REVIEW: The Journey: Notes of Hope
Diana Manole reviews The Journey: Notes of Hope, a new opera composed by the Iranian-Canadian Composers of Toronto (ICOT) with libretto by Iranian-born poet Bänoo Zan:
Written by Iranian-Canadian artists and performed at a Toronto church that provides services in English and Finnish, as well as hosts a Swedish congregation, new opera The Journey: Notes of Hope offers a compelling argument for the creative benefits of multicultural exchange. The English-language libretto of Iranian-born, Toronto-based poet Bänoo Zan successfully combines the subtlety of an experienced poet with an effective dramaturgical structure – pleasantly surprising, as this is Zan’s first work in this genre; the result is a thoroughly engaging challenge to Western and Canadian misconceptions, not only of refugees and immigrants from the Middle East, but also of the nature of oppression and gender inequality both in Syria and Canada.
The plot focuses on an allegorical character named Sargardan, a Persian adjective meaning “wandering,” whose identity, gender, and sexual orientation shift from scene to scene. According to the stage directions, Sargardan could be performed by one or multiple singers; in ICOT’s production, the choice to have only one performer (female soprano Zorana Sadiq) intensifies the text’s feminist message.
Sargardan starts her journey as a pacifist on a street in Aleppo during the Syrian Civil War, revolted by the bloodshed and torn between staying or fleeing her country. It continues with her arrival at the Canadian border, her life in Toronto where she feels lonely and stereotyped as a Middle Eastern refugee, longing for her homeland and mourning her father. Sargardan gets involved in politics, as a Muslim queer refugee writer of colour who takes part in the rally against Trump’s 2017 Muslim Ban in Washington DC. She eventually returns to spirituality, becoming a Sufi “drunk with God” and a pilgrim at Mecca. In the end, Sargardan travels to the tomb of Hafez, the legendary 14th-century Persian poet, and seeks her future in his work.
Sadiq does an exceptional job performing Sargardan’s peregrinations throughout the physically demanding show, which asks her to use numerous props, change costumes, and travel from the ground floor to the balcony while singing. She is a gifted soprano with a powerful, nuanced, and beautifully textured voice, which engages the audiences on a visceral level. She portrays Sargardan as a complex character, with smiles and moments of tenderness providing a much-needed counterpoint to the intense scenes.
While collective creation has become quite widespread in Western theatre, collectively writing classical music is less common. The Journey is an exception, being the second opera among over forty works written collaboratively by Maziar Heidari, Afarin Mansouri Tehrani, Keyan Emami, Pouya Hamidi, and Saman Shahi, who co-founded ICOT in 2011. The collective creative process took about four months.
The final musical score is coherent in its cultural and stylistic syncretism, as if written by only one artist. Classical music with vibrant undertones, birds chirping, the sounds of Iranian traditional instruments (tar, kamancheh, daf and tombak), and instrumental silence when Sadiq sings or speaks without accompaniment, are all organically integrated. The score starts and ends with electronic, anxiety-inducing ambiance, which includes Zan’s prerecorded reading in Farsi of a poem by Hafez:
سالها دل طلب جام جم از ما میکرد
وآن چه خود داشت ز بیگانه تمنا میکرد
For years the heart was asking us for Jamshid’s cup
begging strangers for what it owned itself. (tr. Zan)
The staging finds an impressive balance between realism and allegory, Western opera and Middle Eastern traditions. Director Amanda Smith, set and costume designer Anahita Dehbonehie, and light designer Frank Donato work together to create a uniquely site-specific opera, which is striking in its effective theatricality; its use of the entire non-theatre space, from the altar, to the balcony, to the entrance area; and its numerous, multifaceted performance signs. From the beginning, the central area of the altar is dominated by numerous plastic cutouts of human silhouettes, hanging on two lines in a V, which, first, suggest Sargardan’s home community in Syria and, second, the people in Canada amongst whom she feels alienated.
Culturally specific performance elements, such as the metaphorical representation of a Sufi whirling dervish, enrich the show’s symbolism. Librettist Zan tells me in an email that, according to established whirling dervish Farzad AttarJaffari, Sufi whirling (which consists of spinning one’s body in repetitive circles) is a very old form of physically active meditation that represents “stillness in motion, a journey of HuMan within, to find him/her true self […] an act of prayer, act of reaching ecstasy (Wajd) and state of Oneness. It’s a dance of unity with the universe.” The Sufi whirling dance is performed in a stylized way in The Journey, suggesting Sargardan’s attempts to reconnect with her true self through spiritual reflection.From Zan’s perspective, Sadiq’s Sufi dress and headwrap also represent the character’s non-binary gender identity “by hinting at her cultural, spiritual roots and reconciling them with explorations of their gender identity.”
Sargardan’s journey from oppression in her homeland and alienation in exile to reconnecting with her true self is clearly and beautifully conveyed for audience members, regardless of their individual background and cultural expertise. The Journey: Notes of Hope is impressive through its professionalism, cathartic through its emotional content, and necessary through its sociopolitical message.
Diana Manole (PhD, University of Toronto) is a Romanian-Canadian scholar, a Pushcart prize-nominated English-language poet, as well as an award-winning playwright and literary translator. She has published extensively in Canada, the US, and the UK on post-colonial and post-communist theatre, exilic theatre, and intercultural performance. Her article, “Accented Actors: From Stage to Stages via a Convenience Store” (Theatre Research in Canada, 2015), was the first scholarly investigation of actors’ immigrant accents in Canadian theatre. She has also worked on numerous projects as a theatre and television director, print dramaturg, and script writer, both in Canada and Romania. Most recently, she has joined Modern Times Stage Company as a board member. She lives in Toronto and teaches at Trent University.