Cities of Salt: a new opera



The year is 1932. For centuries, the oasis of Wadi al-Uyoun has been the destination and the departing point for caravans, which bring news of distant worlds. But unimagined strangers are about to arrive. Beneath the sands and cool waters of the oasis, where caravans meet, oil has been discovered. Now, the world of the Bedouin, who make their lives in the rhythm of rain and wind, is about to be overwhelmed – by an industry as thirsty for water as for oil. Forced to leave their home, the Bedouin journey to the sea, where a small city is becoming a great port and a skyline will soon be lit by the fires of oil refineries.

In this new world, the surviving Bedouin come to understand that the love of power fuels history as much as oil. Caught in the whirlwind of forces embodied in the oil Company and the local oligarchy, they must stake their own claim on humanity. Against the backdrop of this epic transformation, love, grief, rage, courage and cowardice vie for preeminence in the hearts of the men and women beneath whose feet the black gold pools.

Cities of Salt is a major new opera, conceived by Rosalind Morris and Yvette Christiansë. The libretto is distantly based on the novel of the same name by Abdelrahman Munif, and translated by Peter Theroux. It was written by Morris and Christiansë, with music by Syrian-born, Polish-based composer, Zaid Jabri. The music is written for full orchestra, 12 soloists, and chorus.

The opera opens with rich strings and lush harmonics to evoke the natural landscape of the oasis and the sounds of the water-wheels that sustain life in the desert. But the sonorities of nature and familial intimacy gradually give way to the haunting and increasingly dissonant chords of doom-filled prophecy, conflict and doubt.  Finally, the harsh rhythms of bureaucracy and industry intrude, with increasingly mechanical sound produced by a percussion section enabled by instruments designed specifically for Cities of Salt by Zaid Jabri.  Jabri’s composition uses the full repertoire of contemporary classical composition, and infuses it with the aura of the Middle East through the use of microtones and strategies of instrumentation drawn from vernacular traditions.  In this highly intelligent and emotionally accessible score, sound and narrative are married to produce a tightly woven and accelerating drama that is both timely and urgent, musically modern and theatrically spectacular.



ZAID JABRI, composer

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Since winning the prestigious Adam Didur Composers’ Competition in 1997 for his “Two Songs for Soprano and String Orchestra,” Zaid Jabri has been a rising star of the contemporary classical music scene in Europe. His most recent honors include: Artist/Composer in residence at Istanbul Bilgi University; Tactus Composer’s residency (2011); second prize in the International Composing Competition “2 Agosto” (2013) and a residency at the Virginia Center for Creative Arts to work on Cities of Salt (2014).

 Born in Damascus, Syria, Jabri began his musical education by studying the violin with Riyad Sukar in his native city. He completed his M.A. degree with honors from the Music Academy of Krakow in Poland where he studied composition with Zbigniew Bujarski. Jabri obtained his PhD at the same academy in 2014 under the supervision of Professor Krzysztof Penderecki. Since 2008, he has also taught in the Academy’s contemporary composition program, the first foreigner ever to do so.

 Jabri’s musical range is vast, and the scale of his compositions varies from intimate duets to large-scale orchestral works, as well as chamber and vocal music.  His work has been performed in numerous venues across Europe (in Austria, Belgium, England, France,  Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Russia, and the Ukraine), in the Middle East (Egypt, Syria, Tunisia, and Turkey), and in the USA. His most recent compositions and commissions include “Two Songs for Mihyar of Damascus” (2013), based on the poems of Adonis, which wascommissioned by Stuttgart’s Neue Vocalsolisten, premiered in Stuttgart and performed in

New York as part of the MATA festival, 2014 


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 Poet, novelist, librettist and scholar, Yvette Christiansë has consistently worked across genres and disciplines to find the most compelling form for particular narratives. Her poetry, fiction and scholarship have been  published in the USA, South Africa, Australia, Italy, the Netherlands, France and Canada.

Christiansë’s first novel Unconfessed  (Other Press 2006, Kwela 2007, Querido, 2007) was a finalist for the Hemingway/PEN Prize for first fiction and recipient of a 2007 ForeWord Magazine BEA Award. It also received Honorable Mention in the 2007 Gustav Meyers Book Awards, and was shortlisted for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the University of Johannesburg Prize, and the Ama Ata Aidoo Prize in 2008. 

Her poetry includes the volumes Imprendehora (Kwela Books/Snail Press 2009) and Castaway (Duke 1999), as well as a shared volume titled Faultlines: Three Poets (Round Table Press 1991).  Christiansë is also the author of the libretto for ‘Vitamin R,’ a contemporary miracle play based on the life of St. Roche, patron saint of plague victims, which was addressed to the AIDS pandemic in South Africa.  

Christiansë’s additional honors and awards include: the Harri Jones Memorial Prize for Outstanding Australian Poetry (1987), the Henry Lawson Poetry Prize (1990), The University of Sydney Union Poetry Prize (1990), an Australian Literature Board Special Projects Grant (1994), the James Kentley Memorial Scholarship (1994 and 1996), and the Macquarie Traveling Scholarship (1993). She has also been a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at Duke University’s John Hope Franklin Center, and Barnard College’s Africana Studies Program, where she is now a Professor, and has taught in Princeton University’s Center for Creative and Performing Arts. She has also been a National Research Council Fellow at the University of Witwatersrand and a visiting writer at the University of Cape Town.

Born in South Africa, she lived in Swaziland before she received her Ph.D. from the University of Sydney.  She now resides in New York.

Project homepage: Cities of Salt