Karin Mushegain as Mariam (left) and Maureen McKay as Laila (right) in “A Thousand Splendid Suns” — the two actors hold each other on-stage, lit brightly against a dark backdrop

Seattle Opera Debuts ‘A Thousand Splendid Suns,’ based on the Khaled Hosseini Novel

by Danielle Hayden

Seattle Opera debuted its world premiere of A Thousand Splendid Suns on Feb. 25. Based on the critically acclaimed novel by The New York Times bestselling author Khaled Hosseini, A Thousand Splendid Suns unfolds the complex story of Mariam and Laila, two women in Afghanistan who are generations apart but whose fates collide due to circumstance, pain, and tragedy. They become united under the same household against their common enemies — the Taliban that oppresses outside their walls, and the abusive husband who oppresses within them.

The opera was adapted for the stage by award-winning Seattle composer Sheila Silver and directed by Roya Sadat, one of Afghanistan’s first women to direct films and the winner of over 20 international awards. Cultural consultant Humaira Ghilzai worked directly with Silver and librettist Stephen Kitsakos on the language of the piece, advised Seattle Opera on perspectives in the Afghan community, and helped curate opportunities for Seattle audiences to learn about Afghan culture, such as a conversation about Afghan women’s resilience abroad, and through art, with a showcase featuring musical performances, embroidery, and a documentary screening. Paintings by Afghan artists are also on display at the Seattle Opera House for audience viewing. A Thousand Splendid Suns is unlike many other operatic works in that it is led by a team of women, a rarity in the U.S., and an impossibility in Afghanistan.

Director Sadat, who experienced life firsthand under the Taliban’s regime, saw how it was women who bore the brunt of the Taliban’s tyranny. Sadat also recognizes, however, that inequality and deprivation of fundamental human rights are not unique to Afghanistan, but are issues that reverberate across the globe. “I want this opera to stand as a reminder of their strength in the face of violence. This opera is a narrative of women’s resilience.”

Cast members acting with colorful props and set pieces in “A Thousand Splendid Suns” at Seattle Opera
Cast members in “A Thousand Splendid Suns” at Seattle Opera. (Photo: Sunny Martini)

The process of transforming Hosseini’s story into an opera has been over a decade in the making. Silver, a graduate of Rainier Beach High School, reached out to Hosseini for permission to turn his novel into an opera. In a talk before the premiere, Silver shared her admiration of the story. “I was drawn to [the protagonists’] courage, their devotion to one another, their heroism. I see A Thousand Splendid Suns as a universal story of love. Audiences will identify with these women as they discover that the human spirit can survive and transcend the most challenging of circumstances.” 

Although it took some time to give the green light, the author likewise seemed optimistic toward this development: “The arts remain our most potent teachers of empathy. It is my hope that this opera proves not only a beautiful and moving musical journey, but also an expression of the collective struggles, sacrifice, and hopes for Afghan women,” Hosseini wrote in a Seattle Opera blog post

I first read the book in 2010 and could barely put it down. I was struck by the beauty of Hosseini’s finely crafted phrasing, but of course the narrative itself enlightened me about the horrific conditions of subjugation and brutality faced by women in Afghanistan. And yet, themes of love (both platonic and romantic), friendship, sacrifice, and true honor are strong and pure enough to shine through what is horrific and dismal. 

I attended the opera on opening night. I chose not to reread the book I had loved but had left closed for the past 13 years, concerned that I would succumb to that tendency of readers to compare the text to the film, TV show, or, in this case, the opera. I wanted to appreciate the latter art form as it is. Although I would have appreciated a bit more onstage action, I enjoyed the production. It was different from any other opera I have seen, not only due to being sung in English and set in the Middle East, but also to the sheer number of scene transitions and the skillful use of lighting to illustrate dramatic effect. Also notable was the inclusion of Afghan musical instruments, such as the rubab, that accompanied the more traditional Western instruments and helped bring the setting alive. 

Deep Singh plays tabla in “A Thousand Splendid Suns” at Seattle Opera
Deep Singh plays tabla in “A Thousand Splendid Suns” at Seattle Opera. (Photo: Sunny Martini)

The opera is not only buttressed by the historical underpinnings of civil war in the ’90s, but it carries contemporary resonance as well. Less than two years ago, the Taliban resumed its draconian rule over the nation after American troops withdrew from Afghanistan. Since then,  Washington has welcomed thousands of Afghan refugees. Seattle Opera is collecting donations for these recent refugees, with large bins in the lobby at every performance, and linking people to organizations supporting Afghan refugees and rights.

A Thousand Splendid Suns runs until March 11 at McCaw Hall, 321 Mercer St., Seattle.

Danielle Hayden, originally from Detroit, is a freelance writer and a writer in residence at The Seattle Public Library. Her work has appeared in Seattle magazine, the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Dillydoun Review, Ampersand, YES!, and elsewhere online and in print. Her poetry was featured in Seattle’s Poetry on Buses and is forthcoming in The Black Experience anthology. She enjoys reading, photography, and learning new things.

📸 Featured Image: Karin Mushegain as Mariam (left) and Maureen McKay as Laila (right) in “A Thousand Splendid Suns” at Seattle Opera. The opera is based on the bestselling novel by Khaled Hosseini. (Photo: Sunny Martini)

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