Review: Bushra El-Turk and Eleanor Knight, Silk Moth; Grimeborn, 9 August 2019

Originally posted at Tempo: a Quarterly Review of New Music:

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When Eleanor Knight began researching her libretto for Silk Moth, she had to decide how to frame an opera about honour violence. Meeting women whose lives it had ruptured through the Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation, she confronted the usual images that accompany the dozen-or-so honour killings per year in the UK media. Between the ‘old, faded school photos’ that illustrate victimhood and the male perpetrators with ‘blankets over their heads … shoved into waiting police cars’, she saw a gulf of painful complexity. ‘What’, she asks, ‘of the mothers?’.1

Bushra El-Turk set Silk Moth as a half-hour opera for soprano, ney, violin, accordion, and cello, in which one such mother (Camille Maalawy) sips coffee, scrolls through social media and speaks on the phone. One-sided snatches of communication are interleaved with snippets of a documentary voiceover. These impassive speeches delivered by the woman’s otherwise silent daughter (Mona Khalili) tells the life cycle of the silkworm, in which they hatch, gorge themselves, spin silk cocoons and are boiled alive to preserve their valuable encasements. A tweet projected behind the mother reads, ‘a woman is like a piece of silk/ Precious, rare, and can be laundered at thirty degrees’.

These intermittent, sardonic commentaries double as anglicised landays, an Afghan poetic form traditionally performed by women. Their acerbic wit becomes increasingly horrifying as the consequences of the silk moth’s rearing are spun out. The mother’s gradual confrontation of her own complicity in her daughter’s genital mutilation, forced marriage and death, gives a grim resonance to ‘thank you, mum and dad, for arranging the marriage bed, but/ I want a husband like I want a hole in the head’. Director Heather Fairbairn sets other family members (Karim Jabri, Shira Agmon, Sophie Atalar, Aivale Cole) wordlessly swirling around the stage, thumbing through photographs, encasing Khalili in coils of illuminated rope, and eventually pulling at their mother’s clothes and hair. The sense in which honour is a family affair, where ‘we dwell within your name as under the shade of a glorious canopy … and shame is a little grub, eating away, eating away’, is as present in their embraces as in their violent, grabbing motions.2

With the cast all in white, wading barefoot through the black, ashy sediment that carpeted the floor, Fairbairn’s production is visually arresting. Her handling of the FGM scene is particularly adept. ‘This flesh, pink, cut, cast down on the floor/ Is your promise to them that I will never want more’, reads the landay-tweet as Maalawy pulls on latex gloves, singing repeated Es (twice shouting, ‘hold still!’) over harsh D-quarter-sharp/D-sharp violin dyads. There is no further visual representation – the audience knows what is happening – and the gloves convey the pain and horror of genital cutting without spectacle or gratuitousness.

Fairbairn’s austere ambiguity was such that the piece remained unflinchingly issue-based without being preachy. At times, however, it was opaque, and several reviews in the press have expressed a general bewilderment: ‘the measured, monochrome staging and subtly moody score add up to a skilfully oblique exposition rather than a fully fledged music drama’, writes Caroline Potter, while Yehuda Shapiro characterised the evening as ‘sophisticated, stylish and sincere, yet unsatisfying’, adding, ‘the message remains unclear’.3 The libretto itself is already demandingly sparse on concrete details, and Knight’s initial version apparently contained ‘more prosaic information’ about the family’s backstory.4 I only learned afterwards that the landays projected onto the backscreen were supposed to be tweets, and it was unclear how Maalawy’s character was supposed to be seeing them. This production needed to give its audience more to hold onto and would have gained affective power from simply being more explicit.

Nevertheless, El-Turk’s score is arrestingly tightly constructed; it is rich in its motivic interplay and a real pleasure to study. One four-note set introduced by the accordion (played with subtle assurance by Jon Banks) punctuates the episodic structure, and this equally tempered instrument blends beautifully into an ensemble that employs microtones to embrace the maqamat that Mina Mikhael Salama traversed deftly on the ney. El-Turk weaves a rich diaspora music for a diaspora family. Maalawy has also performed Arabic song extensively by way of exploring her Egyptian heritage.5 She sang with passionate intensity, drawing out the power and grief of one reliving from the other side a history that repeats itself. El-Turk’s somewhat surprising decision not to create much of a dialogue between soprano and orchestra during the phone-call sections presented Maalawy with the tall order of carrying a one-sided conversation, and at times her diction was not quite as clear as it needed to be. Nevertheless, the image of her kneeling to the words of the final spoken lines remained with me long afterwards: ‘the imago, or mature adult, emerges from the chrysalis. Because it has been kept in captivity for so many generations, it is no longer able to fly. Neither can it see.’

