Composer Fahad Siadat hopes audiences can touch the "ineffable” for a moment through his operatic “The Conference of the Birds”—a vocal and movement performance in which Siadat himself will also perform—having its world premiere at The Broad Stage on June 18 and 19.
In an interview with LA Theatrix prior to the production, Siadat discussed the transformative, ritualistic aspect of the performance, true to the Sufic spirit of its source material and akin to the kinetic prayer of whirling dervishes.
“As performers, we get to live this piece,” Siadat said. “We get to go on this journey. We get to touch for a moment this transformation that the narrative is relating.”
“The Conference of the Birds” is a 12th-century Persian poem by Sufi poet Attar of Nishapur, about a large collection of birds who embark on a soul-trying journey in search of Simurgh, a mythical divine bird. Only 30 birds reach the end of the journey and find Simurgh, only to learn they themselves are the divine.
As production librettist Sholeh Wolpé wrote in the introduction of her 2017 translation of the poem, “They eventually come to understand that the majesty of that Beloved is like the sun that can be seen reflected in a mirror. Yet, whoever looks into that mirror will also behold his or her own image.”
However, Siadat, who is ethnically half Persian, says his composition does not use traditional Persian music but instead borrows from a range of musical structures, since “it’s a human story about the soul’s search for truth,” not limited to its Persian origins.
“Part of the purpose of the piece is I don’t want it to sound like any one cultural tradition,” he said, adding that he deliberately made it abstract to be more spiritual. The performers will sing in English with original Persian text shown.
Siadat’s composition is also entirely a capella—voice-based, with no other musical instruments—unlike most oratorios, or operatic compositions based on sacred themes. He wanted to use the full expressive range of human voice, with its different “symphonic colors,” the ensemble itself becoming the orchestra and “living the story in their bodies,” he said.
“For me, music isn’t just this ethereal artistic practice that barely touches the physical plane,” Siadat said. “It is an acoustic experience, a physical one. It’s rooted in the body.”
Connecting body with spirit is central to Siadat’s own philosophy and practice, he noted, believing that the physicality of performance and sound is directly tied to spiritually transformative experiences.
“We’re not just souls with cumbersome bodies,” Siadat described. “Our bodies are holistically integrated into our being. We are equal parts mind, body, spirit. I don’t want to shy away from the flesh just as I don’t want to shy away from the spirit.”
Making that connection explicit informs Siadat’s spiritually creative music organization, The Resonance Collective, producer of “The Conference of the Birds.” Fellow member André Megerdichian directed and choreographed the production, which includes a choir, seven soloists and two dancers.
“Every one of our pieces has this idea at its core—this idea of a spiritually transformative journey,” Siadat said of his and Megerdichian’s work. “We get to reenact these stories for ourselves and we invite people to watch and be a part of the journey with us.”
"We're all monks" — Composer Fahad Siadat
Spirituality is actually the “secret agenda of most art,” Siadat finds. Visiting a concert hall, gallery or place of worship all involve wearing different clothes, speaking in hushed tones and expecting to be transformed, he observed.
“There’s a reverence that we bring to an art object or an art space,” Siadat said. “It’s religion without dogma. Every artist has a deep disciplined practice that echoes directly the disciplined practice of a spiritual person. We’re all monks that way.”
In composing “The Conference of the Birds,” Siadat tried to balance the harmonic and rhythmic complexity he wanted with a simple enough structure to allow it to be performed by avocational choral ensembles and other semi-professional groups like colleges, noting that he limited the oratorio’s structure to four basic vocal parts: soprano, alto, tenor and bass.
Through the music and movement, Siadat hopes audiences will “access the truth” behind clichéd statements about how we’re all divine—the Sufi's “reality without a name”—which he says has lost meaning today but can be invoked through narratives like “The Conference of the Birds.”
“The hope is that people do feel transformed to some degree, that they feel touched in that way, or at least inspired,” Siadat said. “All we’re trying to do is serve this story.”
“The Conference of the Birds” is scheduled to be performed at The Broad Stage, Santa Monica College Performing Arts Center, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica, on Saturday, June 18, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, June 19, at 2 p.m. Tickets range from $35 to $60 and can be purchased by calling the box office at (310) 434-3200 or visiting BroadStage.org.