The Heart of Shahrazad

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“It’s not like anything I’ve ever seen before” –

-was my first impression after I saw the World Premiere of Amiche’s new work The Heart of Shahrazad. Staging in the majestic Mansions on Fifth Hotel, this refreshing piece of art, with libretto by Sarah Carleton and music by Eliane Aberdam, combines the beauty of opera and acting into one mind-cleansing journey: a healing through story-telling.

Adapted from “One Thousand and One Night”, The Heart of Shahrazadtells the tale of a young Arabic woman, Shahrazad, trying to fight the Sulton’s cruelty and violence against other innocent women in the city by telling him one story every night, and discovering that this heartfelt journey of courage and forgiveness has also healed her own pain and anger overtime. Note that this is not your typical big-orchestra big-dance-number opera production. However, with a small cast of one actress, one soprano, one harp, and a running length of only one hour,The Heart of Shahrazad provides a one-of-a-kind theater experience with its unique complexity yet simple aesthetic.

The character of Shahrazad was played by the librettist herself, Ms. Sarah Carleton. As the only “real” and speaking character in the story, all of Shahrazad’s scenes are essentially solo acts. And probably due to the poetic characteristics and the literal texture of the language, I will admit that at a few scenes it was hard not to see the character’s talking as a dramatic reading. But once you get used to the format, Ms. Carleton’s performance was mostly engaging and very emotional. Her interpretation of the progression of Shahrazad’s internal struggle and pain was truthful and sincere. And her portrait of the character’s exploration and change over the course of the story was compelling and exhilarating.

Soprano Lara Lynn Cottrill played the other character, Story, in the opera. This character is the only singing voice of the opera and functions like the chorus in the Classical Greek drama. There is no direct interaction between Story and Shahrazad, yet their relationship on stage is always intriguing—whenever Shahrazad is delivering a monologue, Story reacts; and whenever Shahrazad is not on stage, Story will set the props for the next scene. In the opera program, Story is interpreted as a representation of the inspiration and muse that drives the plot forward, and Ms. Cottrill’s singing did just that! Her voice comes with both stunning colors and a striking range that strengthens the narrative like a second force on stage. And her interactive dynamic with Shahrazad adds another dimension of emotion to the overall storytelling.

If Ms. Carleton’s proselike lyrics are the bones of this opera, then Ms. Eliane Aberdam’s vibrant score is the spirit of the healing. Starting from the first few notes in the Introduction scene, Ms. Aberdam’s music will immediately grab your attention and take your back to the roads of the ancient Arab world where Shahrazad’s father travels on. The music of the opera is performed entirely on a harp by Ms. Marissa Knaub. With her exquisite techniques plus Ms. Cottrill’s magnificent voice, the music puts the audience on a magic carpet that will fly from the bed chamber of Sulton’s palace where tears of innocent women were once shed, to the living room of Shahrazad’s house where she studied all the books her father brought back from his expedition. In this score not only can you feel the pain and anger that the characters struggled with throughout the story, you can also hear the courage and hope that Shahrazad took and gathered when she decided to write about her own journey in the end. Ms. Aberdam’s music highlights the timeless story with an invigorating yet calming scent, and it’s a one that promises to dig out all the feelings.

The Heart of Shahrazad was co-directed by artists Ms.Carleton and Ms.Cottrill themselves and assisting choreographed by Ms. Kayla Haberbern. Throughout the opera there are minimal staging and movements among the characters. Though at few scenes when Story is singing, Shahrazad will dance alone in front of the audience to accompany the music. We are not sure what is the sentiment behind those routines to the character. But perhaps the “out-of-context” separation here was the intention after all. I can’t say if seeing the opera in a historical landmark didn’t make me biased about the whole viewing experience. But the integration of Mansion’s grand staircase as part of the storytelling does work out perfectly.

Originally from Beaver County, Amiche (Italian for “women friends”) was founded by Ms. Carleton and Ms. Cottrill in 2013. With a vision to inspire artistic creations through unexpected connection, in this case opera and acting, two artists truly brought a new direction of collaboration into the Pittsburgh theater community. The Heart of Shahrazad not only tells a story of a young women fighting through violence and anger with hope and courage, it also presents us a healing journey that could potentially resonate with hundreds and thousands of people out there in the world who are still fighting through their pain and darkness. We certainly will always remember the fact that one of the intentions of this piece is to raise awareness about violence against women. But through this journey it also reminds us of the reason why we love stories and theater in the first place: because we believe in the power of language, the influence of hope and faith, and most importantly, the magic of storytelling.

Performance Date: Thursday, August 13, 2015