By: Obelit Yadgar
French composer Michel Bosc can easily see Qateeni Gabbara, a work still in progress, becoming the first Assyrian National Opera. “It’s a very melodic and colorful opera that also has a universal appeal,” he says.
Scores of great European masters wrote operas based on historical Assyrian characters and legends. Semiramide, based on the legend of the Assyrian Queen Shamiram, especially comes to mind. At least 10 composers that I know of wrote operas titled Semiramide, based on the topic of Shamiram. Rossini, Ziani, Cimarosa, Gluck, Salieri, Porpora, Respighi, Paisiello, Mayberbeer and Handel all produced their own musical versions. Rossini’s Semiramide is the most famous.
Other operas based on an Assyrian topic include Verdi’s Nabuco (Nebuchadneser), and Henry Becque’s Sardanaple (inspired by Lord Byron’s Sardanapulus).
It is presumptuous to consider these Assyrian operas, especially since they are not sung in Assyrian. Qateeni Gabbara, however, is sung in Assyrian. An opera in Assyrian? And why not? We really have not changed from our ancestors, who produced magnificent works of art. We are the same people, and many of us have the same passion about the arts as did our ancestors in Mesopotamia. It’s just that some of us reach out a little harder to find them. Thus the Assyrian opera Qateeni Gabbara.
Currently only the overture and Act I of the opera are completed, but two more acts remain for composer Bosc and librettist Tony Khoshaba to finish. Although Bosc is not Assyrian by birth, his heart is near to that of ours. “Qateeni Gabbara is one of my dearest pieces and I have great ambition for it,” he adds. “Thanks to Qateeni I have Assyrian friends and I feel a little Assyrian, too, in my heart.”
“Now that we have funding for 2010 through the Irvine Foundation,” says Khoshaba, “we will start Qateeni’s completion. As soon as I finish the libretto for another act, Michel will compose the music.”
“It must become a real opera and I hope we’ll give it to real opera houses to perform,” adds Bosc. “I am extremely proud of it and I can’t wait to compose the second and the third acts.”
The opera is based in part on the Epic of Qateeni Gabbara by the late Assyrian musical and literary figure William Daniel. Comprising about 6,000 verses in three volumes, the epic was inspired by the Qateeni Gabbara folk tales known to have flourished in the Nineveh Plain of northern Iraq and some of the lands beyond.
“There are linguistic and cultural indications in the language that refer to tribal dialects, particularly the Tiari dialect of the mountains of Hakkari and the mountains north of Iraq,” says Assyrian scholar Edward Odisho.
The Qateeni Gabbara folk tales were sung by men and women in simple rhythm and framed with extensive Assyrian folk imagery. “No music in the real sense,” Odisho maintains. “Very simple rudimentary and repetitive rhythmic patterns. At times the style and metaphors are simple. However, in many instances they are very sophisticated and sensationally impressive.”
As the Qateeni Gabbara folktales lived on through the Assyrian centuries, they were never written down, says Assyrian scholar Arianne Ishaya. “The tales belong to an oral tradition passed down from generation to generation, and evolved in detail and poetic style by additions and deletions to suit the condition of each generation, the main theme and the main characters always staying the same.”
Ishaya also notes that Qateeni Gabbara focuses on the theme of good and evil. In the end, selfishness, deceit, arrogance and cruelty toward the weak, presented in the form of the female demon Shidda, are defeated by the powers of mercy, courage and selfless love, portrayed by the national hero Kateeni (Ishaya says Daniel used that particular spelling for the hero’s name). “In one way they are morality tales,” she adds. “In another, they are a message of hope to an oppressed minority.”
Daniel first came across the Qateeni Gabbara folk tales in 1946. His profound impression of them led him to write an epic based on the Qateeni character, Odisho points out. Subsequently he used the core of these Assyrian folktales, embellished them with stylistic and poetic ingenuity, and artistically transformed them into a complete epic.
“In the genre of epic poems,” Ishaya says, “its poetic beauty is unparalleled in the Middle East, and is in every way comparable to Greek masterpieces.”
Khoshaba discovered the Qateeni Gabbara folktales and William Daniel’s writing in his school years in Tehran through his Assyrian literature teacher Rabi Nimrod Simono. When he and his dear friend Sargon Ishoo left for America, Khoshaba recalls, they promised Simono they would never let the message of Qateeni Gabbara die. “Now twenty years later,” says Khoshaba, “I have an opportunity to fulfill my promise. I dedicate this effort to my late teacher Rabi Simono and my late friend Sargon Ishoo.”
Khoshaba chose to begin the opera with Chapter 7 in Book I of the Epic of Qateeni Gabbara. In the chapter, the feudal warlord Malik Tuma — who also is Qateeni’s uncle — challenges young men to destroy the demon Shidda.
Ishaya’s translation of Malik Tuma’s challenge in the chapter reads: “Who is the brave, the bravest of the brave, the bravest of all times, who is not afraid to climb the high mountains, squeeze through narrowest crevices, pass through plains, deserts and speedily land, like an arrow soaring through the air, on Shidda’s green meadows, and while she is in her slumber of 40 days, pick from the green plant to bring home a specimen that will give sight to the blind, and life to the dead?”
Here also, Qateeni meets his uncle for the first time, and accepts the challenge. This chapter is the story’s core, explains Khoshaba, when Qateeni begins his quest to destroy Shidda.
On the way, Qateeni encounters a large crowd that tries to prevent him from going against Shidda alone, including a woman who has lost her sons to Shidda, Ishaya notes in her translation of Scene III from the act. “This scene is a beautiful duet between Qateeni and the widow,” she says, “and where Qateeni gives hope to the people.” The scene ends with the choir of Shidda’s captive’s and Qateeni’s aria.”
Since Bosc does not speak Assyrian, one of the most important challenges he faced in writing the music was grasping the heart and soul of the Assyrian language. “The relation between language and musical thought were different from the usual,” he says. “I had composed in Latin, Spanish, English, Italian and French, languages I know.” He studied Assyrian, and had the opera’s text read to him. “We had special notation to help me with the Assyrian language,” he goes on. “To free my imagination, I had to forget that it was not my own language.”
Although an Assyrian opera, Qateeni Gabbara is written in Bosc’s own musical style. “Being honest is a promise of success,” he believes. “I wanted Qateeni to become one of my masterpieces.”
Perhaps it will.
“I envision the Mesopotamian Night project ultimately producing full-length Assyrian operas,” says Khoshaba. “But three things must happen to make this dream possible: partnership with an opera company, more funding, and excitement in the community to support full opera productions.”
The health and vitality of our performing arts is another way of showing the world that even though the Assyrian empire fell in 612 B.C., the Assyrian people did not, and that our arts continue to flourish. All one has to do is to reach out for them. Qateeni Gabbara is worth the effort, because it says a lot about who we are and where we come from. As the master of ceremonies and an Assyrian, for me, Qateeni Gabbara is one more nugget in the treasure of Assyrian performing arts to discover.