In a time when the possibility of connection feels as small and far-reaching as a single room, it is surprising when a work of music can suddenly make the world appear at your threshold.
“Öcalan,” a new chamber opera album composed by recurring-Austinite Nathan Felix, has done just this with its release earlier this month. The work takes its name from its primary subject of inspiration, Abdullah Öcalan, the Kurdish theoretician, militant organizer, and political prisoner.
The one-act opera imagines a conversation between Öcalan, who has been imprisoned by the Turkish government since 1999, and the Kurdish fighter Asia Ramazan Antar, who was killed in action during an ISIS attack in the city of of Manbij, Syria in 2016. The two figures, though separated by miles and decades, are torch carriers of the ongoing Kurdish fight for cultural progression and autonomy throughout the constantly-conflicted region of Kurdistan — a not-yet globally recognized territory roughly at the joining point of Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran.
This past year, Felix has been based in Austin, San Francisco, and Brooklyn, staying busy with projects both old and new.
“This time, I think for a lot of musicians, has been used to look what you have in the vault,” he says.
The opera, commissioned by Blake Weaver, was slated to premiere at SXSW 2020. Approached with the commission in the early months of this, Felix set about the narrative strategically, opting not to do a full-blown story but instead an “art piece where we take two central figures and present their modern development, making it a fictional conversation. We wanted to give the message of the ideology of who Öcalan is — not spoon feed it — but give it to audiences in a very digestible way.”
As the coronavirus pandemic led way to events cancellations across the world, and eventually SXSW 2020, the live-performance project shifted in nature. Felix’s collaborators for “Öcalan,” some of whom had recently worked with Felix on his previous opera-in-motion, “Alien,” were eager to make the project happen despite rising challenges. After weeks of rehearsals, and with the confirmation of the cancelled performance, the ensemble suggested that they record the project in lieu of a delayed performance.
The full ensemble for the album consists of Katrina Saporsantos (soprano), Trevor Shaw (baritone) & Robblie LaBanca (tenor) of Inversion Ensemble, Steven Long (bass), Emily Bishop (violin), Henna Chou (cello), Matt Hemenway (violin), Benji Dia (piano) and Richard Castillo (piano for “Penaber”).
The ensemble performs “Öcalan” in the form of seven movements or scenes. Originally, the piece was intended to be a headphone-assisted live experience, allowing the audience to listen wirelessly roaming to different areas of the venue and watch various clusters of the musicians. Despite the change in the opera’s presentation, the work is actually very at home in its album form.
The composition is minimalistic, but immediately heavy. The cutting opening vocal lines in “Naked Kings and Unmasked Gods,” translate hopeful exaltations within sighs of desperation, as Kurdish refugees embrace one another after losing everything precious to them. The vocal harmonies of the ensemble are powerful, yet eerily lonesome even amongst instrumentation, giving their voices a beautiful and dreading quality.
Throughout the album, the instrumentation is largely droning and arpeggiating, but consistently mesmeric. Again, the headphone-centric composition of the work is actually complemented by the spartan sounds that are drawn even when the full ensemble is performing, creating an immersive isolation that is striking — perhaps even better delivered by the canopy of headphones than a live performance.
The libretto for “Öcalan” is sung using a Kurdish dialect, which was a request specifically made by the commissioner of the piece.
“Blake said, ‘Can you have it sung in Kurdish?’ I said ‘Oh wow, that’s a whole new ballgame,” Felix recalls, “that actually took a lot of work as well. I remember scouring forums on the internet for anyone that could translate to Kurdish, and I came across a site for a book about Öcalan, “Freedom Poems for Öcalan,” which celebrates Öcalan through poetry.”
One of the contributors of this book was a Kurdish refugee and poet.
“I looked up the person who was the sort of the architect behind the book, Estella Schmid,” says Felix. “She put me in direct connection via email with [the poet], and I asked him if he could help me translate these words. We had this two week long back and forth because I also told him I don’t know how to pronounce any of the material, so we had to send WhatsApp messages, or he would record and send them on email.”
The lead up to the release of “Öcalan,” also resulted in additional unexpectedly-international communications, from political news outlets in the UK, Belgium, and most notably, a direct communication from the real-life translator for Abdullah Öcalan.
“He came across the piece through a general press release it turns out, and so he asked me if I could share it with him,” says Felix. “He critiqued it, following along with the libretto, and he said ‘man you got the pronunciation really, really close to being spot on!’ That made me happy.”
Felix reflects that the process of creating “Öcalan” has been immensely rewarding, not just as a musical endeavor, but as a conduit for connections both interpersonal and political. He hopes that listeners will also not only find beauty in the resilience and hopefulness of the Kurdish peoples, but also be inspired to better understand their real-life struggles.
“That’s the whole idea, that some people come across and they’ll learn, and maybe they won’t learn and just move on, but some may want to get involved, whatever the case may be,” he says, detailing the experience of both listeners and himself.
[Kurdish peoples’] motive is to have their poetry and their art out in the world and hope that people find it, and then those people are inspired and therefore they can create their art, so it just stems and branches out,” he says. “I feel very honored to be in their web.”
To stream or buy the album see electrochestral.com