Babur in London director John Fulljames was at the Leeds’ performance on Thursday 14 June. In this post he discusses the opera and the audience.
It was fascinating to see Babur in London in Leeds on Thursday 14 June.
Earlier in the year, the opera premiered in a very different context in a wealthy suburb of Zurich in the country which banned the building of minarets in a 2009 referendum. In Zurich, the audience listened incredibly attentively. The performances had a real feeling of stillness – almost of a meditation. It felt like the opera was appreciated like something to be analysed, admired, respected.
In Leeds, the auditorium felt more restless not least because of the welcome presence of a school group many of whom were attending their first opera. This was one of the most diverse audiences I’ve seen for an opera performance in a theatre – and certainly for a contemporary opera. After the show Kenan Malik, Hassan Mahamdallie and Rania Hafez led a conversation about changes in British Muslim identity and the perception of such an identity. Having been living with the opera as it developed, it was fascinating to hear Jeet Thayil’s libretto discussed in this context.
It was clear from the response of the Leeds audiences that this is not read as a piece about Islamic terrorism. The opera strives to explore some of the complexities inherent in our increasing awareness of “British Muslim” as a brand both used within and without the Muslim community – as opposed to “British Asian” – which seemed a more common pigeonhole when I was child. Of course such pigeonholes are both meaningless and demeaning for anything more than statistical purposes. We are all far more than the many identities which make up each of us. And yet of course, language is how we talk to each other and about each other. The fictional young people whose story Jeet Thayil is telling are both striving to work out who they themselves think they are – and also to react against who the world says they are.
To hear an audience talking after the show about how the opera has a universality which relates to peoples of all faith and none chimed very strongly with my approach to how we rehearsed the opera. For me, this is not a piece about Islam. It’s a piece about violent anger which can find no channel for expression, about young love which is fragile and about a thirst for life which outlives the choices we make when we are young.
It will be great to see Babur in London… …in London. What would Babur, the first Mughal Emperor, poet and warrior have made of London had he come here to meet Elizabeth I instead of invading modern-day India? And what would he make of London now?