this work reveal about figures such as Charles Darwin and John Herschel?

Zaid Jabri: Rosalind Morris and Yvette Christiansë, the librettists, had the story in mind for a long time, I received the first scene and after a few readings I felt that the libretto is very emotionally and historically rich and has the potential for a grand opera.

I went back to the books, “On the Origin of Species”, “The Voyage of the Beagle”, and started my research on John Herschel, the telescope and his father’s musical compositions, Cape Town and Table Mountain, and the story of Hintsa Ka Phalo whose head would have been sent to England, or at least that he would have been mutilated by British soldiers. I listened to the Cape languages, and clicks from the Khoenkhoen, isiXhosa, and isiZulu languages, and used them in a few places where Darwin mentioned clicks from other languages.

The decisive moment was when Yvette Christiansë showed me some archival documents from the slave trade, old documents with the name, number, age of each one. And I said to myself that these are people! You can’t live without memory and it’s a story that needs to be told.

OW: What is your personal process for composing an opera? How does this compare to your process of composing other works?

ZJ: Usually I start by reading the text several times, laying out the meaning of the words, the general mood, the prosody and the time and space. Is it the garden where you can hear the birds during the day or is it at night where you can hear the hyenas? What is the emotional universe of each character when he speaks or sings? The music should contribute to the overall mood. I map the scene by drawing with colors each part of the scene, sketching the tempos I will use and what type of harmony/melody/polyphony.

When I compose, I never write from beginning to end. I choose a few very important moments from the play or the opera to start with, but this time I wrote the opera from start to finish because the libretto wasn’t done when I started. I was in Paris on a scholarship from the Institut des Idées et de l’Imaginaire when I wrote the music, receiving the libretto from the librettists as I went along. I was very quick in the process and curious about the story, wanting to know what was going to happen next in the story, what happened during that amazing meal between Darwin and Herschel?

OW: What is the biggest challenge of composing an opera?

ZJ: The challenge with this opera is in scene four, when the two scientists meet in the garden. The language of science that I have never seen or even imagined could be used in song, The discussion goes on for a long time until suddenly we land in Leah’s aria, which changes the whole scene and brings us back to simple and honest words and a musical atmosphere, before returning to the scientists. Leah’s aria comes when you really need it; the discussion goes so far into the world of planets and species that we come to a point where we can’t even breathe.

When writing, I imagine myself as a character and try to understand the character’s emotions and inner world. I imagine the character in the scene and I think, in which register the word should be sung or said, what could be the body language. I imagine the light and the location of each of the scenes.

To write an opera, you have to love the opera, respect the libretto and try to express what it contains. You have to organize the time and the narration, give the singers, the musicians, the conductor and the director a space to spread their wings and find solutions. The score is only notes and words and it is not yet opera.

It’s a wonderful art form, and each performance is different and unique in its interpretation.

The thinking process is usually long and when it is finished, the writing process is very short if the composer has the craft and the experience.

OW: How would you describe the musical language of this work? How did you arrive at the specific musical language of this opera?

At the two extremes, we basically have two musical languages: the language of the scientists and the language of the people (servants) Leah and January. One is chromatic, sophisticated and the other is simple and honest: the language of scientists who see, follow the tail of the comet and of people who see the future in the tail of a comet, of the scientists who call the Southern Cross and people who call it an egg ant, scientists who study the origin of species and people who live with creatures and enjoy the sounds of birds, the language of thought and the language of feelings .

In scene three we also have a duet of Margaret Herschel and Leah, and we begin to discover the inner world of Margaret, who worries about the servants when she and John Herschel leave Cape Town, while Caroline, in Hanover, loses his eye. sight (she had been stricken with typhus).

Leah and Margaret both talk about that awkward evening, that dinner party where Darwin was telling stories about a boy bought for a button and a girl named Basket. We feel that they are both so sensitive and human until we hear January compare the ransacked Indian tombs to Hintsa’s head. At this moment, Margaret thanks God that John Herschel looks up to heaven and is not guilty of violation, invasion, trespass.

