Guardian Friday Pages
MY OPERA FROM HELL: When Keith Bernstein set out to write an opera about torture at Guantanamo, he had no idea how prescient the work would be
25 June 2004
© Copyright 2004. The Guardian. All rights reserved.
No way out . . . Peter Willcock and Bernadette Lord in Bernstein's opera. Below, the real-life Guantanamo base PHOTOGRAPHS: MARTIN GODWIN; JOSE GOITIA/AP
There has been another al-Qaida bombing in Kenya. A response, no doubt, to the images of enslavement in Guantanamo that have appeared in the press. Something has crystallised - I have decided to anatomise all of this with an opera. Opera x-rays the soul. With opera I can go inside the experience of those who wish to kill and kill themselves for their cause, inhabit their emotions, see the world through their eyes.
I will start the opera with the idea that ordinary people commit to "martyrdom" as a way of expressing their belief in the Divine. Artists Against the War put an email out for me asking for librettist. Many replies.
Of all the replies, Dic Edwards seems the best. He's committed and understands what I need; to humanise the suicide bombers, to represent their spiritual exaltation, their belief that they are beyond death and the power of that belief.
A plotline evolves as if on its own. There is a symbiosis between myself and Dic - there is no need to disentangle who thought of what. The suicide bomber has become a woman. [This, of course, was before women suicide bombers became common, and one example of many acts of imaginative foresight in the Edwards libretto.]
The American President is also female: a "President Hillary". It works for the plot. The President is to be seduced by the CIA Director - a symbol of corrupted power.
Dic sends first drafts in emails. It seems good. The plot is complete: Palestinian writer Leila abandons Daniel, her London liberal Jewish composer partner, to join al-Qaida; he's left in despair and goes blind through shock. Then comes Leila's betrayal within a suicide cell by Mohammed, who also loves her. He betrays her to the US to stop her killing herself, his passion for her having destroyed his own will to kill. Leila is captured and incarcerated in Guantanamo. Mohammed offers himself to the US as a double agent in order to follow her to the camp and be with her, but is interrogated and tortured by the Americans himself (Leila, meanwhile, still loves Daniel).
So Mohammed is sent to Guantanamo by the crazed CIA Director (the power behind the throne), where he finds Leila has died. But the camp guard - also enamoured of Leila - gives him her writings, completed secretly, a libretto called Manifest Destiny, a vision of peace beyond conflict that Mohammed takes back to Daniel, as an act of reconciliation between a Palestinian and a Jew. Daniel will set it as an opera as this opera: the opera the audience has just seen.
My working title was War but Dic told me about Manifest Destiny, the concept dreamt up by the US Congress in the early 1800s to justify the invasion of American Indian territory in the west to get their gold. Dic feels there are powerful parallels - even before the invasion of Iraq and the reward of oil. We agree on Manifest Destiny as the title.
I'm delighted and relieved Dic has taken seriously my request to write in language simple but rich in meaning, like unexploded bombs that I can detonate with the music. Music explodes the meaning of words. Drafts of Act 2 have come through. This is very different from the intense first act. The US President and CIA Chief scenes are parodic, comic even. Not sure what to do with them musically.
I am concerned about challenging torture scenes in Guantanamo in which Mohammed is threatened with sexual assault. I find this over the top, quite shocking and improbable. And the language is crude and explicit . . .
CIA man: Shall we bugger you to save you?
Mohammed: No need, sir. I am saved in your image!
CIA man: Shall we bugger you to confirm it? You Iraqi piece of shit.
Mohammed: I'm Palestinian!
CIA man: That's worse! Totally buggerable!
Mohammed: And now Christian. Saved in your image!
CIA man: Then shall we bugger you anyway? You Iraqi piece of shit.
Mohammed: No need, saintly one. You buggered all the Arabs long ago. I want now to be an American! To be an American! To be an American!
How do I set this to music? But Dic is hitting a bottom line of realism that I have to stay with. This is exactly what he is for - if I were writing the words I would never have thought of this, or dared to use it if I had.
Cockpit Theatre is running "shock and awe" events. I take part with some settings of war poetry based on Vergissmeinnicht by Keith Douglas who died at 25 in the second world war. Dave Wybrow, the director at the Cockpit, likes my music and suggests we do part of Manifest Destiny in the autumn. We plan to do the first act (of three). The invasion of Iraq has produced mass demonstrations and faultlines around the world are opening up. Now the subject matter of the opera seems more and more necessary to address.
An article about the opera has appeared in the Observer and Reuters has also sent reports round the world. A dynamic seems to roll the project forward.
I have completed the music. Three acts, a running time of about two hours, with interval. The more I have worked with the libretto, the more I admire Dic Edwards's work, the cross references and the compact meaning. I found a way of dealing with the buffoonery in the Oval office and the scenes of sexual degradation: a sequence of dance music, a Viennese waltz for the Oval office and a Cuban tango for the torture (memories of the evil dance of the torturer in Reservoir Dogs, perhaps?).
I call Act 1 Images, Act 2 Dance Music and Act 3 The Heights (a quote from The Koran). Newsnight has an item on Manifest Destiny in which director Peter Sellars says: "If opera does not tackle such issues, then what?"
The performance of Act 1 goes well, beyond our dreams. An Iraqi comes up to Dic at the Cockpit and admires his idea of third world war (meaning a war against the third world) which is the reality of this war on terror.
I contact the Guantanamo Human Rights Commission (run by Corin Redgrave, his sister Vanessa and others). I suggest a benefit performance of Manifest Destiny for the commission. To my delight, Corin replies positively.
Corin listens to Acts 2 and 3. He says we should perform the whole thing. I feel daunted, but exhilarated. He produces from nowhere: a venue, the Tricycle (much respected for Lawrence inquiry and Hutton inquiry reconstructions and now the "verbatim" play Guantanamo); a young director Gari Jones, who has worked a lot with Harold Pinter; artist Ralph Steadman to design our poster (which turns out to be a chilling and brilliant image); and PR people to help, all while Corin is preparing to play King Lear with the RSC.
The date for first complete performance of Manifest Destiny is fixed: June 27.
Images of abuse of Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib jail in Baghdad are dominating the papers. It seems Dic had uncanny foresight when he wrote those torture scenes with sexual abuse against detainees in Guantanamo in early 2003 - and the whole scenario of the opera has flooded the world since it was written to a degree that we could not have predicted. Or perhaps we all knew subconsciously that Abu Ghraib was inevitable, and it just took a librettist of sufficient prescience to imagine it.
Manifest Destiny is at the Tricycle Theatre, London NW6, on June 27. Box office: 020-7328 1000.