The Ayatollah of Silence Foiled: Rushdie’s Fable Now an Opera

How many opera librettos can you sit down and read just for the pleasure of it? It’s beyond dispute that behind every great opera is a great libretto, but only scholars are apt to curl up with Giovanni Francesco Busenello’s text for The Coronation of Poppea , or Lorenzo da Ponte’s for The Marriage of Figaro , or Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s for Der Rosenkavalier , unaccompanied by the music of Monteverdi, Mozart or Strauss.

James Fenton’s text for Charles Wuorinen’s opera Haroun and the Sea of Stories , which had its world premiere recently at the New York City Opera, may be in a class by itself as a libretto that can be hugely enjoyed purely for its own sake. (It’s been published by Faber and Faber in a volume of Mr. Fenton’s libretti entitled The Love Bomb and Other Musical Pieces .) To read it in tandem with the children’s story on which it’s based-Salman Rushdie’s enchanting book of the same title-is to marvel at how the librettist, who has been called the best British poet of his generation, has made irresistibly lyric verse out of prose.

Haroun tells the tale of a boy who travels to a far-off land to rescue his father’s lost storytelling powers (it was written after the Ayatollah Khomeini issued his fatwa condemning Mr. Rushdie to death for The Satanic Verses ), and the pivotal moment occurs when Rashid, the celebrated Shah of Blah, finds himself tongue-tied in front of an audience. Here’s Mr. Rushdie:

“Rashid went out onto the stage in front of that vast jungle of a crowd, and Haroun watched him from the wings-and the poor storyteller opened his mouth, and the crowd squealed in excitement-and now Rashid Khalifa, standing there with his mouth hanging open, found that it was as empty as his heart.”

Here’s Mr. Fenton’s squealing crowd:

Tell us a story

Making it sentimental

And gentle

Or gory!

Tell us a story

Of caliphs and eunuchs and ogres

Or

Of Romans in tunics and togas

Shouting MEMENTO MORI!

Tell us a story

Of paynim knights and damozels

Or fishnet tights and mam’selles

Inflammatory.

Tell us a story

Of the dragon, the hippogriff and

the centaur

And other such mythological impedimenta

As are obligatory-

Tell us a Story

Now!

The sly gusto of Mr. Fenton’s adaptation, which borrows liberally from the book’s exuberant wordplay and dialogue while compressing its profusion of incident, never flags as Haroun and Rashid journey toward the kingdom of Khattam-Shud, the Ayatollah of Silence. Along the way, they meet Butt, an implacably reckless bus driver; Iff, a genie who supplies stories from the sea; Mali, a floating gardener who unravels stories from dreams; Snooty Buttoo, a corrupt politician; an airhead princess who needs rescuing; and assorted others. The libretto darkens the book when father and son find themselves in a town, on beautiful Lake Dull, in the midst of convulsive political violence-a scene that alludes to the Hindu/Muslim conflict in Kashmir, which flared up when the opera was written in the spring of 2001.

Mr. Fenton never loses sight of every librettist’s chief mission, which is to make the story singable. He distills the book’s effusiveness with breathtaking simplicity. As Rashid sings of his son’s eventual triumph over Khattam-Shud, one hears an echo of E.Y. Harburg, the lyricist who supplied verses for the musical adaptation of an American children’s classic that Mr. Rushdie has acknowledged as his original inspiration- The Wizard of Oz : “You’re a tonic! / You’re bionic! / My talented son, Haroun.”

Alas, Mr. Fenton’s musical collaborator is no Harold Arlen. Charles Wuorinen, whose enthusiasm for the Rushdie book launched the project, is an unreconstructed high modernist-and adamantly atonal. His intellectual obduracy might be taken for moral clarity, but apart from that, I can’t think of a composer less suitable for material so rich in sheer fun. Though Mr. Wuorinen can be playful (scattered throughout the dense brambles of musical utterance are nods to traditional Indian forms and to Tin Pan Alley-a broadly tipsy Tin Pan Alley), his dry wit is brilliant rather than seductive.

Mr. Wuorinen is adept at fitting vocal lines, no matter how jarring, to the words of the text, and as a result the characters’ speech registers cleanly and forcefully. And in purely instrumental stretches-in a climactic battle scene, for instance-his command of organized noise can be exhilarating. But the net effect of his rigorously unsongful approach is numbing. Mr. Fenton’s delicious text cries out for the underpinnings of a magic carpet-free, iridescent and floating. Mr. Wuorinen’s music is earthbound, so tightly wound around itself that it takes us nowhere.

Neither man could ask for a more delectable staging than the one City Opera has served up under the direction of Mark Lamos, who is a dab hand at fantastical whimsy. (I think nostalgically of his Paul Bunyan from a few years ago.) This Haroun is a modestly scaled production that feels rich in vision, thanks to the clean, vaudeville-like set of Riccardo Hernandez, the vibrant lighting of Robert Wierzel, the atmospheric film projections of Peter Nigrini, and the stunning costumes of Candice Donnelly, which perfectly dress up what Mr. Fenton has described as a land that bears an “initial resemblance to Kashmir” but soon appears as “something between a Persian miniature and an animated cartoon.”

At the opening matinee, the musical performance, conducted by George Manahan, was more than admirable, especially in light of the exertions (mental and physical) required to keep Mr. Wuorinen’s abstractions in one’s memory. Peter Strummer was a warmly likable Rashid; Ethan Herschenfeld (Butt), Joel Sorensen (Snooty Buttoo), Ryan MacPherson (Iff) and Wilbur Pauley (Mali) were consistently engaging as the most colorful of the exotics; and James Schaffner’s Khattam-Shud was suitably weaselly.

The role of Haroun was sung by a clear-voiced, slim-figured soprano, Heather Buck, whose only flaw is that she isn’t a boy. Whether Mr. Wuorinen’s thorny vocal lines could have been mastered by a preadolescent male is doubtful. Moreover, casting women in trouser roles is nearly as old as opera itself. But Haroun is a stand-in for Mr. Rushdie’s son Zafar, who was 11 when the book was written for him. If Mr. Wuorinen, in order to accommodate a Haroun of Zafar’s age and sex, had relaxed his commitment to a school of composition that has become as tongue-tied as the Shah of Blah, this mismatched collaboration would have gained considerably in charm.