A Young Martyr and Red Tulips

East + West premiere: Houston Grand Opera's The Bricklayer leaves audiences wanting more

East + West premiere: Houston Grand Opera's The Bricklayer leaves audiences wanting more

The Bricklayer
Farnoosh Moshiri offers hope for future generations and for, as the dedication reads, "anyone who has defeated despair," her words assert that moving on isn't a possibility always. Tenor Jon Kolbet as Mr. Parvin.  Courtesy of Houston Grand Opera
The Bricklayer
The story unfolds at George Bush Intercontinental Airport where Bita (soprano Christina Boosahda) — alongside her daughter Shahrzad (Grace Muir, who shares the role with Sophie Rei Qano) — awaits the arrival of her parents from Tehran. Courtesy of Houston Grand Opera
The Bricklayer
Tragically, the story of exile and bloodletting is universal to many communities, and Moshiri leans into this ubiquitous human experience for connection. Courtesy of Houston Grand Opera
The Bricklayer
The Bricklayer
The Bricklayer

Houston Grand Opera's production of The Bricklayer isn't the type of feel-good story one associates with community outreach. When the characters emphatically proclaim,"Let us not forget, let us not forgive," and call for the fall of the tyrants ruling modern-day Iran, the opera's essence shifts paths. 

While the libretto by Iranian exile and Houston transplant Farnoosh Moshiri offers hope for future generations and, as the dedication reads, "for anyone who has defeated despair," her words assert that moving on isn't a possibility always. 

 Before The Bricklayer could survey conscientiously the historical, cultural and personal causes and effects of the premise, the 37-minute work drew to a close and I was left wanting to hear more.

 It's with a heavy heart that a near-capacity audience received HGO's 46th world premiere at the Wortham Theater Center. The drama resonated with many who share Moshiri's history. Others empathized from a safe emotional distance away.

But before The Bricklayer could survey conscientiously the historical, cultural and personal causes and effects of the premise, the 37-minute work drew to a close and I was left wanting to hear more. I wanted to know more. 

In subject matter — not in scale — The Bricklayer has its place alongside John Adams' The Death of Klinghoffer and Nixon in China and Jack Heggie's Dead Man Walking. These larger works reach beyond a timely theme du jour to probe existential, and sometimes controversial, issues of national, international and political significance.

Song of Houston's East + West

Commissioned by HGOco, the company's community engagement arm, The Bricklayer adds to a growing opus of chamber operas through Song of Houston's East + West, an initiative seeking to unearth hidden stories rooted in the city's greatest asset: Diversity.

Jack Perla's Courtside turned to China and Franghiz Alizadeh's Your Name Means the Sea journeyed to Azerbaijan. In June, be on the lookout for John Glover's setting of a Cambodian tale, New Arrivals, written by Catherine Filloux based on the life of refugee Yani Rose Keo

 ​When the blood of a young martyr spills, a red tulip blossoms.

For The Bricklayer, HGOco entrusted New York-based composer Greg Spears. The 34-year-old prepared for the task by listening to classical and contemporary Persian music to find commonalities between his innate style and the ethos of Persian sounds. Iran was a musical world Spears hadn't yet explored. As such, the process that gave birth to the chamber opera paralleled the East + West dialogue HGOco wished to nurture.

Red tulips and Persian sounds

The story unfolds at Houston's George Bush Intercontinental Airport where Bita (soprano Christina Boosahda) — alongside her daughter Shahrzad (Grace Muir, who shares the role with Sophie Rei Qano) — awaits the arrival of her distraught parents from Tehran. Mr. and Mrs. Parvin (tenor Jon Kolbet and mezzo Eve Gigliotti) reveal that their son was executed against the Wall of the Almighty. Mr. Parvin's torture led to a stroke. The couple barely begins to settle into American life when the curtain falls.  

The Bricklayer (tenor Bray Wilkins) is the imaginary representation of the spirit of the people of Iran. In conversation with the Bricklayer, Mr. Parvin is able to negotiate coming to terms with his loss. 

Suffused with evocative metaphors, Moshiri's words answered Spears' question: Why is this opera? He didn't have to delve too deeply to connect literary and musical genres. Moshiri poetic narrative clues into opera's strengths with allusions to singing as a valiant and defiant act that speaks against the oppressive regime, fierce pathetic fallacies rooted in cultural symbolism and analogies to Persian red tulips that plead further observation: When the blood of a young martyr spills, a red tulip blossoms.

 The partisan activities that put her life in danger and forced her exile in 1983, as well as the life-altering injuries sustained by her father while under interrogation, give rise to the somewhat autobiographical plot. 

It's in Spears' coloristic score where The Bricklayer overcomes some of the problems of brevity. With harmonic language that bows to his post-minimalist raison d'être, sparse orchestration carves ample space for Persian musical references to project lucidly. Whether that was the ney (Persian flute), beautifully played by Kamran Thunder, or the santoor, recreated by the piano, Spears invents sound scapes that exploit what can be done with a ney, clarinet, violin, cello, harp and piano.

Tension fume from pulsating harmonies. Drones support filigree melodic contours that hint at the crossroads where early European music traditions and Middle Eastern aesthetics meet. Tahrir ornamentation fuses organically. 

Kolbet manuevers through quickly evolving character transformations and retains credibility. Wilkins captures a spiritual surrealism that draws its strength from collective consciousness. Gigliotti and Boosahda's append complexity to their otherwise supporting role.

A brilliant set by Laura Fine Hawkes tunes into Moshiri's analogies. Packing crates perched atop one another form a wall that dismantles gradually, its components doubling as props, while supporting the opera's emotional elements.

The politics of culture

There's no question that The Bricklayer is rooted in political ideology. Such was confirmed by Moshiri, who stands opposite to the Islamic theocracy that has ruled Iran since the 1979 coup d'état that overthrew the Shah. The partisan activities that put her life in danger and forced her exile in 1983, as well as the life-altering injuries sustained by her father while under interrogation, give rise to the somewhat autobiographical plot. 

In its current form, The Bricklayer is at risk of a shortened lifespan. That's unless someone invests to upsize what Spears and Moshiri have brought forth. 

Tragically, the story of exile and bloodletting is universal to many communities, and Moshiri leans into this ubiquitous human experience for connection. By these means, The Bricklayer is aligned with the values of the HGOco East + West, which according to the website "explores the relationship between first- and second-generation immigrants, displacement of war refugees, storytelling traditions and cultural inheritance."

In that context, Moshiri's courageous efforts to relay such a deeply personal story are heroic.

But if physical references are removed, there's limited content in the text that nods to its Persian provenance. Actually, there's little that coveys the beauty of the culture. That's found in the exquisite music, serendipitously at the hands of someone far removed from any personal involvement with the background or events. 

In its current form, The Bricklayer is at risk of a shortened lifespan. That's unless someone invests to upsize what Spears and Moshiri have brought forth.