Silk Moth formed the middle section of an hour-long triptych. Musical director Kelly Lovelady, who conducted with masterful sensitivity throughout, began the programme with Liza Lim’s The Heart’s Ear (1997) for flute, clarinet, and string quartet. Its meditation on a fragment of Sufi melody (the title is a Rumi quotation) combined with its blend of ponticello strings and low winds to invoke the ney are fitting preparation for the opera’s Arabic soundworld.6 This carefully considered programming decision makes abundant conceptual sense, especially given that Lovelady aims for her ensemble Ruthless Jabiru to engage with social issues through reflection upon the ‘sonic associations’ that surround them.7

As they play, Sapphire Goss’s captivating video art shows beguilingly strange footage of flowers opening. The pile of ashy, charcoal-like sediment that covers the floor and rains from the ceiling pulsates, and Khalili emerges from a cloth cocoon. The gesture is so striking and well-executed, however, that it outshines Lim’s music. The Heart’s Ear is relatively rhythmically and harmonically homogenous, and its extreme tessituras and string techniques render it dynamically homogenous too, if it is to be blended. It is slightly too long for a prelude and the audience’s attention waned. Nevertheless, it was undeniably beautifully played; as Potter puts it, Ruthless Jabiru were ‘strong advocates for the work, though the dry acoustic did them no favours’.8

The postlude, on the other hand, was a stunning highlight. Lovelady’s arrangement of Cassandra Miller’s Bel Canto (2010) switches Salama from ney onto subtly amplified oud, and expands what was originally a solo vocalist’s lament into a devastatingly intense ensemble performance between Malaawy, Agmon, Atalar and Cole. Cole’s voice stood out as particularly rich and colourful (I noticed her again in Grimeborn’s Treemonisha and was equally delighted). The piece is a portrait of Maria Callas, which Miller bases on her iconic live recordings of Puccini’s ‘Vissi d’arte’. The vocal line in the score is marked, ‘mimicking the charisma, inflection and liberty of Maria Callas, molto vib’.9 The previously silent company surround Maalawy as if in mourning, each repeated entry comprising legato, arpeggio-like lines almost sobbed out to ‘ya’ syllables, with ‘all the full generosity of vibrato, swoops and portamenti’.10 It is not only a mirror back on the previous half-hour, but across the genre itself, Callas the arch-bel-canto-interpreter howling through texts in which women are so sonically powerful, and so often murdered.

After the cryptic restraint of Silk Moth, Bel Canto confronts the audience with emotion. The singers run their fingers through the ashes on the ground, tracing trapped, repetitive patterns. But just as their strains seem to die away, the violin bursts into loud, dolefully descending glissandi, and the singers re-join with ecstatic, full-octave rising glissandi that descend in heart-rending sobs. It was one of the most remarkable musical experiences of my year. There is nothing sentimental about this piece. It is raw, and in this context wringed its hands at Silk Moth’s horrors, demanding that we look and listen. Grimeborn is responsibly and passionately dedicated to its subject matter; and this triptych of women composers was a welcome contribution to its diverse line-up. Here is a sincere and sensitive – if not always comprehensible – exploration of ethnicity, domesticity and violence.

George K. Haggett


1 Eleanor Knight, Programme: SILK MOTH Opera, preview, Nour Festival of Arts, 20th Century Theatre, London, 1 November 2015, http://www.rbkc.gov.uk/pdf/Silkmoth%20programme%20FINAL%20copy.pdf.
2 Bushra El-Turk, Silk Moth for soprano and ensemble (Composers Edition: Source Music Services, 2015).
3 Caroline Potter, ‘Grimeborn Festival Stages Daring Triple Bill Featuring El-Turk’s “Silk Moth”’, I Care if You Listen, 20 August 2019, http://www.icareifyoulisten.com/2019/08/grimeborn-festival-triple-bill-el-turk-silk-moth/; Yehuda Shapiro, ‘Silk Moth review at the Arcola Theatre, London – “an eclectic opera trilogy”’ in The Stage, 12 August 2019, http://www.thestage.co.uk/reviews/2019/silk-moth-arcola-theatre-grimeborn-eclectic-trilogy/.
4 Eleanor Knight, personal email correspondence, 19 August 2019.
5 The Cross-Eyed Pianist, ‘Camille Maalawy, mezzo-soprano’ in Meet the Artist Online, 3 August 2019, https://meettheartist.online/2019/08/03/camille-maalawy-mezzo-soprano/.
6 Dan Goren, ‘Kelly Lovelady: On Staging Bushra El-Turk’s “Silk Moth” this August for Grimeborn’, in Composers Edition, 26 July 2019, https://whatsnew.composersedition.com/kelly-lovelady-on-staging-bushra-el-turks-silk-moth-in-august-for-grimeborn/.
7 Goren, ‘Kelly Lovelady’.
8 Potter, ‘Grimeborn Festival Stages Daring Triple Bill Featuring El-Turk’s “Silk Moth”’.
9 Cassandra Miller, ‘Bel Canto’ (composer’s blog post, 2010), https://cassandramiller.wordpress.com/2010/05/14/bel-canto/.
10 Miller, ‘Bel Canto’.

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