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LA MONNAIE DE MUNT

The Sleeping Thousand

Behind the curtain of Adam Maor's first opera

Sébastien Herbecq
Reading time
6 min.

A fantasy-thriller about the psychological toll of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. A hypnotic mix of electronic and Middle-Eastern sonorities. The enchanting lyricism of sung Hebrew. The Sleeping Thousand is Israeli composer Adam Maor’s remarkable debut on the international opera scene.

In Israel, a thousand Palestinian prisoners decide to go on hunger strike. The Prime Minister decides to have them sedated while he tries to come up with a solution without drawing the attention of the international community. As time passes, the thousand sleepers begin to infiltrate the dream world of the Israelis, who start suffering from insomnia and nightmares. Only one solution then offers itself: sending an envoy to the parallel world created by the sedated Palestinians.

For his first opera, the Israeli composer Adam Maor presents a singular score: at once fantasy tale, fable, science-fiction story and topical comment. Based on a text by the playwright Yonatan Levy, Maor’s opera portrays a fractured society and a political class that fans the flames of division. The work also echoes the composer’s life and political engagement: Adam Maor was imprisoned for two years after having refused to do his military service in protest against the Israeli government’s political and military actions.

The Sleeping Thousand reflects the emergence of a new generation of Israeli artists, both socially committed and devoted to experimenting with novel musical forms – in this case, a mix of electronic music, Western contemporary music and traditional Middle Eastern sounds. It is this generation of artists that the European Network of Opera Academies (enoa) and the European Union’s Creative Europe programme have decided to encourage by lending their support to this project.

EXTRACTS FROM AN INTERVIEW WITH ADAM MAOR

Adam Maor “Opera is the form that concentrates the most know-how in the combination of text and music. After music, text is the artistic medium to which I am most sensitive. It is the most direct means by which to convey the ideas that interest me. The libretto of my opera refers to a very precise political and cultural situation: a hunger strike by Palestinian prisoners in Israel in 2018. I tried to comment on this situation through the music, but I also tried to explore Yonatan Levy’s ideas, going so far as to contradict them, at times. Moreover, a libretto that refers to a very specific situation must attempt to present a more universal dimension. Yonatan’s text is highly accomplished in this respect: it evokes a very specific event, which almost reads like a newspaper item, but it ends with a more abstract situation with a wider international resonance. I think it’s relevant to pass on this message of warning in Europe, where some frightening political movements have emerged. Let’s not forget that our histories are closely intertwined.

This opera is about repression, more specifically about the effects that oppression has on the oppressor – and not on the oppressed, because we never hear the thousand sleepers. On the contrary, the Prime Minister is the character that speaks the most. He loses his mind because he doesn’t know what to do with the sleepers. To Yonatan and me, it was vitally important to present the oppressor’s point of view. These political issues are the ones that stir up the most emotions in me and that concern me most directly in my life: it would be artificial for me not to talk about them in my music.

Musical fusion

On a stylistic level, my music is closely related to the French school, but electronic music, which I’ve always found interesting from an aesthetic point of view, is also quite prominent in this opera. What’s more, as I had just been released from prison when I began my music studies, I didn’t necessarily have the same cultural and technical knowledge as my colleagues. In terms of electronic music, we were on an equal footing.

For the orchestration, I based myself mainly on the strings. Originating in the Middle East, those instruments travelled a very interesting path in that they constituted the foundation of European music. That enabled me to build a bridge between the two cultures. I then took pleasure in thinking about an instrument that would have journeyed in the opposite direction. The accordion, for instance, a European instrument, became a regular feature in Arab orchestras in the course of the twentieth century. One of the main issues in writing this score was finding a suitable role for the orchestra in a work in which the text is the basis. A musician friend told me: ‘It’s clear to see that the content comes from the voices and that the instruments pick it up and comment on it.’ I’m inclined to agree with that.

Regarding the voices, some passages stand out from the rest of the score, for example at the end, when there is a song written in Arabic. That is my way of paying tribute to the great Egyptian songs of the early twentieth century. The preceding scene, during which the character of Nurit is sedated, is presented as a funeral ceremony that borders on the ridiculous. The scene with the cantor, in the middle of the opera, is sung in the kind of declamatory style used in synagogues. As for the Prime Minister, his musical lines express his longing for authority, his authoritarianism, but also and above all his failure to achieve this authority. The head of the secret service, on the other hand, is truly powerful and always expresses himself in short, simple sentences with a controlled rhythm. Choosing Hebrew came naturally since it’s my mother tongue. But operas written in Hebrew are rare, so I had to look for references elsewhere. At the time of writing, I was listening to a lot of Koranic recitations, which mesmerised me. I was also inspired by synagogue chants that combine fascinating keys and modes.”

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