'My opera anticipated reality'
Sud Deutsche Zeitung (South German Times) Interview - translation
Keith Burstein, 46, is counted among the most well-known British composers. His works also caused a sensation because, unlike most modern electronic music, they are pleasant to hear
Q. Mr Burstein, you have written an opera about the most pressing political question of our time, about Islamic terror. What attracted you to the subject?
A. I think we are too unwilling to think about terrorists and their motives seriously. Most people, even enlightened and liberal ones still think that suicide bombers are evil, mad and totally fanatical. But maybe it's more a case of normal people whose values and existence are threatened. I don't think we can allow ourselves to see Islamic fundamentalists simply as enemies. Perhaps Manifest Destiny can contribute to that.
Q. What's the opera about?
A.It describes a process of redemption. The principal character is the Palestinian woman Leila, who leaves her Jewish boyfriend Daniel, a composer, behind in London to join a cell of suicide bombers. However, another terrorist betrays her to the USA. She arrives in Guantanamo, where she is tortured and sexually abused. She kills herself and leaves behind her fragments of a poem with a vision of a world without conflict. The fragment gets back to Daniel, who uses it for an opera.
Q. The woman is tortured – did you write the work after the scandal in Bagdad?
A. The opera anticipated reality. Dic Edwards wrote the libretto in early 2003, when nothing was known of the US Army's torture practices, but he probably had an inkling from what happened in Guantanamo. I suppose many people had the same inkling. In Guantanamo, the West broke away from its moral principles and created a model whose whole purpose is to humiliate people of different creeds and colours.
Q. But is opera really suitable for such a political subject?
A. It's particularly suitable. An opera can penetrate contemporary events emotionally and lay bare the motives of the characters with absolute clarity. Operas are principally concerned with love, but also with feelings like anger, fear and confusion - all the emotions that were encompassed in the reaction to September 11th. Over the centuries the role of opera has frequently changed, but until the birth of modernism it always grappled with the important events of the time. Just think of Wagner: you can hardly miss the influence Marx had on the Ring Cycle.
Q. But opera seems to be yesterday's medium
A. We have to prevent that from happening. Opera needs to be reinvigorated so that people realise just how well it can deal with contemporary themes. The problem is that opinion formers in classical music only take seriously works that are atonal and inaccessible - and which nobody wants to hear for that very reason. I've long been of the view that it is also possible to write tonal and melodic works that are full of artistic significance. I think that's essentially more radical than carrying on writing atonally, as supposed innovators have been doing for more than a hundred years now.
Q. Describe how your music sounds
A. Harmonious, full of melodies and very moving - but also very dark. Every listener who is familiar with 20th century music will notice at once that I've left atonality behind me, but despite that my pieces are modern.
Q. Manifest Destiny has only been staged once up until now, this summer in London. What's the next step?
A. Unlike theatre, the opera world has no experience of dealing with such political works and we'll have to wait and see whether established Houses will stage my opera. I've been contacted by New York and Italy, but nothing concrete as yet.
Q. So the Bavarian State Opera's not been on the line yet then?
A. No, but a German production would natually be great. Also because the German government was against the Iraq war at the time.