I try not to limit myself to a single composition technique. In this opera, I used randomness, microtones, sonorism, heterophony. I use technique when I need to and never use it just to use it, because I believe technique should serve the music, communicate the story.

The chorus not only sings words but also sings the inner emotions of the characters. They sound the rain frogs, the hyenas and the beautiful non-singing roles in the scenes that Crystal Manich managed to create with the chorus

The orchestration is for six soloists, a choir, an accordion, a string quartet and small percussion instruments, including a waterphone. In fact, I had to create the notation for this specific instrument, I had to measure the hertz of each stem playing up or down, forte or piano: 34 stems and each one is so rich in harmonics with its beautiful glissandos caused by water inside the instrument.

The accordion I use is a classic button accordion which can be a full wind ensemble with a very wide range of registers and can produce nice bass and beautiful clusters, it has a role similar to the figured bass in the Baroque opera and accordionist, Maciej Frąckiewicz is a wonderful virtuoso performer with whom I worked in Poland years ago.

The music is new but the story is old and it’s still ongoing – a story about slavery, inequality and social justice. Each scene is different, it has its own sound and emotional universe, but the whole forms a unity.

OW: What was it like working with Rosalinde Morris and Yvette Christiansë?

ZJ: I’ve worked in the past with Rosalind Morris and Yvette Christiansë on a large-scale opera “Cities of Salt” (four scenes were performed at the Linbury Theatre, ROH Covent Garden, but it’s still ongoing). With Yvette, I also worked on several other pieces, including: “A Garden Among the Flames” for two soloists, choir and symphony orchestra, conducted by Mark Shapiro at Carnegie Hall in 2017.

Mark will also be conducting our opera and doing a wonderful job with Crystal Manich during rehearsals. “Variations on (R)evolution for mezzo soprano”, for violin and piano, has a text by Yvette Christiansë, and it was premiered during the Beethovenfest in Bonn in 2018; and “Hemispheres” was performed at the Essen Philharmonic Orchestra in 2021.

I can say that it is a pleasure and that we understand each other. Nothing is fixed and we are flexible. When I need to change a word or add a tune I always ask them and we do it, I let them know what I’m doing and we discuss if it works or not and we always generate a solution together .

I think we understand each other because we share the same ethical values.

OW: What do you hope audiences will take away from this work? What kind of experience do you want them to have?

ZJ: When I see a work of art – a film, an opera or an exhibition – and it sticks in my mind and makes me think, that means the art is working. I think about it and there’s something in it that provoked me and that’s my hope for Southern Crossings, that audiences will see both worlds, the struggles of science and social justice, and that he will understand that science without ethics can be devastating.

OW: Your works have been performed all over the world. How have your interactions with different audiences and cultures inspired or shaped your voice/style/approach as a composer?

When I listen to music, I try to forget that I’m a composer (even when listening to my own music) and I think that’s a good approach. It allows the music to come to me without any burden and I try to do the same with the public. I have huge respect for the audience and for the performers, and I think my respect makes them respect my music, so it’s mutual, but of course when I’m teaching it’s another story. I have to analyze and discuss precisely a student’s piece.

In some countries, contemporary artistic music does not exist, but there are always groups of people who are interested in it.

I had four performances of a new piece in Serbia (Horror Vacui) for 15 violins and five violas, commissioned by the Violint Ensemble from Novi Sad. Serbia is a country that was not part of the Warsaw Pact or NATO during the Cold War, or either of these worlds in politics, music and art. The ensemble I worked with had never played a piece like this, with microtones, sophisticated rhythmic combinations and multi-layered textures.

At the beginning it was so difficult for them to play but after some explanation and work, they started to like it and even to like it. The audience was positively surprised and we performed the play in four cities including Novi Sad.

Damascus has a conservative following. When they performed my Clarinet Concerto in 2004, I heard harsh words from the musicians after each rehearsal, but a month after the premiere they started ordering new pieces.

I don’t believe in any form of guardianship. Let the audience hear it all and experience the listening experience. They can love it or hate it, and both are good, at least it provokes them.

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