YVETTE CHRISTIANSË: “Zaid’s music unlocks the emotions to which my lyrics point you.”

Yvette Christiansë

Yvette Christiansë

“In the faces of the refugees, you see the cost of extremism.”  That statement by Yvette Christiansë, novelist, poet, scholar, and the librettist of A Garden Among the Flames, sums up the relation between the tolerant, ecumenical message of the title poem and the searing lines Christiansë has added to depict the hardship and trauma suffered daily by people fleeing oppression and persecution.

I believe ...
My brother’s heart stopped
      at the side of the road.
I believe …
My sister, I see her still
      chasing the train.
I believe in the religion of love
We pray for water
      And water takes our son.

“The Ibn Arabi quotation that Zaid drew upon reflects the ideals of Sufi tolerance,”  says Christiansë. “Its peaceful message soothes us. But it can also lull people into complacency. It is an ideal. The reality is the refugee crisis that is going on right now.  I wanted to bring the reality of all those people fleeing extremism into the idealistic view of those few lines from the poem.”

Yvette Christiansë, born and raised in apartheid-era South Africa, is Professor of English Literature and Africana Studies at Barnard College in New York City. Having sung professionally as a young girl but turning to the written word as her primary means of expression, her work as a librettist combines her love of music with her love of language. “The music unlocks the emotions to which my lyrics point you,” she says of  Zaid Jabri’s score for A Garden Among the Flames.

Christiansë met Zaid Jabri in 2012 when she was searching for a composer for an opera which she had written with Rosalind Morris called Cities of Salt, based on the novel of the same name by Abdelrahman Munif. The story takes place “in a country that could be Saudi Arabia” in 1932, when oil was discovered beneath the sands.

“We listened to work by 200 composers before we settled on Zaid,” she says. “We were struck by his ability to combine exquisite lyricism with modern dissonance, and his range of comfort with modern chamber orchestras, electro-acoustic composition, and traditional Mediterranean forms. And we were struck by his ear for the emotional registers of words and phrases. Perhaps this is because, as a speaker of six languages and as a migrant, he has had to listen so carefully.”

“He hears where and when vowels can be opened, like keys to meaning, or where and how consonants shape and help contain whatever might come streaming toward a listener from these openings. What I am saying is that, although he grasps emotion, he never overwhelms a listener. That would be manipulative melodrama. His integrity as a composer would never permit that.”

While the three-hour Cities of Salt (“Massive! Bigger than Ben Hur!” exclaims Christiansë with a laugh) is being completed and developed—four scenes of it were showcased in 2015 at London’s Royal Opera House in Covent Garden—the two have continued to collaborate on other projects, like A Garden Among the Flames, which they plan to include in a song cycle. The concert on May 6 will be the Carnegie Hall debut of both composer and librettist.

Poet, fiction writer, and librettist Yvette Christiansë was born in South Africa under apartheid in 1954 and immigrated with her parents to Australia at age 18, studying at the University of Sydney, where she received a Ph.D. in English. Her work has been published internationally, and her poetry collection, Castaway, was a finalist for the 2001 PEN International Poetry Prize. Her acclaimed first novel, Unconfessed, based on the life of a slave woman in the Cape Colony, was a finalist for the 2007 Hemingway/PEN International Prize for First Fiction, shortlisted for the University of Johannesburg Prize and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 2008, and nominated for the Ama Ata Aidoo Prize in 2010. Christiansë is the recipient of the Harri Jones Memorial Prize for Poetry (Australia). She currently lives in New York City and teaches at Barnard College.