Karim Sulayman (left) and the cast of 'Unholy Wars' rehearse the multi-disciplinary production that will receive its world premier at Spoleto Festival USA | Photo by James Matthew Daniel

Karim Sulayman is having a whirlwind of a spring.

The Lebanese American, Grammy-winning tenor made his solo debut at the storied Carnegie Hall on May 19 before flying the next day to Charleston for the Spoleto Festival USA. At the festival, he will perform the world premiere of Unholy Wars, a mixed-media, multidisciplinary piece he conceived in response to his relationship with Western classical music.

“It’s an insane time for me, but you know, I’m living the dream, baby,” said Sulayman with a laugh during a recent phone conversation with City Paper. 

The centerpiece of the performance is the Italian Baroque opera Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda by Claudio Monteverdi, a story of the Crusades depicting a battle between a Christian knight and a Muslim warrior woman. 

Opera and classical music are simultaneously art forms that Sulayman said he loves passionately and ones that position him, an Arab American, as the other and even the enemy. Unholy Wars is Sulayman’s attempt to reconcile those competing experiences and reclaim the narrative of the music that has been his life’s work.

Sulayman spoke about the significance of recontextualizing the opera repertoire he loves and bringing his own voice to it.

“When material is presented that you feel like ‘your people’ are being represented, it’s important to take that story and to put your stamp on it,” he said. “I mean, these are stories about people from where my family is actually from. So I think that there’s something important to have an Arab represented in that repertoire, and that’s not really ever been the case.” 

A wedding opened the door

Sulayman initially connected with Spoleto Festival USA General Director Mena Mark Hanna by direct-messaging him on Twitter. The two knew each other vaguely, having both attended the wedding of a mutual friend years ago, and Sulayman had a sense that Hanna would be interested in the piece. He was right.

“If you could think of an idea for an Egyptian who’s got a background in musicology, and who has talked about and written about some of the problems of colonization in the canon — it’s almost like it was tailor-made for me, this project, so I was very excited to talk to him about it,” Hanna said.

Hanna was so taken with the idea that he wanted to premier the opera at Spoleto 2022, his first season as general director.

That created a tight timeline, but Sulayman and the team at the Up Until Now Collective, which is co-producing the piece, said they could make it happen. The collective was founded in the summer of 2020 when a dozen artists gathered to make a short film at a former boy’s camp in New Hampshire owned by the family of Unholy Wars director Kevin Newbury.

Sulayman, a friend of Newbury’s, shared his idea for Unholy Wars, which became one of the first projects the nascent collective took on. Newbury described the need to bring the piece to life at warp speed as a joyful challenge. 

“Sometimes when you’re forced to make really fast decisions, the work can feel so fresh and alive,” Newbury said.

Newbury is just as busy this spring as Sulayman. In the first half of May he was developing ’86, a new musical about a community in New York City at the height of the AIDS crisis. Newbury opened the musical in San Diego on May 21 and then hopped on a red-eye flight to Charleston.

He said his passion, as a member of the collective and as a director of opera, theater and film, lies in developing new work and highlighting marginalized stories.

“What interests me is finding the stories that aren’t being told, whether it’s a queer sensibility, an Arab American perspective, the deaf community — that’s sort of the throughline with all of my work right now,” Newbury said.

Transcending borders

Unholy Wars, which will debut May 29 at the Dock Street Theatre, will feature original compositions by Armenian American composer Mary Kouyoumdjian interspersed with the Monteverdi piece and other selections from the Baroque canon. The performance will also include elements of dance and illustrations by Syrian visual artist Kevork Mourad. Kouyoumdjian is another friend of Sulayman’s.

“Because Karim is hoping to bring this conversation around borders and colonialism and culture into a more modern setting, we thought it could really help to have some original music that acts as interludes between this older music and that could offer some kind of commentary on the preexisting music,” Kouyoumdjian said.

The set will be relatively sparse and include ropes arranged on the stage to represent borders. Mourad will incorporate the recurring theme of maps into his visual design. Those ropes will get moved around and be used as weapons in the battle between Tancredi and Clorinda.

 “The themes of the piece are really centered around the idea of borders and the way homo sapiens make up borders and make up rules and how we transcend those borders,” Newbury said. “How do we actually bring people together?”

The creative team decided on a multidisciplinary presentation in hopes that it would encourage audiences to appraise the material with fresh eyes. 

“I think that there’s something interesting — when you present it in a way that’s unexpected you bring in a modern dance element to it, you bring in visual design by a modern artist that isn’t just creating sort of a Baroque landscape, or what one would assume would be a Baroque visual landscape, but that’s something new,” Sulayman said. “You’re taking in something — and the choreography in the same way — you’re taking in something with your eyes that’s unexpected, and that forces you to literally look at things in a different way.”

Unholy Wars run May 29-June 6. Tickets start at $25. You can get tickets by visiting spoletousa.org/events/unholy-wars

Ellen E. Mintzer is a graduate student in the Goldring Arts Journalism and Communications Program at Syracuse University.

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